The Way We Design Our Streets Invites Driver Aggression

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If a private corporation designed intersections like this for private users, government watchdogs would force them to put warning labels on them: This intersection is known to be a hazard, dangerous to your safety. Repeated use of this intersection will likely result in death or serious injury.

But, because it is in the public realm, we get the low expectations of public policy, trading an acceptable rate of death and attrition for pathetic levels of economic development, all with the veneer of inevitability provided by the blessing of licensed, technical experts.

Again, I’ve talked to my daughter over and over about the need to be abundantly cautious at intersections like this, and this intersection in particular. That caution is a big part of what caused the frustration of the motorcyclist who lost his cool.

What also likely added to his frustration was his expectations based on experience. An aggressive driver —and if we know one thing about this dude, he was aggressive—has their aggression licensed by this design. The wide lanes, recovery areas, and forgiving curves all support, as the default, an aggressive form of driving. Sure, you can consciously dial it back, but you don’t need to. The people who designed this road compensated for that aggression.

And in compensating for aggression, they invite it. The guy on his motorcycle came up behind my daughters having felt the rush of the wind on his face, the clear and open road, a high-performance bike on a high-performance roadway. And then he ran into a cautious little girl, a ninny more committed to prudence than using this gift of engineering to its fullest. 

That rapid shift of expectations made him mad, and he took it out on my kids. We can say that he was wrong (he was), that he’s probably a repressed jerk (probably is), and that he did something that should be socially and morally unacceptable in any society. 

I’m disgusted, but I also recognize how he came by his sense of entitlement. Other than entitlement, what is being communicated to him by this design? Safety? Caution? Prudence? No, we’ll save those messages for a Vision Zero-funded magazine ad or billboard. 

When it comes to road design, we license human aggression. The surprising thing is that we don’t get more of it.

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