Make Safe Streets a Culture War and We All Lose

Not only does this take an issue that should unite us and turn it into cheap culture war rhetoric, it actually reinforces the belief system of the two out of three Americans who are choosing SUVs. That poster thinks they have dunked on someone. In reality, while nobody is going to go out and buy a crawler, most SUV drivers reading that will have their beliefs affirmed. It’s an arms race and, if I want to be safe, I need a bigger car.

This has to stop. It’s not helpful in any way. As someone who is trying desperately to reduce traffic fatalities, I continually find myself looking at so-called traffic safety advocates thinking, with friends like these, who needs enemies?

The circle we can draw for traffic safety is so huge—it includes nearly everyone—that I just don’t understand the impulse to draw it smaller. Why a war on drivers? To what end?

Let’s go back to the initial post from the man whose wife and son survived the car crash. Imagine instead of attributing their survival to a larger vehicle, they attributed it to wearing seatbelts? Hear me out.

Do not put your wife and kids in a vehicle without their seatbelts. The officer told me they would be dead if they were not belted in. In a crash, you need the protection of a seatbelt.

I can almost guarantee that nobody has a problem with the assertions in the preceding paragraph. Yes, everyone who rides in a vehicle should be belted in. That is responsible behavior; reformers fought that fight decades ago.

Yet, what do seatbelts do for aggressive driving? In his book Risk, John Adams makes the case that, in the same way putting more padding on football players causes them to hit harder, having drivers wear seat belts and be protected by airbags makes their driving more aggressive.

While it is in any single driver’s interest to be protected with seatbelts and airbags, is it in the public’s interest to have everyone protected in this way? The brilliant transportation planner Ben Hamilton-Bailey (sadly, no longer with us) once made the case to me that seatbelts should deactivate for the driver as soon as they enter an urban area as a way to make them more aware of the risk they transfer to others. He even suggested that a knife come out of the steering wheel, directed at the driver’s heart, to make clear what is at stake if they get into a crash.

Some zealous advocates reading that suggestion might find it brilliant. It is a brilliant insight, but Ben recognized, as most everyone reading this also recognizes, that it’s an absurd idea. As a society, we would never make driving more dangerous for the driver as a way to make things safer for those outside of the vehicle. 

If you grasp that, you should grasp why making a fight against SUVs part of the culture wars is a dumb, ultimately losing, strategy. Dumb, dumb, super dumb.

What isn’t dumb? Let’s start with empathy. Everyone in this country has been touched by road violence. Every family has lost someone, or known someone close to them who has lost someone, in an automobile crash. 

Every parent has fear that their teenage kids won’t make it home alive. Every parent fears putting their baby into the car seat in the back of the car. Everyone with elderly parents fears finding out that they have been involved in some kind of traumatic crash while behind the wheel.

There is so much shared experience to build from. Lean into that—don’t do anything to distract from it.

Most people don’t recognize how dangerous our streets and roadways are designed to be. They buy into the industry myth that nearly all crashes (94%) are caused by driver error. If you want to dispel a myth, focus on that one. Drive, and there by the grace of God goes you, regardless of how safe of a driver you are.

Everyone wants the street in front of their own home to be safe. Start with that. Here are all the ways your street is designed to kill people. When you show people, they get it—and they get their part in it.

We run a monthly Crash Analysis Studio to do just that. We show, in crash after crash after crash, how multiple factors are involved in every collision, way more factors than mere driver error. Watch our sessions. Share them with others. Take our free Crash Analysis Studio course and start your own studio. We will even come to your community to help you get going.

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