Solving for death rather than life

Solving for death rather than life


If it were a matter of life and death, we would do everything we could to not die. If the activity was high-risk but also avoidable, then we would probably choose to avoid taking part in said activity. If the actual rate of injury or death was low enough but the chances of that potential injury being severe or terminal were high, then we would probably not choose to take part in said activity unless we were quite motivated to do so.

In short, if participating in the activity isn’t worth more than the chance of injury or death – even the perceived chance of injury or death – then most people would choose another activity, given the option.

Hence, pitifully low cycling participation in Australia. Because, injury and death are scary, and people tend to avoid them where possible. We’re not talking about choosing between definitely starving to death in the short-term and swimming from your desert island to that lush and bountiful island over there through very shark infested waters. We’re talking about choosing between cycling and driving. There is an option, but what we’re doing is encouraging one when we should be encouraging the other.

We know that we cannot indefinitely continue to build more roads for the ever-expanding car driving population who are buying cars because we are designing our cities for them to be driven around. We know this. We know that we don’t have the space for it or the natural resources for it. We know that we don’t have an environment that can continue to sweep the pollution under the rug, or a society that can continue to remain inactive and stressed. We know this, but we somehow continue to carry on as if nothing is wrong.

There are some communities out there that not only know this, but are doing something to try to combat it. Most communities, however, are not, and most that would tell you they are, are not doing so in any really meaningful way. Head in the sand, we carry on because today we want to maximize our profits and/or serve the interests of a few key stakeholders/shareholders. Today we need to worry about ourselves. Tomorrow is tomorrow. We’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. At least, until we run out of tomorrows.

What we have here, and not just in Australia, of course, is a situation that can be solved for. We can, if we find it a valuable enough goal to pursue, bring the severe injury and death toll on our roads down to a minimum. We’ll never get to zero, as important as it is to have such a goal, but we can get pretty close long-term if we choose to. Drop speed limits down to non-lethal levels, legislate for stiffer penalties and presumed liability for the more dangerous road users, design better infrastructure with a focus on designing for public or human-powered transit, taking a new approach to educating people about driving and cycling and the choices they make on the roads, and many other things I don’t have time to come up with right now would achieve this. It’s funny, though, in a completely non-hilarious way, that without doing anything other than lowering the speed limit, we could achieve so much without doing anything else listed above.

(* note: my reference to speed here is primarily concerned with urban environments, though there are other contexts where it would apply)

Would you rather?

Everyone likes a good game of would you rather?, so, would you rather come away from an “accident” with anything from minor to major injuries, or would you rather not have that “accident” in the first place? Bear in mind that this is a real choice, unlike the usual questions posed in such games. Both situations are just as possible as each other, depending on how you rig the game.

What we seem to be oblivious to, is that injury and death aren’t inherently a part of driving. We are so fixated on this idea that we have taken every conceivable measure to limit the terrible effect of collisions – these disasters that kill over a million people each year and injure countless millions more. We assume that the terms and conditions for our roads are set in stone. They cannot be changed. They are issued from Heaven Above. All we can do is get on with it the best we can. We throw our hands up and say, “well, there’s nothing that can be done to stop collisions from occurring, so let’s just stop worrying about it and wrap all of the potential victims up with as much cotton wool as possible (or a helmet and high-viz…) and just hope for the best.”

Cars. They have millions of airbags, advanced active restraints, auto-everything, and anti-everything. You know what would work better than all of these things combined? Lowering the speed limit. That’s it. We are so focused on dealing with being hit that we forget about the not hitting someone else part. We’ve got it backwards. We are trying to solve for death rather than life.

There are many examples, but I’ll use the face of road safety here in South Australia, the MAC, as our example for today. This is the Motor Accident Commission of South Australia, and their mission, aside from providing third-party insurance, is as follows:

MAC also manages the State Government’s road safety communications program and provides funding for projects that aim to reduce the number and impact of road injuries and deaths.

Here’s the thing, though: for all of their campaigning, they are limiting their scope to advocate for ways to deal with a bad situation rather than changing or removing the conditions that give rise to the bad situation in the first place. They don’t realize (or want to admit publicly) that there is another way, so it makes sense that they take this approach.

Solving for death rather than life

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Their catch-phrase for cycling safety is, “Be Safe, Be Seen”, which puts the onus for cyclists safety squarely on cylists, when we know for a fact that the danger primarily lies elsewhere. For drivers, they are appealing to people to simply behave better, and that’s nice and all, but it’s never worked before and I really don’t see how anyone would think that it will work in the future. Generally, people are inherently selfish, play down the risks as they pertain to themselves, think better of their abilities than is realistic, and are given vehicles that isolate them from the perception of danger while having ample ability to render someone lifeless in an instant without even trying. That’s not a good combination. We’re not necessarily monsters – that’s just how this recipe comes out of the oven.

Now, I don’t expect the MAC to actually start fighting for non-lethal speed limits, smarter road design for cars, bikes, and pedestrians, stiffer penalties, open streets or any other radical change, because they are an arm of the government, and radical change (or any change, it often seems), especially in South Australia, is terrifying to people (ie: voters). Change means that I’ll have to, well… change, and that’s probably going to mean a period of getting used to something different, adapting, and that all seems too hard. No, let’s leave it as it is, and we’ll just keep suggesting that people “do the right thing”. Much easier.

A matter of cost

It seems to me that it really just comes down to a question of cost. Is a few minutes of extra travel time worth more than more deaths and injuries on our roads? Is convenient parking worth more than the safety of vulnerable road users? Is being able to drive somewhere from whatever speed and direction you choose worth more than the health of a community? Is so easily obtaining a license to drive worth the number of under-qualified drivers on our roads?

Sadly, particularly in places like Adelaide where the arrogance of space is accepted and driving is the norm, most people aren’t personally sufficiently affected by these costs to be motivated to prepare for the future and enjoy a better present. Most people will choose to maintain the status quo until their personal cost/benefit ratio swings in favour of change, but only as much change as is necessary in the short-term. Building more traffic lanes is a perfect example of the short-term thinking that has plagued our cities for decades.

I don’t really know what to suggest, except to appeal to those who have the power or influence to effect change, to organize and demand it, to write to your local councilors, to simply choose to walk the trips that are walkable and cycle the trips that are cycleable, and when you drive, to do so in a way that precludes you killing anyone or causing or helping to create the right circumstances for a collision. It’s not impossible. It’s actually rather easy. But, one of the biggest problems is that we’ve made it even easier to just take the car.

So we should do what we can. At least, until humanity catches up with the aims of our government-sponsored safety campaigns, anyway. The ones that accept death and injury as a natural consequence of travel and simply appeal to people’s better judgement and hope for the best.


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