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Bad Roads Kill People

July 14, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
 

Fewer people died in Minnesota traffic crashes in 2008 than in any year since 1945. This is an amazing advancement, especially considering that in '45 we logged a tiny fraction of last year's 57.3 billion vehicle miles traveled in the state.

(How tiny? No one knows, because Minnesota VMT wasn't even recorded until 1961, when it totaled 14.5 billion miles, about one-quarter of the 2008 figure.)

Many factors have contributed to this great improvement in public safety: stiffer seat-belt and drunken driving laws, safer vehicles and many safer roads. Nonetheless, 455 people in Minnesota and 37,261 nationwide suffered largely preventable deaths on the roads last year.

This human and economic waste goes largely unnoticed by the public, even though it equals the toll of three 35W bridge collapses every month in Minnesota and one 9/11 attack every month across the country.

You could say this is just collateral damage from our auto-centric economy and lifestyle. But we know from experience that smart public safety policies have steadily reduced the carnage on our roads. And a new national study points to what may be the last great frontier in driving safety - the vast remaining roadways where poor design or maintenance contribute to more than half of all traffic fatalities.

The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation put the annual national cost of crashes attributable to bad roadways at $217.5 billion, more than the cost from drunken driving and more than the combined costs of speeding and failure to wear a seat belt. Even more significantly, it's nearly four times the U.S. annual investment of $59 billion by all levels of government in roadway improvements.

In Minnesota, the institute found $2 billion in annual costs for roadway-related crashes. Both here and across the country, the problem is largely concentrated on back roads in rural areas.

"Fatal crashes tend to occur on roads in rural areas that permit high speeds but do not have Interstate-type safety designs," explains Minnesota Motor Vehicle Crash Facts, 2008, the state Department of Public Safety's annual statistical review of traffic casualties. Two-thirds of the Minnesota deaths occurred in rural areas, the report notes.

Crash Facts doesn't evaluate the safety design or maintenance of Minnesota roads where people die, but it reports that nearly two-thirds of the fatalities happened on two-lane roads, versus just one-quarter on heavily traveled freeways and divided highways.

Of course, it's impractical to four-lane Minnesota's entire 130,000-mile web of township, city, county and state pavement. But cost-effective safety improvements recommended by the Pacific Institute include rumble strips, guard rails, bright pavement markings, better signage on breakaway posts, wider bridges and roadway shoulders and straightening crooked roads.

"These are tangible things that can be done to save 22,000 lives a year," Matthew Jeanneret of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, one of the institute study's sponsors, told the Washington Post. "Imagine if a plane with 200 people on board was crashing every three days. Something would be done about it."

The study's principal author, safety economist Ted Miller, said that fixing bad roads is easier than reforming bad drivers.

"Although behavioral factors are involved in most crashes, avoiding those crashes through driver improvement requires reaching millions of individuals and getting them to sustain best safety practices," Miller said. "It is far more practical to make the roadway environment more forgiving and protective."

Minnesota already invests heavily in road and bridge safety, including a nation-leading program to replace deficient major river spans. Miller's report shows that maintaining or increasing that kind of commitment will keep paying dividends for the lives and prosperity of Minnesotans.



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