Don Kostelec

Don Kostelec

Another death at a flashing yellow arrow intersection occurred this month. That’s three people lost in recent months at this type of intersection. Ada County has also seen a series of fatal head-on collisions on roadways with continuous center turn lanes. Pedestrian deaths are on the rise.

These deaths are preventable. But not in the way you’re always told.

Highway agencies and law enforcement tell us these deaths wouldn’t occur if drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists simply follow the rules of the road.

That’s a great theory, but efforts to perfect human behavior are a failed experiment.

This failure isn’t unique to Idaho, as the United States leads wealthy nations in traffic fatality rates.

There’s a better way, but it requires a paradigm shift. It’s what Sweden calls Vision Zero, recognizing that the only acceptable number of traffic deaths is zero. The Dutch call it Sustainable Safety.

Instead of attempting to perfect human behavior, these countries believe they must design roads to reduce crash severity so they are not deadly or disabling. They recognize safer engineering of road systems impacts 100% of a road’s users 100% of the time, whereas enforcement and education impact only a fraction of users a fraction of the time.

For flashing yellow arrow-related deaths, it’s simple: Eliminate them and drivers can’t kill themselves or someone else because they aren’t allowed to shoot gaps in traffic.

It’s the same for head-on collisions: They don’t normally occur with medians.

Addressing pedestrian deaths requires more attention. Agencies value the movement of cars over the safety of people by permitting right turns on red and putting flashing yellow arrows in neighborhoods and school settings. They engineer long gaps in safe pedestrian crossings of high speed, high volume roads, and design intersections with a turning radius that promotes high speed turns. These features make streets deadlier to people on foot, as well as motorists, and promote bad behavior.

You can see why it’s convenient for agencies to blame human behavior. They are under political pressure to move as many cars as fast as possible. Out-sourcing safety to education and enforcement rather than saving lives through engineering is more palatable.

In the US we can look to our neighbors in Washington for a different approach. Washington State DOT (WSDOT)—their equivalent to ITD—is moving to Vision Zero under the leadership of its director Roger Millar, an engineer and former planning director for the City of McCall.

WSDOT sees it differently: “While WSDOT does not typically address the behavioral aspects of impaired or distracted driving, the agency strives to design a transportation system that reduces the likelihood of fatality when mistakes occur,” they state in their safety performance analysis.

That a huge admission.

Everyone agrees drunk driving is one of the worst decisions people make. But we do a disservice to the victims when we default to blaming that person for a bad choice while ignoring how the design of the road contributed to that death.

It’s a hard mindset to change and even WSDOT remains challenged by this as it embarks on Vision Zero. That approach doesn’t forgive the act of being drunk or distracted, but it recognizes education and enforcement are secondary to the safe engineering of roads if we want to save lives.

That’s the approach Idaho needs. We have many high-speed roads with design features that make the slightest human mistake a fatal one. They must be retrofitted for safety. It’s a necessary investment if we truly want fewer road deaths.

Don Kostelec, of Boise, is a transportation consultant and board member of the Idaho Walk Bike Alliance.

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