Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

A Sharp Pencil for Traffic Safety

September 17, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

With eight traffic deaths on a recent weekend, Minnesota's road fatality toll remains on pace for a second straight yearly increase. This is generally in line with a national trend following decades of sharp declines in both the number and per-miles-traveled rate of U.S. collision deaths.

As noted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and echoed by MN2020 Community Fellow Jim Weygand, any current rise in traffic fatalities will be measured against the "unprecedented low baseline figure" of a 60-year low recorded in 2011. In fact, according to Harvard University's online Journalist's Resource, "most major modes of transportation in the United States have become significantly safer in the 21st century."

The safest modes by far are airlines and transit and intercity rail and buses. The biggest spikes in travel deaths have involved motorcycles, whose use has risen 75 percent over several decades with a similar rise in fatalities. Motorcyclists make up nearly 10 percent of all highway deaths nationwide, but in Minnesota so far this year it's more than 25 percent.

Northwestern University researcher Ian Savage, whose work, available behind a pay wall, the Harvard resource relies heavily on, blames this in part on the "general rollback in the number of states requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets." Minnesota repealed its 1968 helmet law for all but minors in 1977.

But even the scary revving up of motorcycle deaths in these parts pales in comparison to the biggest picture of all: an annual worldwide traffic toll of 1.2 million fatalities and up to 50 million injuries. At this rate, it doesn't take many years to match or exceed the horrific body counts of the past century's World Wars.

"Many of these casualties are preventable, but governments can have difficulty knowing where to begin," according to a European study published by McKinsey&Company. "There are tested ways to improve road safety, but a lot of them are not widely known, so it's challenging to find all available countermeasures, sort through them and determine which are most relevant for a particular area."

The full report also quotes Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu: "We ignore road crashes at our peril ... This is predominately a killer of the poor. It is the poorest communities which live alongside the fastest roads. It is the poorest children who have to negotiate the most dangerous routes to school. It is the most vulnerable road users, pedestrians and cyclists who are at greatest risk yet are the most routinely forgotten by the planners and policy makers."

According to the report, 90 percent of global road casualties occur in emerging nations, and the chance of dying in a traffic crash is almost 10 times greater in Tutu's South Africa than in the United Kingdom. But, despite our recent gains, the deadly odds in the United States are more than three times shorter than in the U.K. 

So we can look at the quest for traffic safety as either a crusade for international social justice or self-interested efforts to protect our neighbors and ourselves. Either way, only some measures are likely to yield the biggest reductions in traffic crashes' estimated $518 billion annual cost to the global economy.

And it's those measures that the McKinsey study seeks to identify on the basis of cost-effectiveness. For example, it found that the benefits of seat-belt reminders, standard on U.S. autos for years, "outweigh their costs by a factor of eight." Other top safety initiatives: increased penalties for moving violations, helmet education in schools, tough vehicular homicide laws.

Some of the least cost-effective of the 200 measures might surprise many of us: more bicycle lanes, public transit and red-light cameras. Remember, though, that these ratings address only wise investments in traffic safety and not other worthwhile public goals such as transportation choices and environmental stewardship.

And some measures highlighted in the report would never fly in our state and nation. The Australian state of Victoria, for example, sharply cut its road toll two decades ago with aggressive random roadside breath-testing, zero alcohol tolerance for the first three years of driver's licensing, speed cameras and compulsory bicycle helmets.

As the report also emphasizes, traffic safety measures -- whether in education, emergency response, enforcement, infrastructure, regulation or technology -- should be tailored to a broad range of conditions in each specific place. That takes data collection such as Minnesota's excellent annual Crash Facts reports and involvement of all stakeholders needed to implement any chosen countermeasure.

Results, at least by economic measurements, can be impressive, the study claims: An unnamed European city "that recently used this approach plans to invest approximately 5 million euros per year through 2020 in a variety of prioritized countermeasures expected to cut traffic fatalities and severe injuries in half. [Most] will be funded by reallocating resources already within the budget. Over time, the program will ultimately be cost-negative, saving the city about 60 million euros per year ... Any government can use the approach to enhance its road-safety efforts."

For more than a decade, Minnesota has had a "Toward Zero Deaths" traffic safety program, which showed strong gains for years. For the past two years, however, we've been moving farther away from zero. Maybe it's time to re-evaluate the program's design based on the McKinsey principles.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.