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The Power of Prevention and Innovation in Transportation Safety

Alexandra Rojas Lopera, director of The Fondo de Prevencion Vial

My schedule for this year’s Transportation Research Board Annual Conference was a bit different than last year. Instead of going to  high-profile, big name sessions, I wanted to see how less obvious and more diffuse initiatives were changing transportation policy and improving lives.

Greig Craft started the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation in 1999 as a way to reduce road crash fatalities and injuries in Asia and Africa. Both continents have a huge segment of their populations riding motorcycles, bicycles, and other motorized non-automobile vehicles. There’s also an epidemic of not wearing helmets in these parts of the world based on social norms and misinformation.

Craft, with the The Global Helmet Vaccine Initiative, redesigned helmets so they would fit children better and be cooler in tropical climates.  Profits go back into the community for marketing and road safety education. The program is spreading worldwide, with a UN Resolution calling for a 50 percent reduction in road traffic fatalities by 2020 and signed by more than 90 countries.

 The Fondo de Prevencion Vial, directed by Alexandra Rojas Lopera,  is an outreach and enforcement campaign in Columbia to get roadway users to obey traffic laws. Unlike most countries where the majority of traffic accidents take place in rural and suburban areas, Columbia sees a disproportionate share of traffic accidents in cities due to lax enforcement and a culture of reckless driving and pedestrian behavior. Research has shown that positive marketing campaigns are more effective than fear-mongering. Instead of talking down to the public, the campaign encourages them to be smart, responsible, and avoid excuses for reckless behavior.

Because the number of injuries and fatalities prevented due to these programs is difficult to measure, prevention efforts and the people behind them don’t usually get the recognition they deserve.  As discussed in the book, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Taleb, if someone led the charge to allow firearms in cockpits before 9/11, nobody would write a history book about this person preventing the U.S. terrorist attacks. There is no way we would have known this policy was directly responsible for preventing hijackings. Their name would be a footnote in the infinite encyclopedia of history.

Likewise, these traffic safety efforts are attempting to change dangerous habits deeply rooted in culture. It’s not enough to just provide helmets or tell people to drive safely.  In Roger’s “Diffusion of Innovation”, the spread of products and new ideas has to be culturally sensitive, reach the right opinion leaders, and have a critical mass to become wide spread enough to make a difference:

Within the rate of adoption there is a point at which an innovation reaches critical mass. This is a point in time within the adoption curve that enough individuals have adopted an innovation in order that the continued adoption of the innovation is self-sustaining. In describing how an innovation reaches critical mass, Rogers outlines several strategies in order to help an innovation reach this stage. These strategies are: have an innovation adopted by a highly respected individual within a social network, creating an instinctive desire for a specific innovation. Inject an innovation into a group of individuals who would readily use an innovation, and provide positive reactions and benefits for early adopters of an innovation.

The hope is to turn authority led innovation into collective innovation decisions. Seeing all of your friends wear a helmet is a more powerful message than seeing a poster telling you to wear one.  Getting positive information out to the public in the right way, to the right people, and in the right format is just as important as building new infrastructure when it comes to public health and safety.

Lessons From The Transportation Research Board

At TRB‘s annual meeting in DC, I usually try to avoid pure engineering workshops. Sessions like, “New Innovations in Hot Mix Asphalt”, or “Regression models for Synchro” just don’t get my blood moving. The planning/engineering-lite workshops I do find are really good, though. At a context-sensitive design presentation, I was lucky to see John N. LaPlante speak. As the Chief Transportation Planner at T.Y Lin International, I was expecting road-widening rationals, travel demand models and a boring run down of ITE guidelines. Instead, it was like this guy has been reading my blog for the past few months and gave a stinging indictment of unimaginative, auto-oriented roadway designs.  A few notable points he made:

  • Designing for anything “better” than Level of Service D in urban areas is a waste of time and money.
  • Travel time savings of 3 minutes is not reason enough to design roads like airport runways.
  • Vehicle miles traveled has hit a plateau. 1% background growth for x out years is unrealistic and will result in gridlock projections for every model.  Don’t let models dictate design.
  • Tighten curb radii, even if it means trucks have to turn from the outer lanes.
  • On/off ramps connecting freeways to urban areas should not be designed like interstate ramps. Design speeds should drop dramatically to force drivers to slow down.
  • 10′ lane widths should be standard for roads with speed limits under 45mph – anything over 11′ is a waste of money and a danger to pedestrians.
  • Medians, trees, and on-street parking are our friends and serve as natural traffic calming.  Removing on-street parking, even just during peak hours, has deleterious impacts on nearby businesses.
  • Urban arterials (like MLK Jr. Blvd), which typically have the most traffic of any urban street, should not be designed to maximize capacity and speed. Because people live, work, walk and bike on these streets, the same complete street principles should apply.
  • There is nothing in AASHTO and ITE guidelines which prevents these, or other complete street designs from being included in projects. We are only limited by our imagination.

In another session about urban circulators, the Charm City Circulator was used as a case study for downtown shuttle systems. It compared favorably to smaller systems in Austin and Philly which have less reliable funding (grants, MVR, etc), shorter operating hours, or routes which do not serve major tourist attractions. When compared to other cities, I think Baltimore and DC have the best downtown circulator systems in the country right now.