On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, conversations with two people about the ongoing surge in highway speeds that began with the pandemic in early 2020 and the resulting rise in crash deaths.
First, author and columnist Helaine Olen talks about observations in her Washington Post column this week about the spike in reckless driving and traffic fatalities. Also discussed is the decline in seat belt use during the pandemic.
Olen writes that in the United States, “we’ve long failed to take road safety as seriously as we should. The results are predictably tragic: The United States leads the developed world in traffic-related deaths, with more than double the rate of any other country.”
She also talks about why her column underscores the need to use the word "crash" instead of "accident," as discussed previously on the podcast.
Later, Pamela Fischer, senior director of external engagement at the Washington D.C.-based Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), offers her organization’s perspective on the problem and how automated traffic enforcement could stem the tide. She and a colleague penned an Op-Ed earlier this year that touched on the topic.
A bill introduced in the Michigan Legislature in August would allow speeding enforcement by camera in communities where leaders have expressed concerns about excessive speeds.
Some other relevant links:
Research on automated enforcement by the National Conference of State Legislatures:
GHSA data on speed and red light cameras nationally:
GHSA Releases Independent Recommendations to Advance Equity in Traffic Safety Programs:
Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.
Cranson: This week, we'll be talking again about traffic safety and the ongoing rise in speeds and crash deaths on the roads in Michigan and across the country, really. This began with the pandemic and hasn't really subsided as some people thought it would. First, I’ll be speaking with Helaine Olen, who is a freelance journalist who writes columns for the Washington Post, among other publications, had a very thought-provoking column this week talking about the crash epidemic and what's going on with it. And she has some interesting observations to share. And then I’ll be back after that with Pam Shadel Fischer, who is the director of external engagement at the Governor's Highway Safety Association in Washington D.C., and she'll talk about the perspective from the national association that advocates for safety. And she'll also talk about automated enforcement and what role that could play in reducing the crashes.
So, once again, I’m here with Helaine Olen. Olen is a contributor to Washington Post Opinions and the author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry. Her work has also appeared in Slate, The Nation, The New York Times, The Atlantic and many other publications. But I was most interested because of a column that The Post carried just this past week about traffic deaths and crash rates that are up and began soaring at the beginning of the pandemic. And many law enforcement officials thought, optimistically, that once the pandemic waned and people returned to the roads that those crashes and the speeds and all the things that were causing them would also wane, and that hasn't been the case. So, Helaine, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us.
Helaine Olen: Thank you for having me on.
Cranson: So, let's talk about what prompted you—you know, this isn't your area of expertise, so what prompted you to write this column?
Olen: A couple of different things prompted me to write this column. First, you know, observation, this is obviously a real issue. I think unfortunately, like a lot of us, this is something I, you know, have a personal interest in. I think we all know people who have been in very serious accidents. In my case, the younger brother of one of my son's closest friends was killed several years ago when a taxi plowed into him and his dad when they were walking in a crosswalk. And it was just, you know, obviously a horrific, horrific event. And that started me, you know, now that it was in our lives, it started me thinking about what was going on here because there began to be a lot of—where I was living in New York at the time, you began to see a lot of action around this. This is the year before Bill de Blasio announces Vision Zero in New York because the pedestrian, you know, fatality rate in these car crashes was creeping up after several years of improvement, and the question was why. And this has sort of been the situation now, you know, for several years. It ticks down a little bit then it ticks back up, and the pandemic resulted in a huge surge upward once again.
Cranson: Yeah, I always say that if we had, you know, just one plane crash with 100 people there's all kinds of coverage and concern and outrage and discussion. And we basically have 380 plane crashes of 100 people, the equivalent, in car crash deaths every year, and why do we accept that?
Olen: You can't see me, but I’m nodding my head. I totally agree. I have this running joke that you shouldn't be afraid to get on an airline, you should be afraid to get in the car. But it's true, we take it totally for granted. And there's a couple of reasons we take it totally for granted. First, of course, we're all in cars almost every single day. And even if we're not in cars every single day, if you live in, say, New York or Washington where you can live without a car, you're still dealing with cars every day, right? So, if you were walking around as petrified of them as some people are of airlines you actually couldn't have a life. I mean, that's the United States. So, that's the first point, right? You get used to it and it becomes a routine thing. But also, something, you know, that is really interesting to me, and I really only very recently discovered, was that the whole idea that people say car accidents is not something that, like, we just came up with. When cars first became a major part of American life, which really is in the immediate aftermath of World War I, the early 1920s so a hundred years ago now, there were a lot of car accidents. And I just used the word myself, right? There were a lot of car crashes, and a lot of fatalities and people were getting increasingly angry. And the reason they were getting angry was because there weren't very many rules of the road. There was no emphasis on safety, and nobody was taking this very seriously. So, the auto industry, afraid of a giant crackdown, actually began promoting the term accident to refer to these car crashes and these collisions between cars and people and cars and other cars because they didn't want people to think, “Oh, humans are at fault for this, or the design of the car is at fault for this.” They wanted people to think this was somehow just something that happened sometimes, and that it was something, you know, that we would all have to live with. And we've kind of bought into that mentality ever since.
Cranson: Well, and some things I’ve read on this it goes back even before the auto industry that it was just industry in general and, you know, the kinds of industrial accidents that were called accidents when people lost limbs in machines and things before we had—
Olen: Right, right, and they borrowed the term. Right. I should have said that. Thank you.
Olen: Exactly, that's my understanding as well. They borrowed, essentially, the auto industry borrowed this term, and the way we have workplace “accidents,” quote, unquote, we have auto accidents now. And we all use the term. I mean, you might notice even I who am quite aware of it slipped a second ago and used it, right? It's just something we all grew up with. It's something that's around us, and it's a way we think about it. But we shouldn't think about it that way because in most cases these are not accidents in any meaningful way. This is something we could do a lot about, and we could do a lot about it in a lot of different ways ranging from auto design to enforcement of traffic rules to actually encouraging people not to drive.
Cranson: Yeah, I try not to be too obnoxious about it, but I find myself correcting, you know, family and friends when they use the word. And I know it gets to be annoying, but I do think we at the Michigan DOT and some others feel like vigilance just about that word alone can make a huge difference, you know, in how people think and how you shape the language, so—
Olen: Language is important. When you stop using the word accident and you say think something like crash or, you know, driver inattention or driver carelessness or speed or drunk driving, you make a big difference. That was actually one of the great insights of the Mothers Against Drug Driving campaign, right? They didn't say these were car accidents. They said they were drunk driving, and people began to take that a lot more seriously. They still don't take it as seriously as they should, but I will say from the vantage point of middle age, we do take that more seriously than we did 30 years ago.
Cranson: That's a good point about MADD. So, I will say in terms of evolution in the auto industry, I’ve spent quite a bit of time the past few years with some of our major automakers working in the automated vehicle area. And the things that they're doing and the passion that those engineers have to try to make this technology work, you know, out of a pure realization that, yes, the computer is a better driver than you are. It doesn't have all of the emotions. It doesn't fall asleep. It doesn't, you know, do all the things that humans do that cause crashes. And the sooner we get there, even with the incremental changes like lane assist and auto braking, you know, a rear camera. I mean, all those things are adding up to make a difference, which makes it even more confounding that the more we do to make our vehicles safer and try to make them safer, the more ways we find to distract ourselves. I kind of equate it, you know, to the arms race. We build better protections, better radar systems, better armament, and then we build better bombs, you know. It just seems like it never ends.
Olen: It's really incredible. I live for the day for fully, you know, automated driving, though my husband does not agree with me about this. But I completely agree because I think every improvement seems to have its own downside. Anti-lock brakes ended up people just drove more recklessly, right? I remember that one as a famous example at one point. I don't know if that's still true. You can tell me. But it's true, I mean, the thing is people do get distracted. And the fact of the matter is when cars and trucks are finally fully automated, you know, you looking at a text coming in isn't going to cause an accident, which is what happens right now.
Cranson: That's right. Anti-brakes have been a tremendous success, but early on I think there were learning curve issues because we were all taught, those of us especially who lived in cold weather states, you know, pump your brakes.
Cranson: And when you have anti-lock brakes, you don't pump your brakes. You just keep the foot on the pedal, you know, and they do the pumping for you. But let's talk—you touched on that anger in those early days, and how does anger factor into this now? I mean, what we're seeing on the roads, and we have since the pandemic, you know, part of it was, you talked about this in your column, certainly streets were empty, and people felt like, “I can drive as fast as I want. There are no cars in my way. There's no congestion slowing me down.” But it continued with this kind of, like you said, anything goes. I mean, we found that seat belt compliance went way down, which, you know, after years of federal and state officials doing everything they can to get seat belt compliance in the 95% range. It fell off during the pandemic, still is, I think. And there's just kind of this attitude of anger. Even Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, she's on one of the podcasts I like to listen to called Hacks on Tap, and she's talking about how she sees it not just in her focus groups, but she sees it on the road herself. She sees that the way people are interacting toward each other like we've lost our sense of community and how to be you know courteous to each other.
Olen: Right, I’ve written a bunch about this in different ways. I think this is something that gets a little difficult to talk about, but when the economy shut down to combat the pandemic in March of 2020, nobody had a discussion about what the impacts were going to be on everybody else, right? We just said, “Oh, we're going to protect people's lives.” And because nobody had ever done anything like this before, I think we have this idea that, like, lockdowns are a common thing, but they're not, okay? We've never done this in a modern society before and certainly not at this length. So, what quickly happened was all sorts of societal rules kind of went by the wayside. I mean, people began drinking a lot more. People began acting recklessly on the roads. And part of it was, as you pointed out, yes, the roads were empty. If you went on them at that time, most of us didn't, but if you did it was an extraordinary thing. You'll probably never see this again, right? That encouraged this kind of wild, manic driving. And I think people just began, as it came back, and this is just my theory, people are very angry. They're very isolated. They're very frightened. People are not meant to live in isolation the way we've been living in isolation. I think people, in the way you have road rage, just started taking it out on the road, and you began to just see really bad driving behavior persist, and it continues to persist. I’m in southern California right now, you know, and I’ve talked about this with other people. You can literally, you know, be driving on PCH in southern Orange County and see people going 70 miles an hour. PCH, for all of you people in Michigan, is the coast highway that goes all the way through the state. And in places like Orange County, it does have stretches where you can go faster, but it's pretty much a commercial road. It's not something where, like, you're on a highway. You are on a road where cars are parking, pedestrians start out to cross to go to the beach, you name it. I mean, this is a major road going through many cities. Nobody should be going 70 miles an hour on this road, yet you see it pretty constantly at this point. Again, I just think it's this kind of lack of inhibition that once people were isolated, you know, these just kind of societal rules around us just sort of fell apart. I don't know what else to say, actually.
Cranson: I agree. I think that I have the same theory, and I’ve been having the same thoughts. But tell me this, you talk about, you know, land of the auto in southern California where you live, but you lived in New York City. And New York City has done some interesting things with, you know, speed enforcement using cameras and, you know, technology. What do you think about that?
Olen: I think it's great. I think they should do a lot more of it because New York City was one of the cities very badly impacted last year and this year as well. In fact, one of the examples of my piece is that while the state had given permission in some cases for, you know, cameras at certain red lights near schools, there was a lack of enforcement around that. So, there was a horrific accident—a horrific crash last year in Fort Greene where a driver who was drag racing I think, certainly in some kind of racing, drives up a street the wrong direction, crashes into another car that crashes into a couple and their nanny walking across the street with a baby and the baby dies. As it turns out, this car had about 160 tickets for violations that had been caught on camera, okay? This guy was still on the road on the day the baby was killed, okay? Nobody was enforcing anything or much of anything, so that's a huge part of it too. It needs to be taken seriously. So, cameras are not enough, enforcement of what you're seeing on the cameras will make a difference, and not just fines but actually yanking people's licenses if they can't obey the law.
Cranson: Yeah, I think you're going to start seeing more aggressive discussion about that in state legislatures, and maybe more states will be going in that direction. In the states that do have some enabling now, at least allowing, you know, local communities to do some kind of automated enforcement may put more teeth into it.
Olen: I would hope so. I think one of the things that always stops it, and it's really a mindset that needs to change, is that a lot of us when these, you know, crashes and these horrible events happen there's almost there but for the grace of God feeling we got. And I don't mean for the victim; I mean for the driver. In fact, we shouldn't feel that way. I mean, most of these crashes are out and out negligence of some sort. I mean, nobody should be speeding late like that. Nobody should be racing on a street. Nobody should be checking their texts while they're driving. That's negligence.
Cranson: Yeah, I guess that comes down to a discussion about rights versus privileges.
Cranson: And that's probably for another podcast. So, thanks, Helaine, for taking time to illuminate further some of the things and concepts that you brought up in your column. Again, it was very thought provoking, and I know I was very appreciative of it, and I appreciate you taking time to talk.
Olen: Oh, thank you for having me on.
Cranson: And we will continue the conversation in just a moment with Pam Shadel Fisher of the Governor's Highway Safety Association. Please stay tuned.
Narrator: The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you that when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, person or other object, it is a crash, not an accident. By reducing human error, we can prevent crashes and rebuild Michigan roads safely.
Cranson: So, once again, I'm back with Pam Shadel Fisher who is the senior director of external engagement at the Governor's Highway Safety Association. Pam is an advocate for all things traffic safety, something she's very passionate about. I especially want to talk with her about, you know, automated enforcement and what they've found in their research about that. But first, let's talk, Pam, about an op-ed that you co-authored with one of your colleagues back in April that talked about this very much in terms of the pandemic and America’s ongoing road safety epidemic.
Pam Shadel Fisher: Yeah, I mean, we have a vaccine for what's happening out there on the roads. We all have it, and it's really thinking about, you know, those behaviors that we may be engaging in and making a change. If you don't regularly put your seatbelt on, start putting it on. And the more often you do it, the more it becomes a habit, you know. Slow down and recognize that, you know, there are lots of folks out there on the road besides you. And even when there weren't during the pandemic, things can happen very quickly, and high rates of speed can put you at tremendous risk. If you crash, the forces on your body are so significant that there's a very good chance you won't survive. If you're planning to go out and you want to have a drink, or a few, or you're taking a drug that may be impairing, or you're even enjoying cannabis if you're in a state where you can smoke, you know, marijuana legally, you know, recognize that we don't want you to get behind the wheel, so designate a driver, use an alternate form of transportation. There are so many things that we can do, you know, to really protect ourselves and to protect other folks that are out there on the road. I mean, I think that's the other thing that folks have to realize is that I often hear people say to me, “Well, you know, what's the big deal? I’m driving my own car. I’m not bothering anybody. I’m in my own private space.” But driving a vehicle is one of the most public things we do. We share the road with everybody else, so the choices we make, the decisions we make to do or not to do something that is essentially risky, is putting everybody out there in in a precarious situation as well. So, our message here is that, you know, we have to take action. This is simply unacceptable, so we need technology. We need law enforcement, equitable law enforcement. We know high visibility enforcement works. We need to do the things that are going to make a difference to get people to recognize that this is a serious problem, and that people are dying and dying unnecessarily.
Cranson: Well, before we get to enforcement, do you have a personal theory on why at the same time, you know, we were faced with a pandemic, and I kind of get that the roads, you know, were less trafficked, less congestion and people felt like they were wide open and that leads to speeding, obviously, but what's with the lack of seatbelt compliance? And I don't even know in a modern car how you cannot buckle your seatbelt without all kinds of alarms driving you crazy.
Fisher: Yeah, that's a good point. We really, you know, we've thought a lot about this because I think all of us working in traffic safety thought when the pandemic hit and the order was put out of, “Please stay home,” you know, “Hunker in place,” if you will, that we would see a significant drop in fatalities because people wouldn't be out there driving, right? The exposure was less, but what we found is that it appears that the people who were still out there and driving were probably less risk adverse, so, you know, more willing to take risks, more willing to say, “Oh, I can drive faster because there are fewer cars on the road. I’ll be fine. I’m a safe driver. I can handle this.” There were probably people in those cases when they do that that are less likely to buckle up. And we have to remember that despite the fact that we have almost a 90% seat belt usage rate in this country, we still have 10% of the driving population that is not putting their seat belt on. And when you look at fatalities, that's almost 50% of fatalities are unbelted vehicle occupants. So, we have people that are engaging in risky behaviors. They're likely less risk adverse because they didn't stay home, and they went out. Now some of those folks could have been also essential workers. They had to get out. They had to get to work, but there were other people who just simply said, “I’m going to drive. I’m fine. I’ll be okay,” and again, engaging in those behaviors was very problematic. I think the other thing that's important to note is that we have definitely seen, and we saw it during the pandemic, and there's still a lot of concern about this is the increased use of alcohol and drugs to help people get through what has been a very, very stressful time. The national drug czar for the United States raised the alarm some time ago. The mental health organizations are raising the alarm. People are stressed, so they're medicating. They're having a drink, you know, and they're using this to really get through this. Then there is that potential for them to get behind the wheel, and we have seen an uptick in impaired driving. So, again, you know, we've got those issues coupled with people maybe being less risk adverse. And it's really created a perfect storm, and as we can see from the fatality numbers, we are paying for it.
Cranson: Yeah, we talk a lot, and I know nobody thinks about this more than you and your colleagues that, you know, how crazy we go as a society, and certainly in media, you know, when there's a plane crash, yet we accept nearly 40,000 deaths in vehicles on the road every year. We just take it for granted for some reason, and I know it probably makes you crazy thinking about what messages work.
Fisher: It does make me crazy. I mean, there's been so much research done on how to message to the public about lots of different issues. We need folks to understand that the choices we make matter. We need to reach people, you know, that way. We need to talk about there are folks at home that want you to come back. That person that's crossing the street and you're speeding, that person could be your mother, your grandmother, your sister, or brother. So, we need to humanize this, and we've taken that approach to really get folks to understand the impacts. We also talk a lot about, you know, having the power. As we said before, we have a vaccine against traffic crashes and it's us, you know, make better choices. Also, I think the other piece of it is to really focus on some positive messaging. We know that's been effective when you talk about, you know, most people don't do necessarily risky things, most people don't, you know, refrain from wearing their seatbelt. And people want to belong so taking that, you know, positive messaging to create that what is that social norm, if you will, can be very powerful as well. But, you know, it's not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to how we address this problem. So, how we message, you know, is going to be dependent upon the individual, their gender, their race, ethnicity, a whole bunch of things. So, we have to really think about, you know, what we need to do to reach the public and get them to respond in a very positive way.
Cranson: So, something I’ve seen written about more recently popping up in some of these stories about the crashdemic is automated enforcement. There are some bills in the Michigan legislature now. It comes up now and again and then it never seems to get much traction. Different states have different laws, but what's your high-level perspective on automated enforcement and the difference it could make in the crashes?
Fisher: Yeah, it's an effective tool. It really can make roads safer. And there has been a lot of research that has found that, you know, whether it's a speed camera or a red-light camera, they can reduce violations and injury crashes, especially when you're thinking about, you know, the more violent front into side crashes that are often associated with red light running, right? For speed cameras, they definitely get people to slow down. They have helped reduce crashes and injuries and fatalities. And I think, you know, we need to understand that the research clearly shows that they work, but the technology is certainly not without its detractors. And some of that is really kind of the industry's fault, and I’ve had many conversations. I’ve actually done research on a program that I was involved with here in New Jersey where I’m based, and we've said very clearly to the industry folks, the providers of this technology, how you communicate, you know, about this technology, what it is, its purpose is important because what people often hear is not about how it's reducing crashes, it's cutting down on violations. What they're hearing is it generates a lot of revenue. And the intention of this is to change behavior so that over time fewer and fewer citations are issued. I mean, it's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy that you want the technology to work so that it essentially stops, you know, catching violators and tickets aren't issued. And I always say in this business that's what we all want. We all want to put ourselves out of the traffic safety business because everybody's doing what they're supposed to do, and there are no crashes and no injuries and fatalities. So, that is the goal of automated enforcement to improve the behavior and to change the behavior so that essentially people are doing the right thing and they're not violating. So, the challenge has been that they have been often looked at as revenue generators and not looked at as what they really are, which is safety cameras. And they're there to really augment traditional enforcement and to deter, you know, the things that are putting folks at risk. So, we like the program a lot. GHSA is very supportive, my organization. Personally, I was involved in a red-light running situation, and I appreciate what the technology is designed to do.
Cranson: So, what would you say to those detractors who do think that this is just a chance for, you know, municipalities to put more money in their coffers? Because that is one of the criticisms that comes up quite often.
Fisher: Oh yeah, absolutely it is. I think what we have to look at is number one, you know, if they're going to argue about the technology, the first thing I always say is, “Well, if you don't want a citation then don't speed, you know, at excessive speed or don't run red light,” right?
Fisher: But the other thing is I think we are very clear, and we have a checklist that we put together in partnership with AAA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and some other groups that talks about, you know, what should this program look like. I mean, it should be data driven. The technology should be used in areas where there is a problem, whether it's a speeding problem a red-light problem, and other things have been tried, and they have not necessarily been able to reduce the problem significantly. So, if you're talking about speeding cameras, you need to look at, you know, making sure the speed limit is appropriate and accounts for all the road users. And we encourage the folks who are looking at speed limits to follow the guidance and tools from FHWA and the National Association of City Transportation Officials and there's some other groups. And then you want to make sure the speed limit—if you're putting these cameras, they're often being used in work zones and school zones—is appropriate for those kinds of conditions, assess whether you can make engineering changes to promote compliance with speed things like, you know, traffic calming devices, roundabouts, if it's straight stretches of roadways, narrowing lanes. You can do those kinds of things, and also making sure that you're posting the speed limit, that it's adequately posted so people are aware. So, there's things you can do. It’s the same thing with red light running, you know, make sure the yellow timing phase of the light conforms with federal guidance. There are steps to be taken, so you do those things and you put those engineering counter measures in place. But if it's still not giving you what you need, this is another tool that can be used and used very, very effectively. And the other piece of this is that the program itself should be done in conjunction with the community so they know how it works. They need to understand it and understand why the data, you know, says we have a problem, what it says. Also, you should be reporting regularly on the impact of the program. And that money that you generate from it, that revenues should go back into safety. That's really, really important. So, show the public that this isn't a money grab. This is about addressing a problem, and we're putting, you know, the money from the violators back in to help continue to make improvements that can make a difference and save lives.
Cranson: Yeah, well said, and I think that has to be part of the legislation. That's really good, and I really appreciate it, Pam, you taking the time today because I know how busy your day was, but this is an important conversation. And I’m sure that we'll talk more about it. So, thank you again. I really appreciate it.
Fisher: You're very, very welcome. For folks who are interested, they can find the checklist. It's just basically called automated enforcement program checklist. You can find it on the GHSA website at www.GHSA.org. And if you go under our issues section, there is a section on speeding, and you'll find a link for the checklist there. So, I encourage folks to take a look at it and leverage it to really help move the needle and get both that support of the public and the elected officials and the media. It can make a big difference.
Cranson: Yeah, good point.
Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe to show notes and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.