Other factors that contribute to crashes

Q: I appreciate your appeal to people to improve safe driving behaviors but the framing about human error implied that it is the sole reason for traffic fatalities. Was that your intention? If so, this doesn’t fit with what I am hearing from the NTSB, USDOT or WSDOT about the Safe System Approach. What about the responsibility of road designers and builders, vehicle manufacturers and emergency responders?

A: I’m certain this question was prompted by the comment I made a few weeks ago about how driver error is a factor in 94 percent of fatal crashes. Fatal crashes are rarely attributable to a single factor. The crash might be caused by driver error, but the outcome depends on multiple circumstances, including road design, safety features of the vehicle, and how quickly the ambulance shows up.

The goal of the Safe System Approach is to eliminate fatal and serious injury crashes. Note that it’s not to eliminate all crashes. Until humans become perfect decision-making machines (a more likely scenario is that the robots take over and we become their servants), even the best drivers will still sometimes make mistakes. But the consequence of our mistakes shouldn’t be death.

Maybe the Darwinist in you wants to argue that bad driving has natural consequences. I’d argue first that there’s nothing natural about driving (so if we’re building a human-designed system we have the obligation to consider the consequences), and second, that those consequences often happen to people other than the driver who makes the mistake.

We’ve spent decades trying to improve human driving behavior, and while we’ll keep trying to build better drivers through driver education and strategic enforcement of traffic laws, we must also plan for our inevitable failures. Washington has embraced the Safe System Approach to roadway safety, which addresses crash risks through five elements: safe road users, safe vehicles, safe vehicle speeds, safe roads and post-crash care.

This column, because it primarily responds to reader questions, focuses on road users and our shared understanding of how to be safe as we use our transportation system. But the rest of those elements are critical to protecting road users. Take, for example, the almost absolute certainty that at some point in the not-too-distant future, a driver is going to get distracted while trying to save a coffee from spilling.

When that driver swerves off the roadway, will bike lanes and sidewalks have adequate separation to protect vulnerable road users? Will the shoulder have rumble strips to alert the driver, or will the roadway immediately drop away into a ditch? Will the speed limit be appropriate for the environment to minimize injury? If the driver ends up crashing into an object, will the vehicle have safety features that absorb the impact and protect the occupants? And if the driver is injured, how soon will emergency responders arrive?

As individual road users, we play a critical role in traffic safety, but so do the people who design, build, and maintain roads; the innovators developing safe vehicle technology; the officers enforcing speed limits; and the emergency medical responders who provide care. The U.S. Department of Transportation states, “Safety is an ethical imperative of the designers and owners of the transportation system.” As a shared public system, that imperative is for all of us.

Doug Dahl writes the weekly column The Wise Drive for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.