A version of this article was originally published on Strong Towns and is republished with permission.
Mississippi’s roads are among the most dangerous in the US, with 341 total deaths in the first half of this year. Yet, according to national road safety experts, recent statements by both traffic engineers and the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) show a failure to take responsibility for how unsafe road design contributes to fatality rates. Instead, they put the onus of mortality on drivers, telling them it is their responsibility to be better stewards of the law and create safer roads.
“They’re putting the onus on the people using the road system, not the actual design of it,” said Mike Lydon, author, advocate and founding principal of Street Plans.
In an article for the Clarion Ledger, MDOT offers seven recommendations of safety precautions that drivers can take to prevent accidents and deaths – but not once does MDOT mention the role of unsafe road design in contributing to these tragedies. Have done Instead, they tell drivers to “check your blind spots; Be aware of long stopping distances, always buckle up, drive at a safe speed; Stay focused and avoid distracted driving; Always use your signals; Maintain your vehicle.
Big Traffic Engineering will one day fall like Big Tobacco. But that day is not today. https://t.co/S6Z8DRne7e
— Mike Lydon (@MikeLydon) October 10, 2022
Lydon says that even though these recommendations may have a safety benefit, by only addressing things that drivers can do, it takes away from the core problem: road design and land use are the true influencers of traffic speed and safety. Huh.
Amir Molan, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Mississippi with expertise in highway safety and traffic analysis, also puts the onus on drivers to create safe roads, not the engineers who design them. He told the Clarion Ledger: “We need to inform more drivers about the impact and seriousness of driving under the new traffic laws and policies … The reduction rate for 2022 is great, but we need to reduce the numbers.” We need to find ways.”
“It’s really distasteful,” said Chuck Marohan, president of Strong Towns. “Engineers, and especially professors who are teaching engineers, must show leadership by thinking about their responsibility in designing safer roads to reduce traffic fatalities. MDOT is committed to its responsibility to reduce traffic fatalities are failing when they place the responsibility for traffic safety and speed solely on the driver’s ability to be aware.
In regards to MDOT’s list of driver responsibilities, Lydon shared two recommendations for engineers that will effectively influence driver speeds, increase traffic safety, and reduce the number of traffic deaths: 1) Coordinating land use and transport system design to reduce driving. possible, and 2) design roads and streets in a way that eliminates the worst consequences of not following the above seven recommendations made by MDOT.
,[Street design and land use] Many of the traffic safety challenges we see across the country have their root causes together, Lydon said. “And completely failing to acknowledge that, not internalizing it and finding that it’s the engineer’s responsibility, is a problem and it’s misguided.”
It is typical of the DOT to ignore how road design affects traffic deaths. The DOT recognizes that speed limits and police enforcement can control traffic speed, but the reality is that drivers rely on visual and other physical cues that intuitively communicate to them how fast to go on a given roadway. Feels safe with.
“Why do you think it’s hard to drive the speed limit, you know? Why do you think you always want to go 40 even though the speed limit says 30 mph?” Lydon said. “The answer is because The road is really designed for you to go so fast. That’s why it feels comfortable to go so fast.
Despite the knowledge that road design is the ultimate influence of driver speed and safety, often the DOT conducts road safety campaigns that advise drivers to slow down, stating that it is their responsibility to keep the roads safe. “They will ask pedestrians to wear high-visibility clothing or ask people not to speed in security operations,” Lydon said. “But the design of the roadway is really to allow people to move at speed and quickly.”
Most US roadways send mixed messages to drivers about how the law asks drivers to perform versus what the design of the road is supposed to do to be safe. The common design seen on US roadways is based on the concept of “forgiving design”, where engineers create wide roads with high visibility in all directions in the expectation that drivers will occasionally make mistakes. This extra space is supposed to make driving safer, but it counteracts itself by signaling to drivers that it is safer to drive at higher speeds, which makes urban roadways unsafe.
The responsibility for creating safer roads and reducing traffic deaths should be in the hands of MDOT and their ability to redesign the roads, not just the people who use the roads. It is important for traffic engineers to be more empathetic towards all the people who are using the roads, including drivers, walkers and bikers.
,[Traffic engineers should have] perspective of someone who isn’t driving a large SUV or car every single day for every single trip,” Lydon said. He further added that in many places across America, if one were to consider that they (and perhaps their young children) how can they safely walk from point A to point B, most will “just choose not to do so” because it seems risky or unsafe.
“We just need this kind of profession to understand that, and internalize it, and think about how that can change the way they approach road design,” Lydon said. “And I would be the first to recognize that it’s not just street design. It’s also land use. So those two things combine to create a more inclusive and safer environment for everybody, no matter what way they’re moving around.