Op-Ed: Let’s Stop Accepting “Accidents” as Inevitable

Many traffic fatalities are a consequence of bad planning and infrastructure calls. We can make different decisions, and save lives.

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(Editor’s note: This is a op-ed column from Alex Doty, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.)

A 7-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl were walking home from Decatur Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia in September when tragedy struck in the form of a 2003 Dodge Ram pickup truck. The children were crossing the Street at Academy Road around 3 p.m. on September 11, 2014, had a green light, but got hit anyway. Luckily, two nursing students were on the scene, and the children later recovered in St. Christopher’s Hospital.

Police said at the time the driver wasn’t reckless, was not intoxicated, and wasn’t under the influence. According to a story on NBC 10, the incident was an “accident.”

But here’s the thing: It wasn’t.

The data show pedestrians of all shapes, ages and sizes are our most vulnerable users of city streets in Philadelphia, and we’ve unfortunately come to accept tragic crashes, like the critical injuries of two Northeast Philly children, as an inevitable part of living in the city.

Traffic crashes are one of the leading causes of injuries and death in the United States. And for the most part over the decades, safety issues have focused on making the actual act of the crash safer. Things like seat belts, air bags and automatic brakes have made car crashes much safer for motorists throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Pedestrians, of course, don’t have such luxuries. But they should have safer intersections and street designs that reduce crashes between motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.

We can have that. It’s not too hard. Let’s start with the numbers. Buffered bike lanes are proven to reduce traffic crashes on a given street—and it’s significant. After bike lanes were installed on Spruce and Pine Streets in Center City, serious motor vehicle crashes on those streets dropped 26 percent, with no impact on motorists’ travel time. Insignificant crashes—“fender benders” if you will—were reduced by 31 percent.

Other proposed street changes—things like protected bike lanes, raised crosswalks, pedestrian plazas and an on-time paving schedule—have proven effective in other cities where they’ve been tried. Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s paving schedule is more than 900 miles behind due to an insufficient capital budget. Other cities like Pittsburgh, Boston, Atlanta and many others have been able to install physically protected bike lanes, something Philadelphia has not been able to do, yet, despite such infrastructure being important for both the rollout of bike share this spring, and for the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

The Northeast Philadelphia children hit by the pickup truck in September were somewhat lucky. They survived, after all. Others around Philadelphia, the state, and the nation, aren’t always so lucky. Within Philadelphia, a motorist kills a pedestrian about once every 10 days—and the trend is, terribly, going up.

And this is not just a moral issue. We at the Bicycle Coalition are pushing for a Vision Zero policy (the policy which aims to reduce traffic injuries and deaths to zero) for economic reasons, too. It’s something to which Philadelphia’s next mayor—as well as state and national leaders—should dedicate themselves.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the economic costs of road crashes in 2010 were $871 billion nationwide, derived from 32,999 people killed, 3.9 million injured and 24 million damaged vehicles—totaling $594 billion in societal harm and $277 in economic costs. For bicyclists and pedestrians, crashes accounted for approximately $109 billion, which comes from $19 billion in economic costs and $90 billion in societal harm.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation calculates its own estimates, and it found that each road death in Pennsylvania costs about $6.35 million. Each major injury adds up to about $1.39 million in legal, healthcare, clean up and other associated costs. Altogether, the cost of road crashes in Pennsylvania in 2013 was $14 billion.

What’s that mean for you? $1,099 in economic loss for every person in the Commonwealth last year alone.

Based on PennDOT’s estimates, motor vehicle crashes in 2013 that led to the loss of 89 lives in Philadelphia cost $565 million, while the 11,549 injuries in the city limits cost $450 million, totaling about $1 billion in economic losses per year.

The Bicycle Coalition and nine other groups around the city, ranging from the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce to the Clean Air Council, believe these issues need to be part of the public conversation in Philadelphia. A long-term and strategic investment in our streets could go a long way preventing tragedies, saving some lives and desperately-need cash, creating a better city for all of Philadelphia’s road users.

The Better Mobility Working Group, consisting of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and others, will be holding a mayoral forum at the Friends Center at 1501 Cherry Street on March 19 at 6 p.m., at which time these, and other mobility issues, will be discussed by the mayoral candidates. PhillyMag’s Deputy Editor Patrick Kerkstra will be moderating.

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