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The crisis of complacency in road deaths → 

Posted on 3 February 2014

A few weeks ago I wrote  a post titled “How many people should we expect to die in car accidents?” An excerpt:

“I’m trying to imagine any other activity that could claim eight lives in just over a week without there being some sort of public outcry, moratorium, or investigation. As a society, I feel like we’ve become so used to the idea of people dying in car accidents that we don’t really think about it.”

Turns out I’m not the only one to think this. Ian Johnston is a road safety expert who appeared on CBC’s The Sunday Edition yesterday. It was a fascinating interview that I highly recommend you listen to.

Since audio doesn’t go viral, I’ve excerpted some highlights from the first part of the interview. I’ve edited it to make more sense in text, and removed the prompts from Michael Enright. Here’s how Johnston starts:

“The crisis of complacency is that we accept where we are today…

“Let’s take Canada. The number of deaths from road crashes today is 40% less than it was 20 years ago and we go, ‘Wow, that’s great.’ But we don’t stop and look at what that means. We’re still after 20 years of modern technology and the like, we’re still at 60% of where we were 20 years ago, and that means two thousand plus Canadians are being killed every year… and for everyone that’s killed there are about 10 disabling injuries…

“We would not tolerate that level of trauma coming out of either rail travel or air travel, but we tolerate it on the roads. Over the last few years I’ve come to wonder why we tolerate such a high level, and I think there’s a number of reasons…

“The first is that we blame the victims. We say road crashes really only happen to people who misbehave. They’re speeding like crazy, they’re drunk driving, they’re on drugs, they’re using their cellphone all the time. And of course the whole system of police investigation is always looking for some behavior, somewhere to blame. Insurance companies are always looking to shift the blame around. And the media only report the dramatic crashes… it’s what I call the Bad Behavior Myth.

“I think we have an imperfect system. We’re asking people to make judgements, very complex judgements. You’re coming to an intersection: is that car going fast enough? Can I clear him? Will he clear me? And these are judgements that very difficult for human beings to make. And yet we’ve designed a system that is encouraging error, if you like.

“Compare it to industry. We would never allow a company to leave machines unguarded that people could put their feet into or their hands or get their hair cut or their loose clothing. Yet we drive on roads where if you have a microsleep because you’re tired, you shut your eyes for two seconds or you turn to yell at a child that’s screaming in the backseat, just momentarily and run off the road, you’re likely to hit a tree or a pole. So we’ve got an unsafe system if you’d like.. and the question is can we improve that system? And the answer is, well, yes we can, but it will cost a lot of money to develop a really safe system.”

Johnston goes on to say what that system might look like and the reasons he believes they aren’t already in place. Roads kill one and a quarter million people every year,one of the biggest killers in the world, and Johnston it doesn’t need to be this way. Highly, highly recommended.

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