Death By Design
What road safety can teach us about individual and government response to the pandemic.
The most frustrating ongoing part of the pandemic to me has been the disconnect between the official restrictions put in place by governments to attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus and the signals the gaps in those restrictions send to the public. (We'll put aside for a moment the complete disconnect politicians seem to have about the restrictions they espouse for travel and the vacations they seem to have no problem taking.)
This disconnect mirrors one I have seen frequently as an advocate for safer roads and reduced dependence on automobile travel. I want to use this post to explain briefly what lessons road design can teach us about public safety during a pandemic.
How often do you exceed the posted speed limit on a highway when there’s no traffic? Probably very frequently. That’s not to say you’re a reckless driver. But if you ever do stay under the limit when traffic is moving, it probably feels like you’re crawling. The reason it feels that way is because in most cases the design of the road is giving you unconscious information about how fast it is safe to drive and that information is frequently unrelated to, even at odds with, the posted speed limit.
A highway on flat ground with minimal turns and physical separation from oncoming traffic tells you it is safe to go fast. You might feel comfortable doing 110 km/h or 120. But the posted speed limit is 100 km/h. Or the posted speed limit near a residential subdivision is 50 km/h, but the road is four lanes wide with no parked cars and you have a hard time keeping the car under 70 km/h. The environment and the posted regulations are telling you different things.
There are good reasons to keep speed down. The faster you are driving, the greater the damage to life and property if you are involved in a collision. Many cities have lowered speed limits in recent years, but road design outside of urban cores, and even sometimes in downtowns, is often not adjusted to steer our behaviour towards slower speeds.
This disconnect between the rules and the environment is also present in our response to the pandemic. Politicians and public health officials tell us one thing, but what we see when we’re out in the world gives its own feedback about what is safe.
At the beginning of the pandemic public health restrictions and public behaviour were mostly aligned. Non-essential businesses were closed and large gatherings were banned, and in response travel and interactions with others were at a minimum because they didn’t feel safe.
But as restrictions on business operation began and group gatherings began to ease, the official regulations started to diverge from the signals people were getting from the world around them. And there were enough gradations along the way that it became hard to keep track.
You could visit in groups of certain size, businesses were open for some things but not others. You couldn’t be inside restaurants. Then you could in limited number. With one part of your brain you’re trying to keep track of what’s allowed and what’s not. Meanwhile the other part of your brain is paying attention to what’s happening around you: People are sitting in groups again, traffic is bad again, restaurants are serving people, you’re getting promotional emails telling you you can see movies!
With today's announcement of a new state of emergency and a supposed “stay-at-home” order by the Premier of Ontario this dissonance has reached absurd levels. You must stay home but can still meet in groups of up to five people. Don't leave your house unless it's for essential needs, but "non-essential" retail can stay open.
The effort to blame the spread of the virus on carless individuals mirrors the road safety world too. Campaigns tend to single out reckless or drunk drivers and safety campaigns with bloodless slogans like “please drive carefully” or "share the road" without meaningful resources to change the driving environment.
Meanwhile more than 40,000 people died on the roads in Canada and the US LAST YEAR ALONE. Because while signs and slogans try to get us to make safe choices, road design screams “It’s okay to go fast.”
So what are the key takeaways from this analogy?
The first is that the greatest influence on individual behaviour is what people around you are doing, not what signs or rules tell you to do. People who see other people speeding tend to speed. People who see others shopping or visiting with friends will tend to think it's okay to shop or visit with friends. The lack of a cohesive message or environment of caution leaves people to decide for themselves.
Another is that in both road design and covid safety, there are any number of actions governments can take to make things safer. Governments and engineers can narrow roads; they can add changes in the terrain (like speed humps). And more broadly they can build communities that make it safe and convenient for people to live their lives without having to drive as much.
Politicians could similarly invest in things that would make our communities more covid-resiliant, such as paid time off so people don't feel compelled to work when they might be sick , and providing subsidies to businesses that choose to close so their long-term survival isn't at risk. People can only make choices based on the options that are available to them.
And finally, the other morbid takeaway that we must acknowledge...something you come to understand after working in the field of road design...is that too many people in charge are prepared to accept a certain number deaths in the service of other priorities. Road design that is based on the idea that drivers still need to be able to travel at speed is accepting that a given number of people will die because of those speeds. Similarly, accepting that we have to allow private business to operate and generate income is a fairly explicit acceptance that people will get sick, and some of them will die as a result of the government's choices.
With every choice our political leaders make, be it the government budget, transportation policy, or with their response to a hundred-year pandemic, they are telling you whose lives matter and who is disposable.