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Driving in Massachusetts can be deadly. More deadly than ever before, according to new data released by the National Safety Council (NSC), a non-profit, non-governmental public service organization chartered by Congress to promote health and safety in the United States. The new data show that in Massachusetts, there were 180 motor-vehicle fatalities from January 2017 through June 2017, a 46 percent increase compared to the same period in 2013.
What accounts for the increase in the death toll? Well, more people are driving more miles. According to the NSC, the increase in fatalities in 2017 likely results from the improving economy and low gas prices. Both of those factors lead to more traffic, as more people commute to work and can afford to drive farther and take vacations. Many have also attributed some blame to the fact that more people are driving while using cell phones and other devices.
The trend is not limited to Massachusetts. An estimated 18,680 people have been killed throughout the U.S. roads since January and 2.1 million were seriously injured. The total estimated cost of these deaths and injuries is $191 billion.
The new data confirms what we already knew: increased driving has dire costs. You are far more likely to be injured or killed while driving than you are using other means of transportation. Research by the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute published in the Journal of Public Transportation has shown that driving is among the most dangerous modes of travel. In particular, intercity rail is about 20 times safer than driving; riding metro or light rail is about 30 times safer; and riding the bus is about 60 times safer.
The number of deaths each year on our roads is so high that it is hard to believe the sum is considered “normal.” If the carnage occurred from a disaster or attacks from external enemies, the nation would stop to grieve in disbelief over the loss. The annual death toll on the roads in nearly equivalent to the total number of United States combat deaths in the entire Korean War, and is more than half of the total American deaths in the two decades-long Vietnam War. The annual body count is more than four times the total death of United States soldiers in the entire Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined - and this occurs each year.
What is most frustrating about the increase in motor-vehicle deaths is that it is largely preventable. Investing in roads that are designed to calm traffic and increase options for people walking, biking and taking transit is not only a more efficient use of limited financial resources—it will save lives. In short, if we shift our transportation policies to incentivize non-motor-vehicle modes of travel, fewer people will die.
Reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled won’t only save lives, but will come with all sorts of other benefits as well. Imagine two futures for the transportation system of Massachusetts. In one, the air is cleaner. It is more convenient to use an improved public transit system and to drive less, so most households only own one car. There are fewer traffic jams because fewer people travel via automobile. There are more sidewalks and bike lanes, so many people walk or bike to their jobs, schools, and other destinations. People feel a little richer with extra money in their pocket, due to less spending on gasoline, parking, and auto maintenance. Bay Staters are healthier as a result of reduced pollution and increased physical activity.
In the second future, imagine the opposite trends. More cars are on the road, increasing traffic congestion, pollution, and emissions that cause global warming. Public transit is less convenient and less available because it is often broken down and hasn’t expanded with the economy. Walking and biking infrastructure remains unimproved. More collisions result in even more deaths and injuries. We spend more filling up our tanks and repairing our vehicles more frequently, and the state spends more to repair the increased wear on roads. Bay Staters have less money, less time, and are less healthy.
The benefits of reduced driving are sometimes difficult to see, but hugely important. Many dramatic gains remain unrecognized because they are indirect, gradual, or result from avoided collisions and health problems that people don’t expect will happen to them in the first place. In our daily lives, it is difficult to assess the value of reduced costs that would have been borne by others or consequences that didn’t occur. But the new data released by the NSC make it clear that we are not safe from the dangers of increased driving.
So what do we do? How do we reduce driving and steer Massachusetts towards the first future and away from the second? The following recommendations identify the top three efforts the state can make to help us move further down the road to reducing vehicle miles traveled, which will lead to the significant environmental, economic, and public health savings outlined above.
1. Choose Transportation Investments that Reduce Driving
Decisions about what types of investments to prioritize will greatly influence future levels of driving. The post-World War II era increase in driving partly resulted from heavy investment in newer and wider roads and ever more sprawling development. In the Bay State and across the nation, new highways have been constructed over the last half-century in ways that encouraged people to live further from their jobs, the services they need, and their pastimes, leading to increased driving. For decades new off-ramps in previously rural communities fueled real estate development in distant suburbs and exurbs consisting largely of housing subdivisions, office parks, and shopping centers while many older cities were neglected.
Moving forward, investments that would contribute to a reduction in vehicle miles traveled include improving walking and biking trails, modernizing and enhancing capacity on public transportation lines, improving and expanding intercity rail service, purchasing newer and more reliable buses, introducing bus rapid transit, and favoring projects that encourage land-use patterns such as compact development that entail shorter auto trips. Private-sector transportation demand management strategies should be encouraged to complement these investments, such as shuttles and carpooling programs. Moreover, scoring projects based on their impact on vehicle miles traveled will help avoid wasteful spending on newer and wider highways that would lead to less efficient land use, requiring additional spending on other infrastructure to service far-flung development, and drastically increase the costs stemming from vehicle miles traveled.
The Commonwealth must make new investments to enable better transportation choices, while maintaining and state of good repair of those we already have - including public transportation, sidewalks, bike lanes, and trails and paths. The goal should be to make the combination of multiple modes of transportation serve as more than the sum of their parts to make it viable for households to drive less, or to reduce the number of automobiles they own. Strategies to accomplish this include incorporating car-sharing and bike-sharing into plans and designing bike racks and crosswalks at transit stops. Investments should also support “complete streets” that are designed to enable safe walking, biking, and transit use.
2. Raise Revenues that Pay for Our Transportation Needs While Preferably Also Reducing Driving
Sufficient resources to pay for important investments are necessary. Despite some progress in transportation funding since 2013, most experts agree that more funding is necessary to make the types of investments that our state needs. There is no shortage of innovative revenue sources that policy makers can embrace. While gas taxes have waned in recent years due to improved fuel efficiency and inflation, there are other ways of raising transportation revenue that would also encourage reductions in driving. One of these could be a road usage charge, or fee, based on vehicle miles traveled. But whether we use that method or another, the guiding principle should be that we must provide sufficient revenue to address our transportation needs, while doing what we can to disincentivize costly over reliance on driving.
Those incentives need not just be public sector based. A private-sector incentive to reduce driving would be to allow “pay-as-you-drive” (PAYD) insurance. Instead of paying auto insurance as a fixed cost, PAYD insurance links the monthly fee with the distance that he or she drives. This provides motorists with more insurance options that better reflect actual economic costs, and encourages fewer driving miles.
At the same time, we should encourage transit use by keeping public transit fares low. Large fare hikes would both decrease the mobility of people with low incomes and cause riders with access to an automobile to drive more.
3. Set Goals and Track Progress
The Commonwealth already evaluates transportation performance using a number of important measures including asset conditions and on-time performance. Yet, a success investment strategy should also reduce driving. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) should work toward including vehicle miles traveled reduction as an explicit performance measure. Reporting on this measure should be done on a public dashboard on the DOT’s website and included in quarterly and annual performance and accountability reports.
The new NSC data should be a wake up call. We are on track to lose a life a day in Massachusetts this year. That’s unacceptable. It’s far past time that we change course and begin seriously promoting regulations and incentives that reduce driving. By focusing on smarter transportation priorities we can save money, protect the environment, prevent injury, and save lives.
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