How can we make Canada's roads safer?

Canada's road design: A system of failure

Is it possible to eliminate death and serious injury from Canada's roads? No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads author Neil Arason definitely thinks so.

No Accident urges Canadians to prioritize road safety as a national priority and provides a roadmap that will guide us to a safer future. Arason weaves together topics from public transit and cyclists to human-related errors to road engineering to collision-avoidance technologies to provide a well-rounded and timely study of Canadian roads.

In this excerpt, read about the history of Canadian roads and how they grew from the very first car all the way to the present where traffic jams and vehicular accidents are everyday affairs. Consider the myriad of factors involved when a vehicle accident occurs and how this public health crisis needs to be seen as something that is preventable.

Can we make Canadian roads safer? Well let's just see.


In 1913, the automobile began to be mass-produced on a moving conveyor by Henry Ford. Starting then, cars came off the assembly line and began to be sold in large numbers. With even more efficient assembly line production taking place over time, cars would be mass-produced at ever greater rates: by the 1920s, Ford was producing a Model T about every twenty-four seconds. But only simple roads continued to be built for them. And that was that.

Hardly any effort was made to determine if the amount of responsibility handed to the drivers of these machines was actually within the limits of the fallible human condition. We rarely worried about a poorly designed road because, when things would go wrong, it would mostly be viewed as the driver's fault anyway. The car would end up as a grand experiment involving the world with little in the way of a back-up plan for the millions of failures to follow.

From the time the first automotive traffic death occurred at the end of the nineteenth-century, even before the age of mass production, we would allow automobiles, in mounting numbers, to run over our fellow human beings, disfigure them, inflict pain on them, and kill them in acts of bloody violence. We would give implicit permission for this to re-occur on a daily basis for over a century to come. Today, thirty-three hundred people die every day on the world's roads.

This progression would be accompanied by a continuous pattern of blaming human behaviour for this violence. Even with more data and a growing understanding of how people actually behave in the real world, we would keep designing systems that relied upon perfect driving -- by every driver at every moment in time.

We created one of the biggest human-made and systematic methods for physically assaulting people in Canada and across the globe, and we needed systems to respond to this. So we created new laws, formed new insurance bureaucracies, and saw the rise of specialty lawyers and the near take-over of the justice courts for traffic matters.

To help us cope emotionally, we took the view that these physical assaults were acts of nature, and simply beyond our control. Such thinking continues to this day. On an October day in 2012, a family of four from Calgary was vacationing when, on a highway, a foot-sized rock shot out from a flatbed truck and came through the passenger-side windshield of the family car. The rock killed a young mother of two, Janice Cairns. The rock had likely become lodged between the truck's wheels and no inspection caught it before it was carried onto the public highway, no sensors detected its perilous hiding place, and no guard or fender prevented it from becoming dislodged like a missile. Despite an array of possible measures to avert such a disaster, the police corporal on the crash scene simply said, "It's an act of God."

But how can the by-products of human-made machines and human-managed systems end up construed as acts of God beyond our control? In our prevailing world view, we have thrown up our hands to let things simply take their own course. Perhaps we should not be surprised then to find that, today, the World Health Organization has estimated that 1.2 million people are killed worldwide, and up to 50 million injured, from motor vehicle crashes each year.

The annual growth of the automobile continues to rise rapidly around the world. In the book Two Billion Cars, Sperling and Gordon estimate that there are currently over 1.5 billion motor vehicles in the world, and that this number will surpass two billion by 2020. This growth will especially occur in countries moving towards a car-dominated culture, including China and India but also much of south and east Asia, Africa, eastern Europe, Russia, and South America. Across much of the planet, the number of deaths and injuries caused by the automobile will simply rise.

Today, China is the world's largest car market, which is not surprising given the dramatic expansion of its middle class. In many South American countries, the expected death toll from the automobile is still rising each year, and may not peak until 2020 or later. In fact, it is estimated that the number of people killed and injured on the world's roads will rise by more than 60 per cent between 2000 and 2020.

In Canada, since 1950, over 235,000 people have been killed in motor vehicle crashes. In the last ten years, in this country, the number of people killed from all types of assaults combined with those killed by war and acts of terrorism made up, by comparison, the equivalent of just 15 percent of the total number of people killed in land-based transport accidents. In just ten years, from 1999 to 2008, over 186,000 people were hospitalized due to serious injuries from traffic accidents in this country. While Canada has made progress in protecting vehicle occupants, this progress has not been as steep as the best performing countries. Also, we are no longer making significant progress in protecting vulnerable road users, like pedestrians and cyclists. In the last decade in Canada, there was no progress in reducing fatalities and major injuries for pedestrians and cyclists struck down by cars, trucks, and buses.

Young people are disproportionately affected by car crashes, both in terms of high numbers of injuries and human lives cut short. When you people die prematurely from accidents and other causes, the health sector measures such impacts by calculating years of potential life lost, which is a vital public health measure. Motor vehicle crashes in Canada are the overall leading cause of death for young people aged fifteen to twenty-four, and remain a major cause of years of potential life lost for those aged on to forty-four, yet are simply not given a proportional amount of public policy priority. In the twenty-five-year period ending in 2008, just under twenty-eight thousand children and young people up to age of twenty-four lost their lives in automobile crashes in Canada.

The current situation is a system failure. Because safety has not been the starting point for the design of the system, what we now have is an untreated public health problem. In many other areas of public policy, we simply do not tolerate such consistent levels of unmanaged human harm. 

Like other public health problems, road crashes produce direct victims and then many more indirect victims after that: the victims' children, parents, siblings, grandparents, families, and friends -- none of whom are counted in any database in the country. Many times the driver of a vehicle involved in a crash suffers from endless guilt, depression, and mental anguish. These individuals are not counted anywhere either. We are inundated with daily numbers on a constant basis in North American, but never numbers about the indirect victims.

Even though we now have the ability to eradicate the colossal levels of human carnage the automobile has thrown at us, we have not kept on a path of meaningful change. While other countries, and even some car companies, are making sizable plans to eradicate this violence, we are not doing the same in Canada or on this continent. In North America, we have remained too slow to join the new international movement that is working toward the outright elimination of motorized violence.

In the political debates of our federal parliament, there is little time given to discussions about road safety as a categorial issues. According to Louie Francescutti, an emergency-room physician in Edmonton who works tirelessly to improve road safety, "there is little or no talk of the road safety problem in federal and provincial elections in our country, but only silence." 

Perhaps it is because road crashes are nothing new but a problem we have been dealing with for over a century now, or that road crash victims get killed or injured only one or a few at a time, or that we still carry the erroneous and outdated view that road crashes are simply accidents and there is little we can do about them. Perhaps it is that the human trauma that originates in the road system does not originate in one major and single unpredictable event, but manifests instead as a steady form of common violence; or that the things that impact us each and every day -- the daily news, Internet, television streams -- cover the problem only one snippet at a time, framing the problem as episodic and unconnected, and ignoring the potential for categorical change. Consequently, we do not, it seems, perceive the road safety problem as one that can be fundamentally altered and reframed.

The motor vehicle consumer product, its drivers, and the roads it is driven on exist largely beneath a social and political construct that has long been allowed to stay unrestricted. Unlike public transportation modes such as rail, ship, and air, motor vehicle transport is free from much law, free from rudimentary principles of management by design, and free from clearly assigned accountabilities. As a result, the automobile has been free to cause much harm. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes the principle that everyone has the right to personal security, but as long as thousands of Canadians are killed seriously injured each year on our roads, Canadians do not appear, in fact, to have that right at all; we do not have freedom from injury and death, and are poorly insulated from the strain of its constant threat.

 

Neil Arason is a member of the Road Safety Research and Policies Standing Committee of the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators. He has contributed to numerous publications and studies, and is co-chair of a national task force on pedestrian safety. He believes that if we take serious steps now, deaths and severe injuries from our roads can be eliminated by 2035.

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