Walkable West Palm Beach

Short term growth or long term prosperity?

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StreetsBlog recently reported on the record setting pace for total Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in 2015, after a long period of declining/flat VMT during the current cycle of economic expansion. Nonetheless, per capita VMT is still down 6.6% from its peak, and we are driving about as much per capita as we were in 1997.  As you would expect, concurrently with this increase in VMT is an increase in traffic deaths as The Palm Beach Post reported this weekend  [story below].

Our goal should be to minimize VMT necessary to go about living our lives, not maximize it. Reduce the length and amount of trips necessary and this will go a long way towards creating an economy less dependent on cheap oil in order to function as well as reducing these tragic traffic deaths. I suspect much of this spike in VMT is the result of very low gas prices, especially relative to the rest of the world.

We’ve subsidized highway spending to the tune of over $600 billion since 1947, according to U.S. PIRG.
Source: U.S. PIRG

Source: U.S. PIRG

Is it any surprise VMT continues to increase, when policy and transportation subsidies continue to favor driving? Our policymakers shouldn’t gloat that record VMT is a sign of economic success.

It’s only a success if short term growth is valued over long term prosperity.

Palm Beach Post story  ————————————————————

What’s the reason for huge increase in traffic deaths nationwide?

Updated: 5:14 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21, 2015  |  Posted: 1:19 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015

By Matt Morgan – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Florida ranks near the top of a list that highlights a concerning trend in the first six months of 2015.

The nation has been a significant increase of fatal traffic crashes nationwide with the Sunshine State third in total number of fatal crashes and second in percentage increase, according to data estimates from the National Safety Council.

The reasons are largely economic, said Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics for NSC.

A strengthening economy and lower gas prices are an impetus for more drivers on the road, which in turn causes more fatal crashes. If the current pace slightly increases, the country could hit 40,000 fatal crashes for the first time since 2007. Through 2015’s first six months, it is 18,630.

“What we’re experiencing here is a rebound from the post-recession (statistics),” Kolosh said.

A 29 percent increase in Florida from last year — more than double the national average — represents a jump from 1,114 to 1,441 from the first six months of 2014.

Florida trails only Oregon (59 percent) in percentage increase and Texas (1,643) and California (1,566) for total deaths through six months. Florida is in third by a large margin — more than double No. 4 Georgia (657).

Nationally, there has been a 14 percent increase from 2014 and 12 percent increase from 2013. Thirty-five of 50 states have seen an increase from last year.

The numbers from 2008 through 2014 dropped into the 30,000s for the first time since 1961. The low point came in 2011 when the 35,303 death total was the lowest since 1950.

But a 30 percent decrease in gas prices from last year has resulted in a 3.4 percent increase in cumulative vehicle mileage through May, the NSC report says. The country is up to 1.54 trillion miles in the first half of 2015, an all-time record besting the previous mark from 2007, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Simply put, more drivers on the road usually leads to more fatal crashes, said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“When the economy is plugging along, there’s more driving and more driving means more exposure, more crashes,” he said.

A stronger economy can also make people more likely to do something unsafe like drive drunk, Rader said.

An unemployed person is not as willing to take any chances, Rader said. The person could carpool to the bar or not drink as much, but when life is good, people feel more confident, he said. About 7,000 people died in alcohol-involved vehicle crashes in 2013, he said.

Fatal crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is not calculated the same way, but still shows an increase of more than 12 percent in Florida.

Changes through history

Back when vehicles were a relatively new invention, roads and laws weren’t well established and cars had no safety features, the death rate was astronomically higher.

But now, with multiple airbags and other technology, a bad crash doesn’t always result in death.

“People are walking away from crashes today that would have killed them just 20 years ago,” Rader said.

In 1913, NSC recorded 4,200 traffic deaths. With only about 1.3 million vehicles on the road, that represented more than 33 deaths per 10,000 vehicles. A century later, that rate had dropped to only 1.4.

Through the years there have been other factors that brought the rates down including seat belts and related laws, more defined bans on drunk driving, raising the drinking age to 21 and restrictions on licenses for minors.

The peak for fatal crashes occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. From 1966 to 1973, there was more than 50,000 traffic fatalities each years — peaking at 56,278 in 1972.

Texting and driving has likely caused an increase, Kolosh said, but it’s harder to quantify because drivers have to admit that they were texting.

“It’s obviously extremely unsafe behavior,” he said.

The three other biggest risk factors for crashes are driving without a seat belt, drinking and driving and speeding, he said.

How to address the problem

Fatal crashes are clearly an increasing problem, but is there a way to combat the issue?

NSC recommends that drivers make sure all passengers wear seat belts, designate an alcohol-free driver on nights out, get enough sleep before driving, never use cell phones while driving and learn about the vehicle’s safety systems and how to use them.

Other tips include pre-planning the route, driving on less-travelled roads, avoiding rush hour whenever possible and staying calm at the wheel, said Michele Harris, a AAA spokeswoman specializing in traffic safety.

For law enforcement, Florida Highway Patrol participated in a “Safe 95” campaign this month to prevent fatal crashes. The Aug. 4-9 campaign brought law enforcement groups together to raise awareness and promote safe driving.

During the six days, there were no traffic fatalities on Interstate 95 in Florida.

The national effort by the International Association of Chiefs of Police aims to decrease fatal crashes by 15 percent in the United States, and they are planning more “Safe 95” weekends.

Government officials can also help by passing laws that increase safety and rejecting ideas like increasing speed limits, Rader said.

Drivers trading in their cars for newer models also helps because safety features have continued to evolve even in recent years.

“When people trade in an older car for a newer one, they’re getting a big safety benefit,” Rader said.


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