Communities across the country are getting a grim look at the human face of the rising toll from reckless driving, intoxicated and distracted drivers, and the consequences they inflict on their victims.
Road wrecks, nationally and locally, are killing and injuring far too many bicyclists and pedestrians, the poor and children, and motorists, including the scofflaws themselves. They add to the misery of already downtrodden communities of color, news organizations reported.
The coronavirus pandemic launched a lethal phenomenon on the nation’s byways — a spiking road toll that is not easing and is fueled by an array of challenges, notably motorists’ increased disregard for themselves and others.
Dr. David Spiegel, director of Stanford Medical School’s Center on Stress and Health, told the New York Times that people across the country have been overwhelmed by dealing with the pandemic and its stresses, while also losing the human contacts they need to retain the perspective to treat others well and gauge risks appropriately. This means they get in their huge bubbles of metal and glass, don’t pay attention, misbehave, and ignore road rules:
“If they do, [think about safety] they don’t care about it that much. There’s the feeling that the rules are suspended, and all bets are off.”
In the Washington, D.C., area, the fatal and debilitating results have been slammed poor, predominantly black areas, the Washington Post reported, based on its analysis of available data on road crashes:
“Lower-income neighborhoods in the District recorded eight times more traffic fatalities in recent years than the city’s wealthiest area, an analysis shows, as residents call for more enforcement and road improvements following the deadliest year on city streets in more than a decade. The 40 traffic fatalities in the nation’s capital last year were the most since 2007 … The toll has fallen disproportionately on the city’s two poorest wards, which contain less than one-quarter of Washington’s population but nearly half of its road deaths. A Washington Post analysis of eight years of data shows wards 7 and 8, which are majority black and largely east of the Anacostia River, have borne the brunt of traffic fatalities and are home to the city’s deadliest traffic corridor. The rise in deaths comes seven years after the city launched a multipronged strategy to reduce traffic-related injuries and deaths — actions that have done little to stem the bloodshed.”
The newspaper also found this in its deep dig:
“The Southern Avenue corridor, which separates D.C. from Maryland’s Prince George’s County, accounted for nearly 1 in 5 traffic deaths in the city last year, The Post found. Among those killed were two pedestrians struck in the same block — one while crossing the street and the other a victim in a hit-and-run — about eight months apart. Ward 3, which contains many of the city’s whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods in upper Northwest, had no traffic deaths last year. Cases have often garnered more attention in wealthier areas, where advocates and residents are more vocal on social media, at vigils and during government hearings. The spike is also occurring amid an increase in collisions involving children, which has inspired new legislation and brought calls for tougher consequences for unsafe drivers. Four-year-old Zy’aire Joshua was fatally struck in April as he crossed a street in the Brightwood Park neighborhood, and 5-year-old Allison Hart died while riding a bike in a Brookland crosswalk in September. At least five other children were injured while walking or riding bikes in recent months, including three on a single road in Southeast.”
The newspaper reported in its graphics (including the one shown above displaying the geography of traffic fatalities) that 40% of the road deaths were pedestrians and 44% were between the ages of 20 and 40.
This is in keeping with distressing national trends, the New York Times reported in its news article on spiking pedestrian deaths across the country:
“Crashes killed more than 6,700 pedestrians in 2020, up about 5% from the estimated 6,412 the year before, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Based on another commonly used road safety metric — vehicle miles traveled — the group projected that the pedestrian fatality rate spiked about 21% in 2020 as deaths climbed sharply even though people drove much less that year, the largest ever year-over-year increase. And preliminary data from 2021 indicates yet another increase in the number of pedestrian deaths. While other developed countries have made strides in reducing pedestrian deaths over the last several years, the pandemic has intensified several trends that have pushed the United States in the other direction. Crashes killing pedestrians climbed 46% over the last decade, compared with a 5% increase for all other crashes, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.”
Both newspapers round out the statistics with reporting on the tragic losses of life — the 47-year-old killed on Southern Avenue and who will be forever mourned as his mom’s “baby boy;” the Uber Eats delivery guy, killed on his bike at 10th Street and Michigan Avenue NE; the grief-stricken parents in Albuquerque whose 7-year-old was killed by a driver blowing through a red light as the family crossed at an intersection.
The Washington Post details the pokey responses by governments at various levels to improve signage, boost enforcement, and better safety measures on road to protect pedestrians, bicyclists, and, yes, motorists. The newspaper says that poor, predominantly black neighborhoods have been left behind in the region’s economic boom, which also makes them targets of suburbanites zooming through during their daily commutes. Planners only now are reckoning with discriminatory practices that cut up communities of color with highways and broad, fast streets for the convenience of others around them.
The New York Times reported that, nationally, older people too often are becoming traffic fatalities or are suffering serious injuries, especially as they move to Sunbelt communities as they age. Those newer areas sprawl and may be less mindful during their rapid growth of putting a priority on road safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, as opposed to ensuring speed and convenience for motorists.
In the meantime, those motorists, the newspaper reported, are getting around more and more in ever-bigger vehicles — SUVs and trucks. Though the vehicles come with more assistive technology, including cameras and warning systems — they are becoming so heavy, tall, and wide that they have become more deadly and debilitating to those struck by them.
In my practice, I and my colleagues see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage inflicted on pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers by motorcycle, vehicle, and truck wrecks. The country had made significant progress in reducing road harms but the positive trends reversed in recent years and went off the rails during the pandemic.
We have an individual responsibility to right this wrong. We can ensure we do our own part to ensure we don’t drive while distracted — especially while texting or using electronic devices — drunk, drugged (with recreational or prescription drugs), or otherwise impaired, especially by sleepiness. We can return to the fundamental idea of reciprocal altruism by restoring basic courtesy, consideration, and concern for others. This means we take to heart the idea that we won’t, and neither will others, engage in reckless, aggressive conduct behind the wheel — flouting common sense laws, speeding, and ignoring stop and other signs.
We also need to hold accountable government officials at all levels to make our roads and vehicles as safe as possible, notably when spending the $1 trillion that Congress and the Biden Administration have approved in bipartisan fashion to improve the nation’s infrastructure. Transportation Pete Buttigieg has emphasized that a chunk of the infrastructure funding will be targeted to road safety and officials in the District, Maryland, and Virginia have expressed an eagerness, too, to end the carnage on our streets and highways.
We have much work to do to slash the preventable, debilitating, and deadly harms of our vehicles and roads.