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February 8-14, 2006

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The Byrne Report

Blood Sacrifice

By Peter Byrne

In 2005, 10 teenagers lost their lives in horrific traffic accidents in Sonoma County. Six deaths occurred when trucks crashed into cars. Four young lives were terminated by a truck at the intersection of Adobe Road and East Washington Street in Petaluma. The truck driver was unscathed. The teenage driver made a fatal error when she pulled into the intersection without looking both ways. She had not received driver education in high school because, years ago, Sonoma County schools stopped training student drivers.

But heavy vehicles and lack of driver education are not the only causes of the bloodbath. Traffic congestion, an incompetent transportation bureaucracy, the popularity of SUVs and pickup trucks, driver inexperience and inebriation, and the political power of the car industry combine to produce this perfect storm of pain.

The American Automobile Association recently released a study showing that drivers aged 15 to 17 were involved in crashes that killed 30,917 people in the past decade. AAA recommends that states pass tougher driver-licensing laws, but, being car-happy, the association does not suggest diverting highway funding to mass transit, or that auto manufacturers build lighter, safer vehicles.

An article by writers Marc Ross, Deena Patel and Tom Wenzel on vehicle design in the January issue of the magazine Physics Today reports that traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for young people in the United States. The authors quote a traffic expert as saying, "We tacitly agree to accept a certain level of carnage in order to use the highways in ways we value. [T]his tacit agreement says that it is acceptable to sacrifice 42,000 lives annually."

This sacrifice is not necessary. For instance, vehicle height and weight are indices of death. Being struck by an SUV doubles your risk of dying, and being hit by a full-size pickup truck raises it further. People riding in SUVs and runabout trucks increase their own survival rates while decreasing the survival rates of those they hit. Improving vehicle design and sensibly restricting the use of heavy vehicles would benefit society. Say the Physics Today writers, "[W]e have estimated that replacing with passenger cars all the light trucks in the U.S. that are used only as 'car substitutes' would save three to four thousand lives a year." The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that lowering SUVs by a half inch lowers the death rate by 50 percent.

A report issued by the National Academy of Sciences in December, Critical Issues in Transportation, notes that we have fallen behind the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Sweden in road safety. "The successes of these nations are partly the result of strategies such as stricter laws on safety belt use, extensive crackdowns on alcohol and drug-impaired driving [and] increased restrictions on teenage driving." The report asserts that the poor fuel economy of SUVs and noncommercial pickups "propels record levels of fuel consumption and imports, [causing] U.S. military commitments in unstable parts of the world."

The in-depth study of the transportation infrastructure indicts local, state and federal governments for bureaucratic inefficiencies and for promoting public-works pork in place of protecting lives. Traffic fatalities increase because of a "lack of political will to crack down on irresponsible driving," not to mention irresponsible vehicle design. And lack of driver education.

Suzanne Wilford, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, says that teenagers can be good drivers if they are taught to be so. In the meantime, she suggests widening road shoulders to provide "escape routes" for cars confronted by oncoming SUVs and trucks. She notes that driving while using a cell phone is a dangerous distraction.

David Knight, director of transportation for Sonoma County, says congestion is partly responsible for the abnormally high number of teenage accidents. County population grows at 1 or 2 percent a year, but travel increases by double the population growth. "It is my impression," Knight says without irony, "that people buy SUVs to protect themselves." He says the county has a backlog of public safety work, including widening roads, installing traffic signals, replacing reflectivity on signs and markers. And like all good bureaucrats, he says government needs more money to do a good job.

Immediately following the Adobe Road tragedy, the county installed a blinking red light at the intersection. But the light could just as easily have been there on the fateful day. Knight comments, "We have been working on the Adobe project for four years." Apparently, improving the safety of the patently dangerous intersection was delayed for several years because the bigger-is-always-better bureaucracy wanted to spend millions of dollars purchasing land to widen the road. But if county supervisors had just cut loose with a mere $50,000 for one lousy traffic beacon, four of our children would probably be alive today. Instead, they were needlessly sacrificed to the traffic god.

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