A History of Traffic Safety in the United States: Part Four

This is a four-part series on the history of traffic safety reforms in the United States.  Part one is here, part two is here, and part three is here.

Analysis: Responsibility Paradigm, and the 21st Century ‘Traffic Fight’

Norton’s fourth paradigm, which covers the 1980s to the present day, bears similarities to the paradigms of the past.  Although the automobile industry remains governed by safety mandates, this paradigm elevates more responsibility to drivers for the safety of those inside and outside of the vehicle.  The ‘E’s of education and enforcement are instrumental towards this end.  For example, organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and increased law enforcement penalties responded to the acute problem of drunk driving, especially in the 1980s.  Federal and state transportation departments have organized a number of awareness weeks ranging from work zone safety to distracted driving to “Start Seeing Motorcycles”.  The notion that safety is a “shared responsibility” between motorists and pedestrians re-emerged, and various state and local campaigns have encouraged the latter to wear reflective clothing and refrain from texting while walking.  

  Image courtesy of    Baltimore Complete Streets

Image courtesy of Baltimore Complete Streets

An interesting feature of the responsibility paradigm is the deviation from the roadway as an automobile-exclusive utility and the willingness to reclaim the roadway for public spaces and other transportation modes.  Eric Dunbaugh refers to these roadways as “livable streets” that respect the adjacent urban built environment and improve the quality of pedestrian walkways. This approach to street design arguably stands in contrast to the engineering efforts in previous paradigms that were chiefly concerned with moving automobile traffic, mitigating congestion, and eliminating road hazards.  Indeed, the roadside design guides of the 1960s included such ‘forgiving design’ features as clear zones and removal of fixed hazardous objects such as trees within a certain buffer (Ibid, 287).  Dunbaugh contends that the design cues of “livable streets” are no less safe than the forgiving design approach, with the former being more context-appropriate in urban areas.  

Roadway reclamation within this paradigm includes both benefits and challenges.  Brian Ladd highlights the traffic-calming benefits that exist within shared roadway space.  John Pucher and Ralph Buehler mention that the most convenient bicycle facilities typically occupy space that was previously allocated exclusively to motor vehicles (2008, 512).  Peter Muller accepts that the automobile will remain in urban settings, but states that coordination with other transportation modes is a more effective response than building additional freeways (2017, 83).

  Image courtesy of    Veloce Today

Image courtesy of Veloce Today

Colin Divall’s idea of a “useable past” is especially salient for enriching the discussion around automated vehicles.  The previous paradigms demonstrate how Americans have used technology to improve safety outcomes throughout most of the 20th century.  During the “Safety First” paradigm motordom advocates argued that, in contrast to the horse and carriage, the handling and braking features of automobiles would actually improve traffic safety for pedestrians. During the 1939 World’s Fair, one of the vignettes of General Motors’ Futurama exhibit illustrated a remotely controlled driverless automobile with its passengers playing a board game.  O’Connell and Myers summarize a 1960s conference that outlined approaches to electronically control vehicles ranging from notifications inside the vehicle to fully automated driving that removes the driver from his previous responsibilities.  Underscoring this theme of automation is the shift from disciplining the driver to intelligently controlling the machine being driven.  Although such a shift would resonate with crashworthiness advocates of the 1960s, critics such as the head of engineering mechanics for General Motors argued that electronic implements are more fallible than human drivers.     

Any meaningful discussion on using the past to inform an automated future should include the potential redistribution of the roles and responsibilities of multiple actors including the driver, the insurance company, and the automobile manufacturer with its attendant electronics and software companies. Ethical questions abound: Which actors are culpable in a traffic accident?  How are ethical norms operationalized into computer algorithms?  Can computers negotiate in-the-moment ‘trolley problems’ that result in less harmful and more moral outcomes than a human counterpart? Will intelligent control further reinforce the idea of a street as a unimodal utility at the expense of more vulnerable, less equal roadway users?  The assemblage of power among automobile-oriented interests of previous paradigms suggests a useful precedent from which safety advocates in general and mode-specific interests in particular can learn.

This series provided a brief history of traffic safety reforms in the United States.  Using Norton’s four traffic safety paradigms as a framework for the series, I attempted to show how streets have and continue to be a contested space, not only with the advent of the “horseless carriage” but also with the imminence of automated vehicles.  From municipal traffic engineers to the National Safety Council and to automotive companies, the trajectory of traffic safety reform in the 20th century shows multiple actors using rhetoric, power, and organization to legitimate a particular mode, namely motorized vehicles, to the street.  The persistence of and continued interest in multimodal networks including bicycle, pedestrian, bus and light rail suggest that streets will continue to remain a contested space in the 21st century. 



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