What’s Happened to Our Roads In the Last Century? Not Enough

Sunday, November 18 marked the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. The purpose of this day is to be a reminder of the human tragedies that lie behind all of the horrible data related to traffic crashes.

According to auto historians, the first few years when people started taking to the streets in cars in droves, about a century ago, the roads were dangerous as anything. Within four years of the end of World War I, which ended almost exactly a century ago, more American were lost to road accidents than had died on the battlefields.

While we certainly can’t imagine it today, people were really mad at that and made a point of bringing their concerns to state and local governments nationwide. Many cities erected monuments to those killed on the roads and marches were held to demand reform.

In a Century, Have We Moved Forward?

A century later, roads all over the world claim more lives than any other cause. Worldwide, more than 1.2 million die in crashes every year. Those numbers may be conservative since many countries intentionally underreport their crash data. Of course, the data should involve a lot more than crashes, since millions more are seriously injured in such crashes. And while most do not die, many see their lives changed forever.

The risk of serious injury or death on the road, whether you live in Texas or Calcutta, is higher than most safety officials are comfortable with, despite the fact that a ton of research has been done on the problem, with an eye to mitigating or eliminating it.  As of now. Nearly every transportation regulatory body has looked at the information and they know which regulations, policies, and technologies can effectively reduce the number of injuries and deaths on the road.

Transportation scholars have conducted many studies showing how the government and the engineering and technical fields can work together to lessen the risk. However, they also cite problems that hinder the effectiveness of such cooperation. Sometimes, when a government is excited about the potential for a project, there will be plenty of funding, but when it is operating, enthusiasm wanes and so does available money. In other cases, corporate or contractor interests end up with too much influence in the process of making roads safer.

We Know What to Do, We Just Need to Do It

In addition to the input from transportation experts, the World Health Organization has produced a series of policy and regulatory guidelines they believe will significantly reduce the danger on the roads. Such efforts as those often run up against a brick wall because many governmental bodies simply lack the political will to take action. This lack of political will comes from the mistaken belief that everyone working on improving road safety, including engineers and other professionals, businesses, and even the politicians themselves must act apolitically and divorce themselves from the politics to be effective.

This can be seen when you look at the tension between the petroleum and auto industries over the years. On the one hand, the link between vehicle speeds and the frequency of road deaths and injuries has been established and widely accepted for decades. Yet, these industries have played an outsized role when it comes to managing and engineering roads, in which the experts try to quell such concerns and create roads that encourage the thought that it’s possible to drive really fast and remain safe.

Another factor they fail to consider is the increasing traffic congestion in most large metropolitan areas and even in a number of rural areas. In Texas, we experience that every time there is an oil and/or gas boom, and roads in rural areas in the Eagle Ford Shale or the Permian Basin become clogged with vehicles that are much larger than the roads were designed for. Then, when roads become damaged and impassable and, when the Texas Department of Transportation gets around to replacing them, their goal is speed, not precise engineering. Current road engineering practices can be traced to engineering norms dating back to that time 100 years ago, when people were concerned about the rise in premature deaths caused by more cars on the road.

What Can Be Done?

Nationwide, about 88 percent of American daily commuters use their own private vehicles to get to and from work every day, and our road system simply lacks the capacity to handle all that traffic without major delays, as people line up to enter major roadways. That is the very definition of congestion, and it’s getting worse nationwide. It is probably past time to build out our infrastructure and to do so using the best engineering practices possible. We should get made, just as our ancestors did a century ago, and demand safer roads.

We should also use our knowledge about which policies and regulations work best to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on our roads. Our transportation system should be improved and new projects should be implemented with safety in mind. And those of us who drive on these roads should do our part, as well. We should always be aware of everything that is going on around us and stop allowing ourselves to be distracted from our main job, which is to drive our vehicles safely around other vehicles, including bicycles, pedestrians, and large trucks.

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