Traffic violence is top of mind again in the St. Louis region due to horrific crashes killing and crippling people inside and outside of cars. 17-year-old Janae Edmondson visiting from Tennessee for a volleyball tournament was maimed downtown in a crash caused by a driver without a driver’s license and in violation of his bond terms. Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and her office’s incompetence is rightfully receiving scrutiny and derision from many. Still, if she resigns tomorrow or is recalled in the near future, the carnage will continue. Her failure is but one tumbler in the slot machine of dangerous conditions that leads to traffic death and injury.
The above crash maps are from East-West Gateway’s Connected2045 plan. All these deaths and injuries were before Kim Gardner became Circuit Attorney and obviously were not all within the 22nd Judicial Circuit. They estimated that the comprehensive cost to the St. Louis region of crashes in 2016 was $11 billion. That’s about $4,000 per person. That’s a hefty driving tax on our region’s economy and people. For comparison, the region’s GDP was $151B in 2016.
Lately, things have been getting worse in the region-
St. Charles County saw a 44% increase in fatal car crashes from 2019 – 2022
St. Louis County 26% increase
St. Louis City 26% increase
Franklin County 15% decrease
Jefferson County 20% increase
State of Missouri 18% increase
We keep on building more and expanding existing roads enabling and subsidizing auto-oriented land uses. From 1950 to 2010 the region grew 50 percent in population while quadrupling its land mass. This bakes more driving into leading one’s life. More driving equals more danger, and higher speeds also more danger, The latest effort to spread out the region further is Governor Parson’s proposal for an $859M driving subsidy.
In the book There Are No Accidents, author Jessie Singer uses the analogy of slices of Swiss cheese to show how dangerous conditions can line up resulting in injury or death. The bigger the holes, the more likely they will line up. An example of a slice is the front-end height of vehicles. They have been increasing, reducing visibility, and thus the hole in that slice is getting bigger.
And we see the predictable results. It’s no accident.
Let’s take a look at some of the slices involved in recent crashes. We’ve gone through months of chaos and destruction due to the ease with which Kias and Hyundais were hacked and stolen due to the manufacturer’s incompetency. They are finally doing the right thing by rolling out a software patch. Given the value and potential damage done, you’d think making it hard to steal a car would be top of mind for manufacturers, insurers, consumers, and government. It should be at least as hard for an unauthorized user to operate a vehicle as it is to access your bank account. The ease of theft represented a big hole in that slice, and we suffered the results.
For the crash downtown, we know one of the slices had a big hole in it – the Circuit Attorney’s incompetence meant no consequence for the numerous violations of the house arrest terms of the bond for the accused. There are other slices involved though. We know this because not every crash involves someone in violation of their bond or even someone with criminal intent.
The driver didn’t have a driver’s license. Someone without a driver’s license isn’t allowed to operate a vehicle on public streets. Yet he was able to. Can we do better than hoping the fear of getting caught without a license and being charged with a misdemeanor will prevent unlicensed drivers from operating vehicles given the high stakes involved? Shall we have a police officer verify every driver’s license status before they start the engine? Or have checkpoints for vehicles entering areas with a lot of people outside of cars? Of course that’s impractical; violators count on it.
The latest infrastructure bill included a mandate that new cars will have the means to verify whether the operator is drunk or not, an effort to shrink the hole in that slice of cheese. Let’s add in a scheme to verify that the driver has a valid license. A license has a bar code on it. It would be easy for the car to read it. Perhaps without it, the vehicle will only go a maximum of 10 mph. It could be extended to verify if the vehicle is registered and insured. You could include a list of authorized users to make it harder to steal, kind of like who can use your video-streaming account.
Another slice is speed. The higher the speed, the bigger the hole in that slice. The driver was able to achieve a speed well above the speed limit. Can we do better than hoping a police officer will catch a speeder, the driver will dutifully pull over, and learn their lesson via a ticket? There aren’t enough officers to pull everyone over and traffic enforcement takes time away from other police work. Speeders count on it. As we’ve seen traffic stops can be very dangerous for both officers and drivers. And some drivers will flee “strong enforcement” resulting in deadly consequences. Why is it possible to drive a car much faster than the speed limit? If scooters can be speed governed, so can cars. It’s a matter of software for new cars and many existing cars too. A software patch could be a condition of registration renewal.
Red light and speed cameras would help too. They are effective. It’s time to implement them again. But we saw how they were used to prop up insolvent municipalities during #Fergurson when policing for profit came to light. The profits could go to the school district (fund driver’s ed?) instead of the municipality, mitigating some of the perverse incentives.
Last month John Addison was killed crossing Lucas-Hunt Road. The hole in the speed slice played a role here too. The chance of death grows with speed. The hole in the infrastructure slice is especially apparent. Absolutely no safety mechanism is present for someone crossing Lucas-Hunt for the bus stop. The distracted driver slice may have played a role too. In-car distractions have been growing recently, and we see the results.
In St. Charles County last week 16-year-old Jaylynn Kuethe was killed and five others were injured in a crash. They were thrown from the vehicle. Again speed played a role. Teenagers are bad drivers, and it’s not just due to a lack of experience. Why can a car with a teenager at the helm go so fast? There was probably distracted driving with six people in the car. Lack of driver’s ed perhaps.
In 2016 7-year-old Rachael Bick was killed by a driver on Highway 109 in Wildwood. The driver of the SUV probably didn’t see her so the hole in the vehicle design slice may have played a role. The harder it is to see out of a car, the more likely they will hit someone or something. Again there is infrastructure with no provision for pedestrians. The hole in the land use slice really shows here, siting a daycare and school in such a dangerous place.
In all these cases the hole in the slice of transportation options lined up with the other ones. If the driver had been using a safer mode of transportation like riding a bus, train, bike or scooter, or walking, the incident wouldn’t have happened or the collision would have been less severe. We’ve coerced more and more driving by design, made reckless driving easy by design, made cars dangerous by design, choose not to require driver’s ed, and built dangerous streets by design. We reap what we sow.