Excusing failure

Another Vision Zero failure story comes out of Portland, Oregon. Five years into its ten year plan to eliminate traffic injuries, it looks like deaths are increasing. The city’s transportation director made an off-the-script admission: “A lot of it is out of our control.”

When deaths go down, Vision Zero is working. When deaths go up, it’s not our fault. Most of us could have seen this coming. Not just the failure to meet the goal, which everybody can see is impossible. The failure to make a big move towards the goal. Chanting slogans and writing speeding tickets is not a cure for anything except bureaucratic boredom.

The tragedy is, Portland is driving American policy on traffic enforcement. The West Coast crowd has successfully lobbied engineering groups to abandon fact-based policies in favor of slogan-based policies. Even when they see the new policies failing.

A reference to a USA today network article from 2018 hints at a more productive solution. If we banned SUVs from urban cores the pedestrian death rate would go way down. But the author doesn’t go there and neither do urban planners. There’s a saying attributed to General Patton. You don’t win a war by going out and dying for your country. You win it by making some other guy die for his country.

Politicians know that speed traps and traffic jams are perceived as part of city life. So that’s what they create in the name of Vision Zero. We’re going to punish those awful speeders, not you. And the cheering audience happily drives home at 30 in a 20 zone.

What if they proposed a ban on SUVs? You’d have a million mom march with chants about how scary it is to sit 18 inches off the pavement instead of two feet. Urban planning policy is all about punishing “them” instead of “us”, even when victims of the policy are actually in the majority.

I haven’t done a cost-benefit analysis on an SUV ban. I agree they are dangerous, for the reasons Malcolm Gladwell pointed out 16 years ago. They make drivers feel better at the expense of everybody else. But how dangerous, reduced to dollars and cents, I don’t know. One thing I don’t want is the government making individual decisions on who does or does not “need” an SUV. That ends up the same as deciding who “needs” a stop sign — the resident with the most influence gets her shiny new toy. Price them right, including direct fees and fuel taxes, and the market will decide. You could imagine a congestion charge based on vehicle size. But that would affect residents. Congestion zones are meant to be used in commuter destinations as a tax on nonresidents.

Closer to where I live, Boston is mixing a tiny bit of productive change along these lines into its anti-motorist policies.

The most spectacular deaths around here happen when a fast-moving bicyclist tries to pass a truck on the right, not noticing the truck is making a right turn. You might think in an ideal world bicyclists would be taught not to pass right-turning trucks on the right. But they won’t listen. They’re not all idiots. At least one was a scientist with a PhD. I’m sure if you had explained the situation to her ahead of time she could have understood intellectually, if not instinctively, what the danger was. But they still won’t listen.

So Boston has demanded side guards to keep bicycles from going under the sides of trucks. Only applicable to city trucks, so it’s not much of a change. And I’m not sure if the benefit exceeds the cost. At least it might.

But that’s an anomaly. My prediction for this year is a move towards speed traps everywhere and not a move towards safety anywhere.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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