Hit the Brakes!

The human race was built for walking speed and running speed, not driving speed. Speed is indeed a problem causing countless accidents worldwide. Another problem is the number of motorists taking to the fast lane causing heavy traffic and clogging up our streets. Stephen J. Watkins examines the impacts of speed and heavy traffic, which not only cause accidents and damage health, but can lead to a social breakdown in communities. Clearly it’s time to kick the car habit…

In a collision between a car and a pedestrian at 60km/h the pedestrian has a 90% chance of being killed. Slow the car to 50km/h and the pedestrian fatality rate falls to 50%. Slow further to 30km/h and the pedestrian has a 90% prospect of survival. It would therefore save lives if drivers adopted a safer driving style and one that is slowed down to 30km/h when they leave the main road and enter side streets.

Most drivers start their journeys in a side street, make their way to the main road, travel there until close to their destination, and then enter the street system again. Few places are more than a kilometre from the main road. It follows that few journeys involve more than three kilometres in side streets. The difference between travelling three kilometres at 60km/h and travelling the same distance at 30km/h is three minutes. So we are killing our children for three minutes off our journeys.

This is a powerful argument for people voluntarily adopting this mode of driving and also for a universal speed limit of 30km/h, except on those roads where a higher speed limit is adopted. The message that we shouldn’t kill children to shorten our journeys by three minutes is one that most human beings would readily accept. Why then are cars regularly driven in side streets at more than 30km/h by large numbers of otherwise rational, polite and non-violent individuals?

Firstly, it is because the message has not been widely promoted. The 30km/h message and the three minutes message have been promoted in a half-hearted way and are rarely promulgated in official statements. Secondly, it is because we do not distinguish between streets and roads. A street is just another road made for cars and people who leave traffic jams to enter the street system often accelerate as they see an open road before them.

Slowing the Streets

We have to change this concept of speeding. We have to change it for road safety. We also have to change the number of cars on the road because of the impact it has on communities. Some years ago in San Francisco, US, Appleyard and Lintell studied the impact of street traffic on social networks1. They compared the number of neighbours that people acknowledged as social contacts in three streets that were very similar except that one was lightly trafficked, one moderately trafficked and one heavily trafficked. In the lightly trafficked street people had webs of social contacts extending along and across the street for some distance. In moderately trafficked streets the contacts extended along the street but not across it – so the network was halved. In heavily trafficked streets people had contacts only with their next-door neighbour (if that). This research has now been repeated in the UK – last year Joshua Hart obtained similar findings in Bristol (see Carbusters #36)2.

Does this matter? Social support is now recognised as one of the most important predictors of good health, probably through its effect on minimising the impact of stress. The Alameda County Study showed a fourfold difference in total mortality between the least and most socially networked groups3. Because this association got stronger rather than weaker over time, it was probably causal rather than an indirect effect of, say, sick people giving up social activity. So if cars in streets are damaging our social networks – literally causing us to have fewer friends – then they are probably killing more people that way than they are through crashes.

It isn’t just health either. Another finding of Hart’s work was that heavy traffic seriously reduced the areas of the street over which people felt any proprietary concern. The solution is to change the street into a place which people feel proud to maintain and a place that is designed for social interaction – filled with gardens and trees and areas to sit and talk and play. Cars can still be allowed, but the carriageway can become just the gap between the obstacles. Parking areas can still be marked out – in fact they can be placed across the carriageway so that they add to the obstacles. Such streets have been developed in Holland – they are called “woonerfen” or “living streets”. We need them everywhere. It is time to take back the gaps between our houses and make them safe for our children and part of our personal space. The car roams our streets like a dangerous but much-loved dog. It needs to be on a leash. It probably also needs to be rather less loved – but that’s another issue.

Stephen J. Watkins is Director of Public Health for Stockport and Chair, Transport and Health Study Group in the UK.

1 Appleyard, D., Lintell, M., The environmental quality of city streets: The residents’ viewpoint, American Institute of Planners Journal, 38, March 1972.

2 Hart J., Driven to Excess: Impacts of Motor Vehicle Traffic on Residential Quality of Life in Bristol, UK, MSc Transport Planning dissertation, UWE, April 2008.

3 Berkman L.F., Syme S.L., Social Networks, Host Resistance and Mortality: a Nine Year Follow Up of Alameda County Residents, Am J Epidemiol, 109:2, February 1979.

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One Comment

  1. Aaron
    Posted June 19, 2020 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    I strongly agree that speed causes enormous harm. Psychologically we aren’t built to have reaction times on the scale of 60km/h speeds (like a cheetah).
    On the other hand, in America the notion of traveling a couple of kilometers to a main road and staying on that arterial until nearly at one’s destination is an ideal rarely practiced. Many people (including my parents) find these ‘convenient shortcuts’ on side streets which allow them to avoid all the traffic from those OTHER drivers. This is called cut-through traffic and causes enormous harm. I’ve even seen people go two blocks on a side street to avoid a traffic signal. The only way to prevent this is with diverters which are enormously expensive. I wish there were better solutions

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