Today is World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. It breaks my heart that there even is such a day, but that is what cars have done to this world. While car crashes are a leading cause of death in the United States among people aged 1-54, it is not just a U.S. problem. According to the CDC, 1.35 million people are killed every year on roads around the world. That amounts to 3,700 people killed every day. More than half of those killed are pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cyclists. In the United States, the leading cause of death for children and adolescents is car crashes.

And yet we think nothing about getting into a car everyday, more than once a day. We think of cars as safe. We think we are safe and careful drivers. We think cars and car culture are not the problem. We blame the pedestrian who stepped off the curb without looking, the motorcyclist not wearing a helmet, the bicyclist wearing dark clothes at sunset. Or, if we do blame the driver, they were drunk, or texting, and that is no us.

But it is us. Every time we get in a car we shut ourselves off from the world. We limit our field of vision and we can no longer hear what is going on around us. We drive too fast. We get frustrated and impatient and angry and do stupid things. We go through intersections when there are people in the crosswalk or cyclists (and cars) still passing through. We don’t want to wait at the red light so slam down the gas to race through the yellow/red light. We expect to see only cars on the road so we fail to see motorcycles, bikes, scooters, skateboarders, pedestrians, children, animals, and if we do see them they sure as hell better get out of our way because roads are for cars dammit! 

2020 saw a surge in fatal car crashes. The theory is that with less traffic people were driving faster. The faster you drive, the more likely a crash is to be fatal. I’m not sure that works out as a good reason though because 2021 is set to be even worse.

According to a weekly newsletter I get from the city of Minneapolis, as of November 16, 443 people have died in traffic crashes across Minnesota, including 16 on streets in Minneapolis. The irony is Minneapolis has a Vision Zero Plan, and has been lowering speed limits—20 mph on residential streets and 25 mph on city streets (very few people actually comply)—and installing traffic calming measures all around town. Yet, of the three potential re-designs for a major, high traffic street only one of them is truly pedestrian friendly and includes protected bike lanes and a dedicated bus lane. I had a thing or two to say during the public comment period, and to my city council member. Minneapolis, and a good many other cities like it, have vision zero goals but continue to prioritize cars. As long as cars are a priority, vision zero will fail.

James and I own a car and I am 100% against cars. I want streets and cities and transportation to be redesigned in such a way to make personal car ownership obsolete, or so onerous that most people will find not having a personal car more convenient than having one. I know not everyone can bike to work like I can. But everyone should be able to take a fast bus, rail, or trolley ride to where they need to go at an affordable price. It takes James about 20 minutes to drive across town to work, a bus ride would take over an hour and at lest one transfer. That needs to be fixed! 

I am in a car so infrequently these days, about once every two weeks to go grocery shopping with James, that when I get in one it is extremely stressful and I breathe a sigh of relief when we make it safely to our destination. Cycling on busy city streets is also extremely stressful and I have almost been hit by inattentive or aggressive drivers a number of times, not to mention yelled at just for daring to ride on the road. In spite of that, I feel safer on my bike than in a car. Across the entire state on Minnesota, of the 411 traffic fatalities through October 2021, only 9 were bicyclists. The odds are in my favor. Plus, I am pretty sure I will never kill anyone with my bike.

My dream is to not need to own a car at all. I really want to bike to our food co-op for groceries. It’s about a 7-mile trip one-way. But because we only go every two weeks and sometimes come home with 30-pound bags of flour—something that does not fit in a backpack or pannier—we have not even tried to work out the logistics. I’d love a cargo bike, but we have no garage and already have four bikes in the house (three of them mine—road bike, gravel/commute bike, winter commute bike) I have no idea where we’d store a huge cargo bike. Which makes me think about possibly getting a bike trailer because they sort of fold up and I could probably make room for it in the garden shed.

Roads were not originally designed for cars, they were made for cyclists. But times have changed and cities and suburbs and our lives have been designed to require a car. Cars have ruined our cities and our lives. Along with killing over a million people a year, they pollute the air we breathe, and on average emit 4.6 metric tons of CO2 every year. Want to make your city a better place to live? Start advocating against cars and for other forms of transportation.

There is a new book out that I am waiting my turn for at the library called Confessions of a Recovering Engineer by Charles Marohn. If you’d like to get a taste of what the book is about, you can read the essay of the same title that led to the book.

You can also learn a lot about cars and transportation from the podcast The War on Cars. The podcasters are bike advocates in New York City, but their shows are about more than cycling in New York.

And if you are looking for a fantastic documentary, I recommend Motherload. It’s about cargo bikes and focuses on a mother who gave up her car for a cargo bike. It turns out there are a good many parents doing the same. Their stories are inspiring and infuriating—they are yelled at by people driving cars for putting their children in danger!

James and I often wonder why cars are allowed so much torque they can go from zero to 60 mph in three seconds, and why they are designed to drive at speeds over 100 mph. I see people everyday driving alone in gigantic trucks and SUVs on city streets. Why? As a cyclist, I find these are the most aggressive drivers too—they, more than other drivers, yell at me, pass too close, gun their motors at me as they race past, cut me off at intersections, and they tend to generally find my presence on the road to be offensive. But it’s proven that when roads are made safer for cyclists, they are safer for everyone.

So as we remember road traffic victims, let’s also remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. People don’t have to die in car crashes. The solution is not seatbelts or air bags, protected bike lanes or helmets. The solution is better city and road design that de-prioritizes and limits cars while prioritizing other forms of transportation.

8 thoughts on “World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims

  1. I hear what you are saying Stefanie and I think there is a lot of merit in your ideas for action. We should have fewer cars on the road, and we should certainly have more efficient public transport. James’ experience is ours here – 15-20 mins to drive into the cinema, for example, but depending on the time of day, an hour or, worse, not available at all, if we use public transport.

    Affording efficient public transport however is difficult in small/medium-sized communities it seems. Also, making public transport easy to use for frail people or people with disabilities is difficult. My MIL used to get a bus from her Retirement Village to go shopping, until her eyesight and frailty made that impossible, so she was driven. My mum’s arthritis was so bad that climbing onto a bus was impossible for her, and, how would she get to the bus-stop for a start? She could drive an automatic car though and park in a Disabled spot which was near her destination. All these problems and more are possibly solvable with better public transport, and improved infrastructure, but they don’t come cheaply. We could probably do the cost-benefit analysis – at least in big communities – and prove it’s a benefit but such change is not going to happen overnight. What do we do? I would love more vision on all this. We would love a fast train between our city and Sydney – something that took an hour or so (it’s 300 kms) rather than the current 4 – but it just can’t seem to get up though has been mooted for a few decades now. We would absolutely use it. The problem is that Australia is such a vast country with low population density.

    Small things are happening here, in my small city, including share electric scooters for getting around the inner city area. I think they are going well. I’d happily use one of those.

    But then, there’s my embarrassing selfish reason. I love doing road trips out into the country! We have a hybrid car and yearn for a small electric one. But I know that’s not the answer you are looking for.

    So, I love your vision, and can certainly see improvements that can be made in reducing cars, etc, but living in a community (the ACT) with a lot of clean-energy will and action (including in our leadership), I can see the challenges.

  2. Wow, I didn’t know this day existed, or that the number of deaths was so huge. Imagine if we didn’t have cars on the roads right now, and someone invented them and said, “Well, they’ll kill 1.35 million people a year, but we’ll get around so much faster.” I think we’d say “Er, no thanks.” But cars are now so much a part of our lives that it’s tough to unhook from them.

    I’ve visited quite a few European cities where they’ve done a good job of redesigning their cities and roads, though. Places like Copenhagen, and pretty much every Dutch city, but also quite a few in other places like France and Germany. They have fast roads for cars around the edge, but as you get closer to the centre, bikes and public transport take over, along with huge areas for pedestrians, and as a car driver, you definitely feel you’re the lowest priority, which is as it should be in my opinion. It’s great to see huge boulevards that would have been three lanes of traffic in each direction now given over to trams, bike lanes and pedestrians, with only one lane in one direction for cars (or often no lanes at all). Add fast train connections to the surrounding suburbs and to other cities, and you’ve got a good formula for living car-free. Places like the US and UK are so far behind on this, but it can definitely be done.

  3. I love your wheel lights. I don’t even drive, in the west of Scotland we had such great public transport there was no need to, I tended to walk to most places anyway. It’s different in the east though, where we are now it’s more rural. Jack drives but often it’s only used to get to the supermarket every fortnight or so. I would ban all 4x4s (SUVs) which are killing the environment as well as people. Ideally I’d be happier if there was only one type of car, just something to get from A to B and if they were all the same there would be no chance of getting flattened by something much heavier and more powerful than the car you are driving. I can’t see that ever happening though. A certain type of man needs that ego boost – and I cleaned that up!

  4. This was such a good read. So sad that there is a day for this (I had no idea) but I think here in Austin there have been more traffic deaths/accidents this year compared to last. My husband is an avid cyclist and we are down to one car again. I wish we wouldn’t have to rely on it but we just don’t have the infrastructure here. So different from other cities around the world.

  5. I live in London which has excellent public transport, which I use most of the time, but even so, I still need a car for visiting the supermarket, or visiting friends/places which are not on a convenient route, or late at night when I would feel less safe. I think the problem will be solved when we have autocars – self-driving cars which we call when needed. This would eliminate driver error, and the need to own a car, with the attendant parking problems. I have read that on average only 2% of cars are being driven at any one time – the rest are parked, which particularly in older cities is a huge land-use problem.

  6. I like those bike lights on your winter bike!

    I think Melanie is on to something about people just being more aggressive in general – look at airline violence, gee whiz. Every day, over something, I shake my head and think, what the hell is wrong with people? I try to drive carefully but I know it would be preferable to not have to drive so damn much. Why can’t we invest in more public transport? We *could* but we’re *not.* So what’s so great about cars? Like everything else, I guess it’s about the “individualism.”

  7. I feel like the driving has also gotten more aggressive in 2020 and 2021, but I attributed it to people feeling more hostile in general thanks to the political division we see/saw during and post-Trump. What are the “traffic calming measures” you mentioned?

  8. Having traveled in Europe, I do wonder why we can’t have good public transportation in this country like they do–especially trains. As a handicapped person who lives in a rural area, though, I don’t see any choice for getting around except by car.

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