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Proactive traffic management to tackle record road death increase

Noam Maital explores the forces behind the highest jump in traffic deaths in 96 years, and potential solutions

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” This excerpt from the 1953 essay The Hedgehog and the Fox by philosopher Isaiah Berlin perfectly illustrates the opposing priorities that challenge society today. Berlin’s theory states that people, especially big thinkers, can be divided into two categories: the hedgehogs, or those who operate in the world through the lens of a single defining idea, and the foxes, people who use a wide variety of experiences to draw ideas and conclusions.

Throughout the global pandemic, the world has mostly been operating in hedgehog mode with a focus on one really big idea for the past year—how to deal with, and ultimately overcome, the novel coronavirus.  While a completely understandable and perhaps even inevitable mindset, a consequence of this one-track focus has been the neglect of other pressing problems that have taken their toll on society.

One of these virtually ignored issues is traffic deaths. Prior to the pandemic, the industry was making monumental strides to reach Vision Zero, a multinational strategy to eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries on roadways. First implemented in Sweden in the 1990s, more than 40 US communities have made a public promise to eliminate traffic fatalities. However, amidst the pandemic, no additional American regions have made the commitment.

The 2020 rate of traffic-related deaths spiked 24% over the previous 12-month period and 42,060 people are estimated to have died in motor vehicle crashes this past year alone. This is the highest estimated year-over-year jump in traffic deaths in 96 years.

Over the last year, the number of miles driven by Americans fell by 13% as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns. With this decline of road activity, one might expect a proportional decline in traffic deaths. However, according to the National Safety Council (NSC), the 2020 rate of traffic-related deaths spiked 24% over the previous 12-month period and 42,060 people are estimated to have died in motor vehicle crashes this past year alone. This is the highest estimated year-over-year jump in traffic deaths in 96 years.  

While this deadly toll of lives pales in comparison to the half a million US lives lost to COVID-19, the question we should be asking ourselves is: Can we not deal with multiple preventable causes of death simultaneously? COVID-19 has brought endless pain and suffering, but so do traffic deaths and serious injuries in everyday life. Lorraine M Martin, Chief Executive of the National Safety Council (NSC), summed up the tragedy of road deaths succinctly: “It is tragic that in the US, we took cars off the roads and didn’t reap any safety benefits. This data exposes our lack of an effective roadway safety culture and it is past time to address roadway safety, holistically and effectively.”  It is clear these problems can no longer be seen through the lens of a hedgehog, of focusing on one problem at a time, but rather requires a fox-like approach, strategically addressing both problems simultaneously.

Volvo Cars and Volvo Trucks share vehicle data to improve traffic
Volvo Cars and Volvo Trucks share live vehicle data to improve traffic safety


So why were there more fatal crashes, despite fewer miles driven and fewer cars on the road in 2020?  Simply put: drivers drove faster due to less traffic, which resulted in more crashes that were found to be increasingly fatal.

But there is an even deeper reason relating to a concept from psychology known as habituation—or in simple language, how we simply become accustomed to an unpleasant stimulus, until it almost disappears. This idea can be applied to our current road systems and fatality count as well. With traffic deaths occurring daily, habitually we tune them out when brought to our attention.  They have become a part of the scenery and more often than not humans tend to not question things that regularly occur in their everyday lives.

During the pandemic, the media fought habituation and apathy towards the daily updates of COVID-19 deaths by recounting the tragic human stories of individuals and families who passed. Half a million US deaths is a hard to grasp statistic, but the death of a dedicated nurse, a mother of four or a beloved grandparent, is concrete and easy to sympathise with.

What if we humanised traffic deaths?

Taking a page out of how to effectively position individual stories during the pandemic, there is a chance to combat apathy towards road death statistics through tapping into human-centric stories of the victims. By effectively sharing the lives of those taken by crashes and putting a greater emphasis on the loss, the chances of these statistics becoming background noise becomes less and less likely.

International truck overspeed alert
Various players are looking into ways to encourage safer driving speeds

In a recent Automotive World article, Dustin Boutet explained how technology and design must combine to make driving safer and easier for senior citizens, who will comprise one driver in every four by 2025. Of course, he’s absolutely right.  But why not broaden the design perspective to change and improve how we design messaging to reduce traffic deaths and crashes?

For example, consider a highly useful tool first developed by behavioural economists and led by Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler, known as a ‘nudge’. This nudge is a redesign of our choices to change behaviour without closing options or changing their economic incentives. It is otherwise known as a gentle push in the right direction and must be easy and cheap to avoid.

Stories about crashes are not nudges and they don’t seem to foster safer driving; we see lots of these occurring daily on the media and TV and cable news. The reaction is often habituation or in other words, ‘that does not apply to me’. This is reflected in legislation and initiatives passed, which can oftentimes be draconian and often impractical. True, after the 1973 oil embargo, and resulting long gas lines, the US legislated a 55mph speed limit.  The result: the lives of about 36,000 people were saved, by one estimate, in the next five years. However, despite this, many states refused to enforce that limit and many drivers ignored it.

It is tragic that in the US, we took cars off the roads and didn’t reap any safety benefits

So, what might be an effective nudge?  How about software, maybe WAZE-related, telling drivers how much money they are saving by driving 55mph instead of 70mph. “You just saved US$15 on this trip; well done, driver!” How about using software to generate random speed reports to drivers, while strictly observing privacy such as “you drove dangerously fast in this ‘red’ (accident prone) segment of the turnpike yesterday.” Or alternatively the software can reinforce positively by saying “you drove slowly and safely in this accident-prone stretch”.

The concept of a nudge has not yet been implemented much in traffic mobility at this point with the mindset seeming to be that of laws and policing. With this in mind, perhaps the answer lies in design thinking with a ‘nudge’ and some appealing human stories to change behaviour and combat habituation. This combination can act as a powerful nudge in the right direction to reverse the worrisome slide in the wrong direction.

It is unthinkable to continue to suffer avoidable deaths on the roads every decade when we currently have the tools to address these issues head on.  We cannot be indifferent towards road fatalities, any more than we cannot become accustomed to COVID-19. As a society, we must creatively rethink the systems and policies we have in place to mitigate traffic fatalities and bring awareness to these issues. It is time that we no longer think like hedgehogs and enact our fox-rationale to find solutions for more than one preventable cause of death and advance the safety of all. Our lives depend on it.

About the author: Noam Maital is Chief Executive and Co-Founder of Waycare Technologies



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