Accidentally On Purpose

sociopathic bus bench

If vehicles leave the roadway often enough that we need street lights to have breakaway bases to keep vehicle occupants safe, how can it be safe for pedestrians and transit riders to sit, stand or walk in that same space?

The answer is, it’s not. [Even though you could argue that pedestrians have breakaway bases themselves…]

From 2012 to 2020, there were 179 (reported) collisions where a vehicle left the roadway in urban areas in Manitoba, according to Manitoba Public Insurance collision statistics. In 36% of those, someone was injured. In 6% of them, someone died.

But those weren’t accidents. Traffic engineers designed urban streets that required a clear zone, designed breakaway bases for the infrastructure in those clear zones due to the expected frequency of collisions, and then placed their professional seal on a plan that puts people, sidewalks, bus stops and businesses in the very same clear zones.

Of course people get hurt. Of course people die. That’s the design.

As well-known traffic safety advocate Tom Flood has said, “these aren’t accidents, these are results”.

Completely predictable results.

And the only reason it’s not even worse is because of congestion. Congestion slows traffic to a speed where clear zones shrink to zero, which solves this entire problem for us. Unfortunately, the traffic engineering profession seems to have taken it as its raison d’être to alleviate congestion, which just puts people back into the clear zone, and back into mortal danger.

But, try talking to a traffic engineer about making sure people aren’t forced to walk, wait for the bus, or access local businesses while in the clear zone, and you’ll get blank stares.

You could call it unethical. You could call it gross negligence. I might even go as far as to call it sociopathic.

And it is probably at least some of those things.

But it’s not like there’s no solution here. A common suggestion is to line the sidewalks with bollards.

And that would work… for the pedestrians and transit riders. But remember the whole reason for the breakaway bases? That vehicles smashing into immovable objects at high speeds is dangerous for the occupants of those vehicles?

Yeah, simply installing a bunch of bollards and calling it a day is just shifting the risk of death from people outside vehicles to those inside vehicles. That’s hardly ethical either.

But we could design our streets for slower speeds, just like congestion has shown us works. That’s actually what the World Health Organization recommends, and not just in residential areas. They recommend maximum speeds of 30 km/h wherever “people and traffic mix“. It’s a policy that recognizes that there are places for high speeds, and there are places for slow speeds. And the places for slow speeds are wherever people walk, live, work and play, which has advantages far beyond just safety, such as economic activity, climate action, livability, and as we’ve measured here before many times, financial sustainability for the City.

To do otherwise is to ask people to spend time in the clear zone, literally putting their lives at risk just to wait for a bus, or buy a jug of milk, or walk to the dentist. An ask so egregious, that any engineer who would agree to affix their seal to that should lose their license to practice. Yet somehow they don’t.

Because most people don’t know about clear zones and breakaway bases. So there’s no one to call them out on it.

But now you know.

So the next time you’re walking down the street, or waiting for a bus, or walking up to a local shop, and you walk by a pole with a breakaway base, remember that means you’re standing where out-of-control cars have been designated to go: in the clear zone.

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