Twenty years ago I was at a City Hall meeting when citizens were pushing for a stoplight on U.S. 52 near Starlite Skate Center.
The police chief then, Leo Shores, warned the city council, “Stoplights don’t prevent accidents. They just change the type of accident that occurs.”
That seemed like an odd thing to say, but was it really a profound statement about U.S. driving habits?
As the years go by, and I have visited many states in our great nation (and a couple of foreign ones) and I hear more and more stories about people traveling abroad, I start to see the wisdom in Leo’s warning.
We as Americans put a lot of faith in rules. Probably far too much.
When we are driving down the road, we act like that double yellow line between us and oncoming traffic is an invisible force field that will keep us safe.
Any number of things could happen that would cause a car to cross the center line or run off the shoulder: drunk driving, flat tire, nodding off, texting or answering a cell phone, reaching for the radio controls, being distracted by an insect/bee/spider — or in the case of author Stephen King, a fellow trying to get his Rottweiler away from raw steaks in a cooler in the back of a van.
And yet we zip along at 55 mph on our side (or faster, if we’re being honest) while someone coming straight at us is doing 60 mph in the other direction. If the two vehicles collide, that’s like running into a brick wall at 120 mph.
And we do this every day.
When I interviewed Jesse Hiatt this summer, the educator talked about being in China last school year. The most populated country in the world doesn’t have nearly the same traffic laws, equipment or law enforcement that the U.S. has, and yet people managed to get where they were going. It could be slow, but Hiatt said he saw surprisingly few accidents other than minor paint-swapping.
A friend who went to Vietnam on business talked about how there are far more motorcycles and scooters in that country than you see here. And in some cities, there seems to be no traffic control at all. Masses of bikes cram together; sometimes with riders sticking a foot out to keep their space between themselves and another bike or a car. And yet despite the frightening footage he showed me on YouTube, Clint said he didn’t see a single accident that afternoon he was in the town center.
Places where there are fewer laws and less law enforcement lead to citizens learning to protect themselves by going slower, remembering to brake and allowing others to make turns.
That comment from Police Chief Shores about how stoplights don’t prevent accidents? He explained that drivers will see the light turn green and just drive into the intersection, trusting that everything will be okay. Then someone doesn’t notice the light change or is so distracted they don’t even see an intersection, and there is a serious T-bone collision.
Drivers who stop at a stop sign know that they don’t have any green light, and they have to search for an opening. True, this can lead to accidents, but Leo said those tended to be less deadly than the ones with a signal light.
Folks in the U.S. like to throw out terms like “I have right-of-way” to defend their rights to drive aggressively.
My ex-wife used to live in Boston. She got used to crossing busy city streets, sometimes against the crosswalk signs. Then she came down to North Carolina, and she nearly got herself killed a couple of times stepping off sidewalks in Greensboro.
“Pedestrians have the right-of-way!” she bellowed at one driver.
“Yeah? You can tell that story to St. Peter when you get to the Pearly Gates,” I told her. “Right-of-way don’t mean crap when there is a very heavy object coming at you at high speed.”
When I went to get my motorcycle license years ago, one of the study guides I looked at before the test said that in 60 percent of wrecks where a bike strikes a vehicle, the accident is caused by the vehicle making a left-hand turn into the path of the bike. Most of the time, the driver says that he or she didn’t even see the bike before turning.
This is because they get in the habit of only seeing giant SUVs. Small cars are less noticeable, and bikes/scooters are completely invisible.
When thinking of U.S. accidents, consider this: the World Health Organization has compiled a list of fatal traffic accidents by countries. Then it provided a ratio of how many deaths occur per 100,000 vehicles on the roads. The U.S. came in at 12.9 deaths on the list. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety lists 37,461 deaths in 2016.
Norway was at 3.1 deaths per 100,000 cars, Switzerland at 3.6, Finland 4.4, Sweden 4.7 and the U.K. at 5.1. These are all places further north than we are here, so the entire country gets bad weather every winter, and yet their deaths per car on the road are less than half what the U.S. has. In fact, we came in 30th on the list.
Sure, we’ve got seat belts, front air bags, side air bags, front and rear crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, lane-departure warnings, blind-spot warnings,, self-braking cars, traction controls, electronic stability control, and tires that don’t collapse when punctured. And yet we still have 37,000 people a year dying on roadways.
It reminds me of the issue with football concussions. Guys were more careful of their heads when all they wore was leather padding. Once they got a hard shell around their noggins, players started throwing their heads around like weapons, making things worse.
No safety feature will ever be better than using some common sense.
Now if only we knew where to get some of that.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.