An antidote to pandemic of traffic deaths

I never knew the grandfather I'm named after. He died 23 years before I was born. He died in a car crash.

A friend named Annette and four of my other college classmates met the same fate between freshman orientation and graduation. A colleague named Suzy, still in her 20s, was killed by a truck while bicycling.

I can think of 11 people I've been acquainted with (not counting, of course, my grandfather) who died before they turned 45. Motor vehicles killed six of them. How many youthful deaths have touched your life? How many were caused by cars?

If you're typical, you've lost at least one young person to colliding motor vehicles. You're very lucky if you haven't. Crashes are the leading cause of death of people under the age of 45 in Washington, killing almost 700 people a year in the state and 2,000 a year in the Northwest as a whole. Crashes injure more than 50 times that number annually.

Why do we put up with it?

Perhaps it's delusions of personal invincibility. More than 80 percent of Americans tell pollsters they are "above average" drivers. Perhaps it's fatalism. Perhaps we think of car crashes as acts of God - as utterly random and therefore unpreventable. Consider the way the media covers them: radio and television often mention them only in traffic reports, as roadway obstructions.

Even those who escape personal contact with the terrible toll of a crash still pay a price. Our cash economy, medical insurance pools, and government tax system link all of us at the pocketbook. Expensive misfortunes that befall any of us affect all of us. For example, losing a young person from the workforce reduces contributions to Social Security by tens of thousands of dollars over the years. According to an estimate by the Washington State Department of Transportation, the direct costs of car crashes, including lost wages and higher medical bills, drain at least $5.6 billion from Washington's economy each year. That's more than $850 per year for every man, woman and child in Washington.

There's good news, though. Traffic risk per mile is lower than it used to be. Seatbelt use is up and drunk driving is down. Vehicles have air bags, crumple zones and better brakes. But there are more of us driving than ever, so the annual death toll has hardly budged in more than a decade.

It turns out there is an overlooked way to lower vehicles' death toll: help people drive less by containing sprawl. Complete, compact communities with affordable housing such as those found in downtowns and in neighborhoods built before World War II are safer than spread-out suburbs or rural areas. In fact, residents of the most walkable urban places in the Northwest are the least likely to die in traffic accidents. Residents of King County, Washington's most urban county, for example, have the lowest per capita risk of fatal crashes in the state.

Residents of walkable communities crash less not because they're better drivers, but because they drive less. They also drive slower because the streets they travel are typically narrower and more congested. Slower collisions are much less dangerous: a pedestrian struck by a motor vehicle traveling at 40 mph survives only 15 percent of the time; at 20 mph the odds of survival rise to 95 percent. Finally, compact communities with affordable housing are dense enough to make transit work, and transit is safer than driving. For example, mile for mile, riding a bus is 10 times safer.

Largely because its cities sprawl less, British Columbians drive about 45 percent less than residents of Washington. They also die one-third less often in car crashes.

A one-third lower death rate from driving. Which of the people I have lost, which of the people you have lost, would still be alive if we had been building complete, compact communities all along? Maybe Annette? Maybe Suzy?

Maybe I would have met my grandfather.

Alan Durning is executive director of Sightline Institute, an independent, nonprofit Seattle-based research center. This op-ed was based on research just released in Sightline's new annual progress report on the Northwest: Cascadia Scorecard 2006: Focus on Sprawl & Health. Durning may be reached at (206) 447-1880, extension 102 (in Seattle).

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