Comment of the Week: Does Vision Zero require gravel freeways?

speed of light

A freeway outside Delft, Netherlands.
(Photo: Edwin van Buuringen)

The most important concept in American streets advocacy right now seems to suggest that all rapid car travel should be abolished.

That’s the perspective of BikePortland reader Tait, who argued semi-satirically this week that if preventing one person’s death is truly more important than fulfilling everyone else’s desires, maybe we should cut freeway speeds to 35 mph, or even lower.

In a comment beneath our post Tuesday about some Oregon legislators’ effort to raise cars’ freeway speed limit from 65 to 75 mph, Tait had this to say:

Commuters aren’t the only road users. For a 600mi drive down to California or 400mi drive to Ontario, an extra 10mph cuts an hour or more off the driving time, which is significant. (And would be also, to commercial freight and shipping, if it applied to them.)

There is a tradeoff, so just saying “always choose the lower speed” isn’t a feasible answer. Why not make the interstate limit 45? 35? At 35 mph, most car accidents at least are nonlethal, and survivability for non-car crashes is significantly better than even 45, much less anything higher. At 25, we’d even have survivability for a significant fraction of car-to-non-car accidents. I mean, when lives are at stake, what right has anyone to complain about their Tualatin to downtown Portland commute taking 1.5hrs? I’m exaggerating for effect, but as a serious question, what rate of fatality is acceptable?

I think the focus on fatality is actually slightly misplaced. It’s a secondary factor, but the primary concern should be accident rate, not accident lethality. And the effect on accident rates of a 65 to 75mph limit change is fairly small. If we could get the accident rate down, then the increased lethality might be more than offset, resulting in overall fewer lives lost.

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Tait isn’t questioning the urgency of reducing traffic fatalities. But this week’s still-rolling discussion of freeway speed limits tests the outer edges of the policy campaign that Oregon Walks and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance launched on Monday.

Vision Zero’s believers, like New York City’s Paul Steely White, say Vision Zero works as a political campaign because it’s easy to understand. But I’ve never yet had a conversation with someone outside the streets advocacy world who finds the concept easy to accept. Is that because they haven’t awakened to its merits? Or is it because, deep down, they don’t actually share the values it’s built on?

Yes, we pay for good comments. We’ll be mailing a $5 bill to Tait in thanks for this great one. Watch your email!

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invisiblebikes
invisiblebikes
7 years ago

What I am finding is that many politicians are clinging to false data showing that collisions and fatalities are trending down. They are using data that shows these trends but they are omitting many other factors attributing to the falling trends (i.e. technological advancements in safety, less new cars on the road, getting rid of old cars, etc)

I think the fact that Volvo officially announcing they are working towards Zero Fatalities in a Volvo car by 2020 speaks volumes of what the auto industry is doing to make driving safer (at least for motorists)
But along with Volvo, Jaguar and Subaru have added pedestrian safety as well as cyclist safety to their plan for VisionZero.

It’s very apparent that VisionZero is catching on and we need to stick to our guns and keep pushing… that means traffic calming designs should include freeway designs and speeds.

9watts
9watts
7 years ago
Reply to  invisiblebikes

“clinging to false data showing that collisions and fatalities are trending down.”
Really? What time period are we talking about here? My understanding is that those numbers have been going down for decades, though with some (smaller) upward trends in the numbers of those outside of cars getting mauled in the recent past.

Fatalities per 100million VMT:
http://media.caranddriver.com/images/media/520570/safety-in-numbers-graph-2-photo-521183-s-original.jpg

-per 100,000 people:
http://www.nwinjurylawcenter.com/wp-content/uploads/us-motor-vehicle-deaths.png

-total:
http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1223699!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/article-gundeaths-1219.jpg

ted
ted
7 years ago
Reply to  9watts

If interested, there is a breakdown of fatalities by functional class per 100 million VMT here:

http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/2013cpr/chap4.htm#7

9watts
9watts
7 years ago
Reply to  invisiblebikes

“Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths rose faster than the overall rate — 6.4 and 6.5 percent, respectively. Last year, 4,743 people were killed while walking and 726 while biking. This is a long-term trend: Walking and biking are becoming more dangerous relative to driving.”

http://usa.streetsblog.org/2013/11/14/its-official-33561-people-killed-in-traffic-on-american-streets-last-year/

Cheif
Cheif
7 years ago

Yes saving lives is worth it. Limit freeway speeds to 35 tops, 25 is fine. If you have to travel across the country faster than that take the train or an airplane.

invisiblebikes
invisiblebikes
7 years ago
Reply to  Cheif

I absolutely agree that not one life is worth giving up for faster more convenient transportation, but I don’t think putting an arbitrary speed limit on freeways is the answer.
I think the best way to make sure we end fatalities and collisions in general would be to find exactly where the breaking point is where safety starts to separate from convenience. Then work from there and find a safe freeway speed.

Also Air Travel is one of the most polluting forms of transportation there is, so taking away long distance auto trips and replacing them with air travel will be much worse environmentally and I hate to say it. That much of an increase in air travel would most certainly decrease their safety record and security…and increase crashes.

Peter R
7 years ago
Reply to  Cheif

Thanks for that unrealistic approach. You’ve obviously never moved 3,000 miles for a job and had to move all your crap with you and be there by a certain time.
If you had, you’d realize that’s an absurd comment you’re making.

9watts
9watts
7 years ago
Reply to  Peter R

“You’ve obviously never moved 3,000 miles for a job and had to move all your crap with you and be there by a certain time. If you had, you’d realize that’s an absurd comment you’re making.”

Don’t you think if we really did institute that kind of speed limit employers not to mention job seekers would take that into account when making plans? Most of the crazy-sounding speculations floated here would obviously not work tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t or won’t come about at some future point. People in 1942 (when speed limits on US highways were dropped to 35mph) applied for jobs and moved across the country as they did in years when the speed limit was higher or lower; it just took a little longer.

Spiffy
7 years ago
Reply to  Peter R

and there’s the problem… people think their saved time is worth more than other people’s lives…

J_R
J_R
7 years ago

If you want to reduce motorist-related fatalities the number one way is to end drunk driving. Who’s with me on amending the Oregon Constitution to allow random sobriety stops like they have in civilized countries around the globe?

paikiala
paikiala
7 years ago
Reply to  J_R

I’m in.

jeg
jeg
7 years ago

A 10 mile per hour increase in speed will statistically lead to more deaths. We should focus on fatality, not crash rate. If someone dies, that’s the end. At slower speeds, injuries are survivable.

I believe the push in this person’s comment about focusing on crash rate as opposed to fatality rate is disingenuous– It’s an attempt to derail vision zero as a concept.

Your convenience is never worth a life. Keep Oregon at its current speeds; I would argue for slower, but that would probably be counterproductive.

It doesn’t matter if cars have gotten safer, another point I see being driven home. Speed still kills. Show me a Volvo that has no fatalities, then I’ll listen to you about passengers. But other vehicles? Lower income people in poor vehicles? Pedestrians.

The importance is fatality rate– period. Accident rate should always be weighed with fatalities. Slower speeds mean less death.

HJ
HJ
7 years ago
Reply to  jeg

I disagree. Crash rate is far more important. A certain % will always be fatal, regardless of speed. My dad was killed this winter when a semi ran over him getting started out of a red light. Speed = not a factor.
A blind focus purely on fatality rate ignores cases that could be far worse. Every one of us in my family is thankful that we didn’t end up with the horror of my dad surviving the crash but being a vegetable. That would be far worse.
Focus on crash rate 1st, fatality rate 2nd. Personally I’m far more concerned about a distracted driver at ANY speed than one that’s paying attention but going a bit too fast.

Caleb
Caleb
7 years ago
Reply to  HJ

I don’t believe jeg’s words suggested any “blind focus purely on fatality rate”. Focusing on fatality rate requires focusing on all fatalities, thus even those in which speed played not a pivotal factor. I think that’s what jeg meant by saying, “accident rate should always be weighed with fatalities.”

paikiala
paikiala
7 years ago
Reply to  jeg

People also seem to be lumping all streets together. A freeway is a different animal than a Barbur, a 122nd, a Burnside or an Ankeny. They serve different purposes and have different kinds of users.
Roadways without pedestrians or cyclists that physically prevent opposing streams of autos from interacting should operate safely at 50 mph or more, depending on geometry and roadside design.

9watts
9watts
7 years ago
Reply to  paikiala

“Roadways without pedestrians or cyclists that physically prevent opposing streams of autos from interacting should operate safely at 50 mph or more”

Sure. But I think for this whole discussion it would be good to keep in mind that safety and energy waste are two sides of this ‘let’s all drive faster on freeways’ coin. While the implications for both of these aren’t great, there are differences. So just because someone may be able to argue that driving ten miles per hour faster on the interstate shouldn’t correspond to an increase in death and injuries on those roads doesn’t mean there aren’t other repercussions that do suggest this is a bad idea. Not to mention all the secondary and tertiary effects to consider…

paikiala
paikiala
7 years ago
Reply to  9watts

Agreed. Most information I’ve seen indicates the most efficient speed for autos is in the 50-60 mph range. Higher speeds are for convenience only.

9watts
9watts
7 years ago
Reply to  paikiala

40-45mph. Anything above that is wishful thinking or attempted flattery.

9watts
9watts
7 years ago
Reply to  paikiala

Thanks for those links. Some excellent; others not so much. I appreciate that there is a range, and that in exceptional cases it may be more fuel efficient to drive >45mph, but I’ve not yet seen this argued for a specific vehicle or specific driving cycle I remain suspicious that the upper end of the range serves to let folks off the hook, reassure them that the way they already drive (=the posted speed limit) is the most efficient, when in the majority of cases this won’t be true.

But if anyone knows of a specific vehicle that has been tested and found to use the least fuel when driven at 60mph I’m all ears. I love learning new things.

Caleb
Caleb
7 years ago
Reply to  paikiala

Since all the users are human beings, the differences among them are not vast, though their vehicles and loads contain more vast differences. I only point that out to remind us how much we rely on our roads for survival even though a (presumed) majority of their use provides other things. We’re a society largely blind to our transportation addiction and its costs.

Spiffy
7 years ago
Reply to  paikiala

“Roadways without pedestrians or cyclists”

do we have any of those in Oregon?

paikiala
paikiala
7 years ago
Reply to  Spiffy

I-5, I-84 usually.

Dwaine Dibbly
Dwaine Dibbly
7 years ago

Get rid of the speed limits on limited access highways (where you don’t have bikes or pedestrians) and let Darwin sort it out. The increased fuel consumption will help to drive prices up, too.

adp
adp
7 years ago

If saving lives is most important, then you must favor laws forcing cyclists to wear helmets, safety clothing, and use lights 24/7.

paikiala
paikiala
7 years ago
Reply to  adp

The logic appears plausible. This would include headlights and tail lights and pedestrians carrying lights at night (which most smart phones have built in now),

Caleb
Caleb
7 years ago
Reply to  adp

I disagree. Even if my highest objective is to save lives, it is far from the only one. Minimizing the burden on pedestrians and other vulnerable road users is high on my list, too. Then there is avoiding any culture akin to victim blaming; after all, people still carry out violence in unreasonable reaction to their victims’ behavior. And somewhere in that mix is encouraging a more careful culture among those wielding the most vehicular power to kill. I wholly support anyone’s decision to wear safety clothing and use lights, but refuse to demand anyone make any such decisions.

Spiffy
7 years ago
Reply to  adp

“If saving lives is most important, then you must favor laws forcing cyclists to wear helmets, safety clothing, and use lights 24/7.”

sure, if I’m traveling faster than a person can run, so over 28 mph or so… I’ve never biked that fast…

otherwise we need to have pedestrians also wear helmets, reflective clothes, and carry lights…

spencer
spencer
7 years ago

Our society cannot continue to prioritize unsafe and negligent behavior at the expense of our citizens’ lives. I drive quickly when the road allows. How many of our drivers have actually learned when it is appropriate to drive quickly? I’d venture that < 10% of the American populace has that capacity.
Hypothetically, so we can drive fast now, how do I drive fast when the person in front of me in the left lane has their cruise control set at 67 mph?
The state has bigger transportation problems to solve than just how fast rural residents can drive. Those that drive fast use a radar detector.

Eric
Eric
7 years ago
Reply to  spencer

Follow 10ft behind until you can pass, then race to the next opportunity to test brakes and luck.

rain waters
rain waters
7 years ago

Funny how Im always in a hurry when I’m driving my car. It’s 21 years old with well under 150k miles. Speed kills so I’ve always viewed it as an evil mistake I’m responsible for till it dies a rusty death in ’34 or so. I put far more miles on bikes and my life is blessed because of it. Eventually anyone with a functional brain and heart comes to realize that anything much over 15mph is detrimental any way it’s looked at. I know that sounds insane to most even here on a bike site, but hold that thought till your last breath and reconsider.

Suburban
Suburban
7 years ago

Human life has never been more important than convenience, speed, and profit. What has changed to make it trump “guaranteed-on-time”? I agree with rain waters that zero-vision is generally considered insane, and it is clear that most road users vote with their right foot.

Tait
Tait
7 years ago

My argument distills down to one point, I guess: there is a need for convenient (timely, all-hours) high-speed and/or long-distance transportation. Whether that’s 55mph or something else is debatable, but it’s not 25mph. We don’t have public transportation infrastructure that fills this need, especially along the I-5 corridor, so cars are it. If the answer to the high-speed transportation need is “we don’t need high-speed transportation” then I am definitely not on-board with that vision.

I don’t think high-speed transit and zero fatalities are mutually exclusive, but short of autonomous cars, our progress toward that goal has been a walk, not a run. There’s a lot more we can do.

There was an April Fool’s article about extending MAX out to central Oregon and Bend. I was disappointed, not only that it was a joke, but that such an idea is seen as so obviously a joke to so many.

9watts
9watts
7 years ago
Reply to  Tait

“If the answer to the high-speed transportation need is ‘we don’t need high-speed transportation’ then I am definitely not on-board with that vision.”

Who decides that we are entitled to high speed anything? And who’s to define high speed? What if someone else thinks that 200 mph is the kind of speed we deserve? What if the desire for high speed long distance transportation undermines lots of other things we (may) hold dear? What if the MAX line to Bend you mentioned were built, but ended up torpedoing the intent of all the land use laws we’ve tried to craft over the past forty years, by turning Central Oregon into a suburb of Portland? Connecting distant places up by means of convenient or fast or cheap rail may be a long standing dream, but it doesn’t come without social costs, land use costs, environmental costs. Sometimes we need to leave well enough alone, accept limits, know when to stop.

Eric
Eric
7 years ago
Reply to  9watts

Go by trebuchet.

rick
rick
7 years ago

I want lower speed limits on numerous roads in Oregon.

Stretchy
Stretchy
7 years ago

Is a bicycle safer to ride at 10mph than 15mph? How about 7mph? What about pedestrian safety? Should we pass a law that all bicycles must be walked in any bicycle-pedestrian mixed use zone like the Hawthorne bridge?

I know bicycle-pedestrian accident fatalities are exceedingly rare but, even one death is too many.

HJ
HJ
7 years ago

Having recently lost my father to an accident while he was out riding my focus is far less concerned with speed (the vehicle involved was probably going about jogging speed) and far more concerned with distraction levels. I don’t think raising the speed limit to 75 on the interstate in the middle of nowhere is a big deal, in fact as someone who has to drive I5 now and then I actually support it.
What I DO think is a big deal is cracking down on the space cadets operating 2000+ lb. killing machines. IMHO vehicles should be equipped with a device that won’t let the car start unless the texting and call ability of the driver’s cell is deactivated while the vehicle is moving.
Also I think they need to make the drivers’ exam a lot tougher. It seems pretty clear to me from the absolutely horrific driving behaviors on the road anymore that people have no real concept of the rules of the road. I mean whatever happened to getting it drilled into peoples’ heads that you never ever cross a double yellow? I see this all the time in places where there’s no reason to do it.

Lester Burnham
Lester Burnham
7 years ago
Reply to  HJ

Germany. Licensing is expensive there and it really stings if you lose it. Plus why is Oregon so backwards when it comes to vehicle inspections?

paikiala
paikiala
7 years ago
Reply to  Lester Burnham

This is an example of the legal point of attack of Safe Systems/Vision Zero. Better laws that recognize the privilege and responsibility that operating a motor vehicle is. Some are Federal changes, and some are State-level. Driving is not a right.
Some ideas:
License exams every four years a driving license is renewed.
Boot the vehicle with expired tags.
Zero blood alcohol level to drive a car.
Registration fees to fund state-wide safety grants.
Fines based on a percentage of income.

Spiffy
7 years ago
Reply to  HJ

it’s legal to cross a double-yellow line…

HJ
HJ
7 years ago
Reply to  Spiffy

Only in very specific circumstances. To quote the OR driver’s manual “You may cross the center line in a no-passing zone only if the right
side of the road is blocked or if you are turning left into or from an alley,
driveway, intersection, or private road.”
I regularly see people crossing the center line (by feet, not inches) without any reason other than either 1. They have no idea how to properly control their vehicle, or 2. They do know how but don’t care enough to bother.
When I talk about crossing a double yellow I don’t mean making a turn or getting around an obstruction, I mean people passing me on a blind corner while I’m going the speed limit on Cornell or folks just drifting across it despite the lane being 100% ok to drive in.

paikiala
paikiala
7 years ago
Reply to  Spiffy

If turning left, not for passing.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin

What concerns me about raising the speed limit is that it will contribute to a general culture of speed that our society suffers from. Giving a green light to go faster – regardless of where and when – is just another sign that speed is good/valued/permissible. Going fast will then carry over to other roads where safe speeds are even more important.

Given how pervasive and dangerous our society’s culture of speed is, I hate to see any encouragement of it at all — especially from the state via a sanctioned law.

CarsAreFunToo
CarsAreFunToo
7 years ago

Characterizing going fast as this child-killing, nature-destroying, society-debasing, evil demon and it’s eradication as the great cure for the bulk of our transportation ills is akin to teetotalism. I mean, prohibition totally worked, right?

Many people have argued for getting rid of distracted driving and drunk driving and general jackass-ism through better education and so on and I think they’re totally right. Those are the real problems. And with better education and driving skills (track day courses for everyone!) people will understand when going fast is and isn’t appropriate. Goal Zero is dumb politically- and fear-driven policy that presents an unrealistic goal as achievable. The cost (and I don’t just mean monetary here) of achieving zero transportation related deaths would be so close to infinite let’s just call a spade a spade. It’s not the government’s job, and it shouldn’t be, to save every life, because it can’t do that. And let’s be real, life isn’t something that needs to be protected at all costs. It’s just not. You can’t save everyone. Government’s job is to make informed decisions about how realistic social goals can best be achieved given all the constraints. Nanny states only create societies of people that selfishly rely on someone else to take responsibility for their well-being. Teach kids that everyone will stop for them at an intersection and before you know it they’re taking it for granted and they get smoked.

I’m far from a libertarian and I’m not advocating that cars should be free to do whatever they want or anything like that. All I advocate for is that people think about problems a little bit more intelligently.

9watts
9watts
7 years ago
Reply to  CarsAreFunToo

“It’s not the government’s job, and it shouldn’t be, to save every life, because it can’t do that. And let’s be real, life isn’t something that needs to be protected at all costs. It’s just not.”

I think you’re missing that Sweden, to name just one obvious case, has made great strides—by pretty much any measure you’d care to deploy—in reducing death and serious injury on its roads by pursuing this very course. I think you’re arguing against a straw man. Let’s take a decent whack at this problem, like the Swedes have, and then see if we still think it is as foolish as you say it is.

paikiala
paikiala
7 years ago
Reply to  CarsAreFunToo

This thought process was discussed at the OATS conference. A Swedish engineer was asked if Zero road deaths was possible. He said probably not. But he added, zero in a week is a possible goal. Zero for a month is a possible goal. So why can’t zero for one year be possible? 2 years? 5 years?

Eric U
Eric U
7 years ago

Virginia has a 70 mph speed limit, and they have a reputation of prosecuting and jailing speeders that go 10mph over. So you rarely see people going over 80 there. I think it may reduce the range of speeds that people drive, which makes things safer. I could support a 75 mph speed limit if it was treated as a real limit instead of a soft limit like the usual practice

9watts
9watts
7 years ago
Reply to  Eric U

“I could support a 75 mph speed limit if it was treated as a real limit instead of a soft limit like the usual practice”

And what would be the logic behind that? If we want people not to exceed 75mph, then we should enforce the current limit (plus 10, apparently).