When a pedestrian is killed while crossing the highway trying to get to community housing, it is not an accident. It is death by design – or some would say – a lack of design, and we all have blood on our hands. From the urban planners who designed the housing project in its current location, to the politicians who delayed funding for a safe pedestrian pathway to cross the highway to the citizens who didn’t make enough noise to make sure that human safety was a priority, we all have to take responsibility.
In 2015, the World Health Organization reported more than 1.2 million people are killed each year from road traffic crashes and an additional 50 million are injured. The world car population, currently estimated at one billion vehicles, is expected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050. With this trend, we can expect to see a compounding of health problems related to traffic.
Deaths and serious injuries caused by traffic collisions are the most immediate and obvious negative consequences but there are many other health consequences to road traffic. Air pollution leads to respiratory problems; greenhouse gas emissions lead to global warming; vehicle use contributes to physical inactivity, higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer; noise pollution from road traffic can lead to poor sleep and psychological stress, and busy arterial roads can cut through communities reducing opportunities for social interaction.
Towns and cities can become safer, healthier places simply by implementing design changes to their streets and communities. Traditional approaches to road safety, focused on the road user and attempted to create a perfect error-free driver. But we know that human error is inevitable and using a systems approach that recognizes road crashes occur as a result of interactions between road users, vehicle design and road infrastructure is a more comprehensive approach.
A safe systems approach recognizes that responsibility for traffic collisions lies with road users, system designers and policymakers. Road users are responsible for following traffic rules and regulations; designers, including road planners and car manufacturers, are responsible for creating safe commuting infrastructure; and policymakers are responsible for showing commitment and leadership in making road safety a priority in their jurisdiction and are responsible for providing funding, legislation and enforcement of road safety measures.
We have to decide if we are the kind of society that will accept a certain number of deaths to have mobility and economic gain or the kind of society that values every human life and works to ensure that we reduce traffic deaths to zero. If we are the latter, then we are not alone.
In 1997, the Swedish parliament adopted Vision Zero – the policy that sees the value in every human life and deems any loss of life to traffic incidents unacceptable. The Swedes have managed to reduce their originally low traffic fatality rate of 7 in 100,000 to less than half using this approach, despite a huge increase in vehicle numbers over the same time period. Several cities around the world, including many in Canada, have also adopted this vision.
A number of evidence-based measures can be used to reduce traffic fatalities. Street design measures can be used to reduce vehicle speeds and chances of collisions. These include the use of roundabouts, speed bumps, islands for pedestrians to take refuge while crossing, and designated pedestrian and bicycle lanes. Other measures such as mandatory seatbelt use, helmets for bicyclists, and checkpoints for testing blood alcohol levels are also key to reducing traffic fatalities.
Sustainable urban development that creates places that are connected, compact, and coordinated mitigates climate change and improves road safety. Urban sprawl on the other hand leads to more vehicles on the road, and higher rates of traffic fatalities. Developing mixed land uses, smaller blocks and easily accessible spaces for people such as parks, plazas and other public spaces promotes road safety and increases quality of life for people, while also being gentler on the natural environment.
Designated cycling lanes improve opportunities for physical activity and climate-friendly travel and are especially effective when part of a connected network. In Copenhagen, Denmark, bikes outnumber cars by more than a ratio of five-to-one. A network of cycling paths and innovative bridges make Copenhagen one of the safest places to be a cyclist. Carefully designed roads that slow cars and forgive human error are also key to safety.
We have to realize that towns and cities are there for people, and not for vehicles, and we need to design and build them that way. When we put humans at the heart of designing and planning our urban areas, we create happier and healthier cities. We are less likely to accept traffic fatalities as the cost of doing business. And in doing so, we clearly affirm that every life matters.
Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in the Bow Valley. Her commentaries appear in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on the third Thursday of each month. For more articles like this, visit www.engagedcitizen.ca.