Another car accidenthappened on Rainier Avenue South yesterday. One of the crash victims was ejected from his seat and ended up on the street, and the other got trapped inside the crunched vehicle. Excessive speed was seen as a factor in the accident, which happened at 1:15 a.m. and caused a long and mind-numbing traffic jam the following morning.
Those who live close to or regularly cross Rainier Avenue will not be surprised to learn that speed is a suspect in this crash. What we all know is that, for reasons yet to be properly explained, cars adore racing up and down this corridor at all hours of the day. And this is not just an impression but a fact. Indeed, the city recently imposed a "road diet" in Columbia City to address this very real problem. (A road diet usually means increasing the space for other modes of transportation at the expense of cars.)
The purpose of this kind of traffic planning is to limit the feeling of freedom that drivers love so much, and with this restriction will come, it is hoped, a general reduction in speeds. Freedom and fast driving are correlated. But a road diet is a soft way to handle this hard problem. What would really make drivers lose their sense of freedom—a feeling that, apparently, not even the fear of death can check—is a fear of harsh public condemnation and punishment.
In the early days of the automobile, the public used to take care of this kind of problem directly. If a fast driver hit a pedestrian, for example, there was the real threat of him (and it was usually a him) being beaten by an angry mob. As the Vancouver, BC-based urban theorist Charles Montgomery writes in his important book Happy City:
In the beginning, private motorcars were feared and despised by the majority of urbanites. Their arrival was seen as an invasion that posed a threat to justice and order. Drivers who accidentally killed pedestrians were mobbed by angry crowds and convicted not of driving infractions, but of manslaughter. At first, all levels of society banded together to protect the shared street. Police, politicians, newspaper editors, and parents all fought to regulate automobile access, ban curbside parking, and, most of all, limit speeds to ten miles per hour.
This was true even for the urbanites of young Seattle, as Knute Berger pointed out in his 2013 post "Seattle drivers: Atrocious from the start." The fast drivers of Rainier Valley were so despised that area citizens threatened to shoot them.
It took an enormous amount of money and social engineering to transform the natural structure of these strong feelings into their very opposite: the belief that the pedestrian is wrong and the fast driver is right. This is the root of the nonsensical jaywalking laws that are still with us to this day. And this is why so much urban space is devoted to something that under sane circumstances would be limited in dense areas: freedom of car mobility.
Yes, researchers have found that urban areas are, when it comes to cars, actually much safer than rural areas; a person in a city and even a suburb is less likely to be injured or killed by an automobile than a person in the sticks. People in sparse places like Montana often have their lives cut short by the sheer freedom of a country road. But still, the situation in urban centers is unacceptable. Most of our accidents can be prevented with slower and fewer cars on the roads.
It will take more than road diets to reverse the current and absurd situation in this and other metro areas. Along with excessive punishments for fast driving, there needs to be a ban on automobile ads that deliberately mislead consumers. We need ads that show traffic jams like the one that clogged up 12th Avenue yesterday:
We also need car commercials that show the real dangers of speeding—something like the strong warnings we find on cigarette packages. Nothing will really change unless we match or surpass the scale of social engineering that was needed to transform public opinion about cars in the early part of the 20th century.