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“Why do we allow these deaths to occur?” – A Q&A with Peter Jacobsen

Posted by on October 14th, 2010 at 9:44 am

“1 in 55 Americans will die in a car crash*. My job is to say it out loud. Why do we allow these deaths to occur?”
— Peter Jacobsen, P.E., public health consultant and researcher

As I mentioned yesterday, public health consultant and research Peter Jacobsen, P.E., will be in Portland Friday to spread the word about the “Vision Zero” traffic safety philosophy.

(You might recall Jacobsen as the researcher behind the widely regarded and influential “Safety in Numbers” concept. Learn more about that in a recent column on Grist.com by Portland’s very own Elly Blue.)

In a nutshell, the Vision Zero concept is about a total re-thinking of the way we approach street design and traffic engineering polices and practices. To learn more about it, I interviewed Jacobsen over the phone yesterday.

BikePortland: Why are you so motivated to spread the word about Vision Zero?

Peter Jacobsen: 15-20 years ago, traffic-calming was a funny sounding term and not many people knew what it meant. I think Vision Zero is at that same point. The Swedes look at is as, how many people should die?

Look at how we react to people dying in plane crashes. Look at those miners in Chile. Mining used to be dangerous, but now people are concerned about it. There’s outrage that people are dying at work and we don’t accept that… In all these other facets of life we don’t accept death, yet with traffic we do. 1 in 55 Americans will die in a car crash*.

My job is to say it out loud. Why do we allow these deaths to occur?

Peter Jacobsen

BP: Last month, the USDOT released data on a record decline in traffic deaths with a press conference touting their efforts. Do you think they should be striking a different tone?

PJ: The U.S. has the most dangerous traffic in the industrialized world. We’re way down the list with countries like Poland and Slovenia. We have three times the death rate of The Netherlands. In the 1970s, all the industrialized countries had similar traffic death rates. Since then, the U.S. has cut traffic deaths by 57%. Great job right? Well, Canada has cut theirs by 65%, France by 79%, Germany has had an 81% decrease, The Netherlands has cut theirs by 90%. The U.S. has not kept up.

The car industry is not going to tell you cars aren’t safe and the regulatory bodies are going to tell you they’re doing a great job. It’s the nature of the beast. They’re going to walk in step with industry as much as possible so they don’t lose their support.

“We can redesign our roads. It’s ethically wrong the way we design are roads. It’s not going to take a lot of money and we can do it.”

BP: How would you have presented new data on traffic deaths?

PJ: What needs to be said is; look at all these people who are dying. It’s not neccessary. We can redesign our roads. It’s ethically wrong the way we design are roads. It’s not going to take a lot of money and we can do it.

BP: What are some of the key principles of the Vision Zero approach?

PJ: Let’s not focus on all crashes, let’s focus only on the most serious ones — those that lead to loss of life or very serious injuries. I have issues with the Ralph Nader approach… This whole idea that crash-worthiness [of cars] is the issue and that you can survive a crash if you’re big enough. That’s what led us to the whole SUV craze… It’s the I’m-bigger-than-you school of traffic safety, whereas in reality, SUVs have a very high death rate.

Vision Zero focuses on health rather than just crashes. Take side impacts for example. In a side impact, there’s a lot less metal, so let’s design the system so you don’t have side impacts. Get rid of traffic signals and use four-way stops; or better yet, use a roundabout so speeds are down and if there is a collision it’s at an oblique angle.

Reducing speeds is also key. Speeds need to be below 20 mph. When we talk about school zones and home zones, there’s a threshold here [wherein injuries are much less severe at lower speeds]. It’s black and white in my book.

BP: Are there implications/impacts for bicycling with Vision Zero? In other words, what’s this got to do with bikes?

PJ: It would mean better facilities for bicyclists, lower motor vehicle speeds, especially on residential neighborhoods (for kids). It would also encourage more bicycling as its result is less dangerous motor vehicle use. And with less motor vehicle traffic we’ll have more folks willing to bicycle. A virtuous circle.

BP: What do you hope people gain after hearing your talk Friday?

PJ: My audiences are young engineers and planners, the people who are going to be designing the roads of the next 30 years. I’d like to get them to design for the vision of no fatalities, it would have a huge health benefit. Engineers don’t think of themselves as health professionals, but they are. As they make decisions about how to build our public space, how we build our roads, the overall health of citizens should be there criteria.

I asked Jacobsen if he could recommend a source for further reading on the Vision Zero philosophy. He recommended a paper titled, Vision Zero – An ethical approach to safety and mobility published by Claes Tingvall and Narelle Haworth at Monash University Accident Research Centre.

Jacobsen speaks tomorrow (Friday, 10/15) at Portland State University (more details here).

*Several people questioned Jacobsen’s “1 in 55” claim. I heard from PSU researcher Jennifer Dill who pointed out where he got the numbers… (I think the confusion comes from the fact that he’s referring to one in 55 Americans that died from all causes, not total number of Americans).

  • CDC National Vital Statistics Reports Volume 58, Number 19 May 20, 2010 (PDF here).
  • 2,423,712 total deaths from all causes (page 32)
  • 43,945 were motor vehicle accidents (page 35)
  • That’s 1.8%, which is one in 55.

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  • 9watts October 14, 2010 at 10:00 am

    speed is obviously key, but that isn’t really a matter for engineers. Reducing VMT and increasing bicycling are also obvious and useful suggestions, but that isn’t something engineers are really set up to deliver either. Roundabouts are more obviously in their camp, though most of us here on this list could probably lay out a roundabout pretty quickly without professional training. Jacobsen talks about “buiding” a lot. What specifically is he referring to?

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  • 9watts October 14, 2010 at 10:06 am

    I meant to say Jacobsen talks about “designing” a lot.

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  • Pete October 14, 2010 at 10:37 am

    A roundabout in the US… what a concept! My hospital here in California has a roundabout just inside of its parking lot (speed limit 10 MPH) and there are frequent crashes. Maybe US drivers should be required to drive in Europe before getting a license? 😉

    Wish I was up there to see this talk. There’s an in-depth discussion on “safety in numbers” in Jim Mapes’ Pedaling Revolution.

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  • Seager October 14, 2010 at 10:43 am

    While most safer car infrastructure is safer for everyone, I’m not sure roundabouts are a good example. While roundabouts do make drivers safer, they are more dangerous for pedestrians since they take the driver’s eye away from where pedestrians will be crossing. This is more of a problem with double lane roundabouts. I hope this type of thing is considered.

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  • Oliver October 14, 2010 at 10:43 am

    More roundabouts. Yes!

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  • Owen October 14, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Just out of curiosity… where does the ‘1 in 55 Americans’ statistic come from? It’s pretty startling.

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  • Scott Sehm, PE October 14, 2010 at 11:10 am

    2009 Census shows US population at 307 M citizens, if 1 in 55 die we’re talking about 5.5 M deaths. In 2008 there were 37,000 deaths in vehicle accidents according to the NHTSA – if you assume this number is average it would take 150 years to accumulate 5.5 M deaths…who lives that long? I’m guessing the average lifespan in America is 80 years so there’s have to be about 70,000 deaths per year to meet that statistic. Also, population increases and vehicle death rates vary. Some qualification for a statistic such as what is purported in this article is in order. If I’m off-base please correct me.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) October 14, 2010 at 11:17 am

      Scott and Owen,
      Thanks for asking about the 1 in 55 stat. I just made a note in the story that I will update the interview as soon as I hear back from Jacobsen about it. I regret not asking him to qualify that number initially. My assumption is that he was referring to both fatalities AND serious injuries, but I’m not exactly sure.

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  • cyclist October 14, 2010 at 11:25 am


    This link shows auto fatalities (including non-motorists) from 1994-1998. 1 in 55 is 1.8%, which is definitely right on target for 2003 (a year for which I was able to track down total deaths in the US. It’s probably close to accurate for all of those years except for 2008 and 2009, when the number of deaths fell substantially.

    FWIW, in that same year 1 in 40 people died of the flu and pneumonia, 1.8% is a relatively low number.

    I’m also fairly certain that the vast majority of auto fatalities happen on the highway, I’m not sure redesigning city streets is going to help bring that number down much.

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  • El Biciclero October 14, 2010 at 11:33 am

    The problem with U.S. roundabouts: Answer these two questions–

    1. To whom does one yield at a full-up 4-way stop?
    2. To whom does one yield at a roundabout? (in the U.S.)

    We have provided the wrong answer to question #1 for so long, that it will take a generation to undo it. In the meantime, it just causes too much confusion for our poor, distracted, American drivers.

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  • Jessica Roberts October 14, 2010 at 11:34 am

    Seager #4: “While roundabouts do make drivers safer, they are more dangerous for pedestrians since they take the driver’s eye away from where pedestrians will be crossing.”

    That’s actually exactly the opposite of the point of a roundabout. At a signalized intersection, the driver’s eyes are up, on the traffic signal, not down at the roadway where pedestrians are crossing (especially when they’re pushing a yellow light). A properly-designed roundabout should focus the driver’s eyes on the actual roadway, and point them towards the pedestrian crossing. A properly-designed roundabout also slows motorist speed, which increases the chances that the driver will see a pedestrian and yield appropriately.

    The main pedestrian criticisms I have seen leveled at roundabouts are a) out of distance travel for pedestrians (one counter-argument: you make it up by not having to wait through red light cycles); b) it can be difficult for blind pedestrians to tell when and where to cross.

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  • el timito October 14, 2010 at 11:52 am

    @ Pete #3 – For you and anyone else unable to make it to the talk, you can watch the session via webcast here:

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  • KWW October 14, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Nice thoughts on traffic roundabouts (circles) and 4 way stops.

    It is funny, I have heard hundreds of people complain about roundabouts, but I have never seen an accident at one, and traffic jams are mitigated somewhat too.

    Integration of bicycles in a roundabout is a problem though, though I favor separate infrastructure for cars and bicycles to an extent.

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  • mello yello October 14, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Half of those deaths are dui related. How do you design around that?

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  • Chad October 14, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Our motor vehicles and bicycles are still operated by a human driver and as long as this is the case we will have people who need to make decisions when traveling. Those decisions: to stop, start, turn, etc can be facilitated by infrastructure design, however it would need competent drivers and cyclists to properly use (signage and facilities).

    In addition to rethinking design practices, a Zero Vision Traffic Philosophy would rethink training practices for drivers licensing.

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  • q`Tzal October 14, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Slow speed roundabouts, where the geometry of the approach and the circular road naturally enforce a speed below 15MPH, are quite comfortable for cyclists because they don’t need to stop (only yield). Cyclists can maintain a speed through the roundabout that allows them to easily merge over from curb hugging to lane taking and safely navigate the interchange.

    If anything roundabouts in the US lack familiarity. Without common exposure American drivers react randomly because they don’t understand the rules. As a side note: I have taken the written DMV exam in 7 different states. Not one had a test question regarding roundabouts, not one driving exam included one and only one DMV study guide even mentioned the existance of roundabouts.

    The computer, like the roundabout, is a great invention but without any familiarity it is easy to make a smoking mess of components with either.

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  • Owen October 14, 2010 at 1:05 pm


    Thanks for providing those numbers. For anyone else who is interested, the link URL works (just take the “4” off the end).

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  • spare_wheel October 14, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    “I’m also fairly certain that the vast majority of auto fatalities happen on the highway”

    probably not. see table 7.


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  • Whyat October 14, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    @El Biciclero- at a four way stop the vehicle that arrives first has the right of way. If two vehicles arrive simultaneously the vehicle on the right has the right of way.

    On a rotary the inside vehicles have the right of way. Vehicles approaching the rotary must yield to those inside cars.

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  • BURR October 14, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    that’s correct, at a four way stop you yield to the vehicle on your right, and in a rotary you yield to the vehicle on your left (at least, as long as circulation in the rotary is counterclockwise).

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  • A.K. October 14, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    I have ridden the roundabouts near Forest Grove many times without issues. Take the lane, pedal fast, and watch out for people entering from the “spokes” that may not be looking for cyclists.

    There is also a round-about at the Ikea in the Cascade Station shopping center. I’ve driven through there on the outside lane, and had idiots on the inside lane go “oh, I need to turn here” and just thrust across both lanes to make an exit without signaling. It’s truly a witness to the stupidity of the motoring public.

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  • Greg October 14, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    @9watts – “speed is obviously key, but that isn’t really a matter for engineers. ”

    Huh. What about the new lights timed on Couch to limit traffic speed? What about traffic calming devices?

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  • cyclist October 14, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    spare_wheel: There’s nothing in table 7 that indicates whether the fatalities occurred on highways or urban/rural roads. Urban and rural accidents could both be on highways and “Roadway departure” accidents could be as well. From the definition it looks like “Intersection” accidents are non-highway accidents, but those don’t make up anywhere near 50% of the total. Did you mean to point me to a different table or a different document?

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  • 9watts October 14, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Greg @ 22
    Fair enough. But we already have timed lights and traffic calming. What seems to be missing is the political will to simply clamp down on posted speeds, or enforce what is posted. We don’t really need engineers for that.

    Once we’ve agreed that speeds on our streets are too high for the safety of all citizens and that something should be done about that, then we can get input from the engineers–or perhaps not–I think the Brits’ turning off their traffic signals may be on to something.

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  • Red Five October 14, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Keep the roundabouts in Europe. Let’s focus on enforcing the laws we already have in place.

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  • BURR October 14, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    @ #21. painting lane markings and putting stop signs up in roundabouts defeats the whole purpose.

    PDOT simply doesn’t understand this, not at NE 39th and Glisan, not at Cascade Station, and not in Ladd’s Addition.

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  • Skid October 15, 2010 at 8:09 am

    Cars are much safer now than they ever were.

    It’s not speed, if it were than germany would be behind us in reducing traffic fatalities, there is no speed limit on the autobahn.

    It has much more to do with paying attention while driving. Most people take driving about as serious as sitting on their couch at home and watching TV.

    It also has to do with driver education, which is practically non-existant in the US. Also in a lot of EU countries an auto license is very expensive so many people start out on small motocycles as vulnerable road users. They learn from experience to pay more attention to the road and to take driving more serious because your life is much more on the line riding a motorcycle than it is in a tin box. You are probably more likely to look out for people on two wheels if you were once one of them.

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  • are October 15, 2010 at 8:45 am

    re comment 24, it should be possible to engineer a street so that a motorist as a practical matter _cannot_ drive faster than 20 mph.

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  • David Feldman October 15, 2010 at 9:36 am

    I remain a believer in more heavy-handed police control of motorist behavior. We need to experiment with separating MOTOR vehicle operation from the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. Police need vastly expanded powers of surveillance and enforcement. No humor or irony intended at all.

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  • Pete October 15, 2010 at 10:43 am

    (#12): Thanks El T!!

    Red Five (#25): what’s wrong with doing both?

    David (#29): This approach seems to work in Europe. Two examples here of illegal and dangerous but tolerated behavior I see daily are 1) not using turn signals, and 2) using hand-held mobile devices.

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  • lakefxdan October 15, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Good grief! Roundabouts are PROVEN SAFER.

    First, a traffic circle at a hospital parking lot is almost certainly not a roundabout. Modern roundabouts have certain design features that are intended to psychologically direct traffic. A parking lot needs none of these so depends on drivers’ own situational awareness.

    Second, roundabouts are safer because they reduce the points of conflict from 32 in a normal + intersection to just 8. 75% of the places a driver has to watch out are simply eliminated.

    Third, roundabouts are safer because they slow traffic down. There is no way to assume you’re on the main route, just hit the gas and zip through — you have to watch no matter what direction you’re coming from.

    Fourth, roundabouts are safer because they almost completely eliminate T-bone crashes. If there are accidents in a roundabout, they are at oblique angles and result in some bodywork, but probably don’t total a car and have much less chance of injuring passengers, let alone resulting in a fatality.

    There is a normal stoplight up the street from me, a two way vs. a one way. I’ve seen two accidents this year where one vehicle barreled into the other with such force that both were spun around. I can’t imagine a similar accident in a roundabout.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) October 15, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    I just updated the story with some numbers to clear up the confusion about Jacobsen’s “1 in 55” claim. Here you go:

    *Several people questioned Jacobsen’s “1 in 55” claim. I heard from PSU researcher Jennifer Dill who pointed out where he got the numbers… (I think the confusion comes from the fact that he’s referring to one in 55 Americans that died from all causes, not total number of Americans).

    • CDC National Vital Statistics Reports Volume 58, Number 19 May 20, 2010 (PDF here).
    • 2,423,712 total deaths from all causes (page 32)
    • 43,945 were motor vehicle accidents (page 35)
    • That’s 1.8%, which is one in 55.

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  • matt picio October 15, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    9watts (#1) – It *is* a matter for engineers, but I agree that engineering shouldn’t be the primary focus. Roads can be engineered to encourage lower speeds, by narrowing the road and through various road treatments. A big part of it becomes enforcement, and I highly doubt that compliance will be successfully obtained unless some means of confiscating the vehicle is implemented. Until there are real-world repercussions that remove access to driving, compliance will remain low due to the perceived notion that driving is the only viable option for transportation.

    Agreed with Scott (#7) the statistics support about 1 in 100 Americans dying in a car crash (about 2.8 million if you presume a 75 year lifespan: +/- 10% if you go with a lifespan between 70 and 80).

    El Biciclero (#10) – Exactly. Someone recently posted a link (was it you?) in another bp.org story to a discussion on how yielding to traffic on the left would make much more sense. (Especially since that traffic is closer to the driver, and more frequently masked by terrain / obstructions)

    mello yello (#14) – Design your streets for cyclists and pedestrians, and then confiscate and sell the cars drunk drivers use.

    I have a question for the lawyers who frequent this list: If a person accidentally discharges a firearm, and are convicted of negligent homicide, or some other charge (misdemeanor or felony), what happens to the firearm? If it is not returned to the defendent after sentence is served (and in a felony case, it’s not legal for them to own one afterwards anyway), then why can’t we do that with cars in cases of DUI or Driving While Suspended?

    spare_wheel (#18) – Depends on your definition of “highway”. The state and the feds define “highway” as any public roadway, as opposed to a “Driveway”.

    BURR (#26) – That’s an unsupported contention. PBOT might understand that perfectly but be unable to implement it due to any number of reasons. That doesn’t change the fact that roundabout implementation in Portland is “broken”, but you’re ascribing a lack of skill or knowledge that you haven’t proven is present.

    Skid (#27) – Correlation does not equal causation. The Autobahn is a much different type of road, and if we measure speeds on the Autobahn against limited access highways, then we can make some judgements as to whether speed is a factor on those roads. The majority of traffic deaths in the US are on “regular highways” of 2-5 lanes, and speed is a factor on those roads – in a similar density environment in Europe, speeds tend to be lower due to narrower, “curvier” roads.

    David Feldman (#29) – “Police” are abusing the system as it stands already. If we’re going to expand powers of surveillance, then there has to be no restriction on who can use it in public, i.e. If I’m on the street with my iPhone, I have every right to shoot video of the arrest going on across the street, as long as I am not physically interfering with the officers making that arrest. There should be NO additional powers without a system of accountability. Right now, there is not a sufficient system of protection for the average citizen against abuses of the system intended to protect her or him.

    Practical consequences, like impounding / removing the vehicle in question for certain violations, would serve as a great deterrent, but that’s a subject few people seem to want to talk about.

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  • matt picio October 15, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Jonathan (#32) – So, currently 1 in 55 Americans that die each year do so as a result of a motorized vehicle. (and by extension, roughly 1 in 100 Americans will eventually die – which means that the problem seems to be getting worse)

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  • BURR October 15, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    @ Matt #33: Well, if PBOT understands how to correctly build, stripe and sign roundabouts, but they still aren’t doing it appropriately, that’s an even worse indictment of their activities than if you or I say they just don’t get it.

    The same thing goes for striping bike lanes to the right of right turning traffic or in the door zone.

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  • Kt October 15, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Roundabouts are great.

    But most people going through roundabouts forget one major thing:


    There’s a great roundabout on Borland Rd straddling Stafford. I go through it pretty much daily as part of my commute to Tualatin-ish. It’s easier to go through that intersection now that it’s a roundabout than it was as a blinking red/yellow.

    Roundabouts force drivers to actually pay attention to road conditions.

    Whyat: it’s not whoever gets to the 4-way first, that’s a major misconception. The law states that at a 4-way intersection, you should always yield to the vehicle to the right of you.

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  • Kt October 15, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Re: The autobahn:

    There actually are speed limits on the autobahn. There are also sections where there are no speed limits for certain time periods.

    The polizei also enforce, heavily, the law about slower traffic staying right unless to pass. That means you don’t get drivers hanging out in the left lane (i.e. passing lane) going 2 over the speed limit. Which actually makes it safer.

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  • El Biciclero October 15, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Re: Re: The autobahn:

    Just like when we were all kids: greater demonstrated ability to be responsible allows for greater freedom. Here in the U.S., we want the freedom without the responsibility. If U.S. drivers (and cyclists, for that matter) were half as knowledgeable and proficient as German drivers, we’d have all kinds of options open to us–but alas. Reminds me of the “appropriate age” labels on the boxes of kids’ toys I see at the boutique toy store: “EUR 4 US 7”. Duhhhhhhh…

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  • Seager October 15, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    The issue I have with roundabouts is that when a car is leaving a roundabout and there is a pedestrian crossing the spoke that the car wants to leave on in a crosswalk. The car needs to yield, but the cars behind that car aren’t looking at the spoke (right) they are looking forward in the roundabout for hazards (left). They won’t expect the car to stop in the roundabout so the pedestrian can cross the spoke.

    The actual car leaving is also often looking left when turning right. This puts the pedestrian in danger.

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  • BURR October 15, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    the pedestrian crossings associated with the French roundabouts I’m familiar with are set back from the circle on the approach roads.

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  • Eileen October 15, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    I have had very different experiences travelling than all of you describe here. I would say american drivers are FAR safer than drivers in other parts of the world. Sure, I love to play the “well, you know how they do things in Europe…” game too, especially when it comes to healthcare and family leave policies, but driving? No way. I never went to Germany, but Italy, Spain France and pretty much anywhere south of here, the driving is outrageous. Thank god for the trains in Europe.

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  • jim October 16, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    I can’t help when I here “roundabout” thinking of the movie “Europian Vacation”, Chevy Chase is driving around the inside lane for hrs. and can’t get out.
    I think what I would like to see is much tougher driver license exams. Make it harder to get a license. Any idiot can get a license to drive, I don’t think that is such a good idea. It is a privelege not a right. Get rid of the idiots on the road and you make it a much safer place to be.

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