A Former Traffic Engineer on the Industry’s Perverse Standards

For decades, policymakers have touted enforcement and public awareness as the answer to the staggering cost of road fatalities in the U.S. But despite decades of stricter enforcement and well-intentioned public awareness campaigns, a new report from the National Academy of Sciences says the U.S. is falling behind other industrialized nations in traffic safety.

According to one former traffic engineer, we may be overlooking a more fundamental factor: traffic industry guidelines that prioritize the values of speed and traffic volume over safety. In an article on Network blog Grist, Charles Marohn explains how for years he helped impose dangerous road conditions on communities, under the guidance of the traffic industry’s all-important book of standards.

Speed first, traffic volume second and safety third: that's the mentality that guides the traffic engineering industry, according to veteran Charles Marohn. Photo: Land Design Collective

A fair percentage of my time was spent convincing people that, when it came to their road, I knew more than they did.

When people would tell me that they did not want a wider street, I would tell them that they had to have it for safety reasons. When they answered that a wider street would make people drive faster and that would seem to be less safe, especially in front of their house where their kids were playing, I would confidently tell them that the wider road was more safe, especially when combined with the other safety enhancements the standards called for.

When people objected to those other “enhancements”, like removing all of the trees near the road, I told them that for safety reasons we needed to improve the sight distances and ensure that the recovery zone was free of obstacles. When they pointed out that the “recovery zone” was also their “yard” and that their kids played kickball and hopscotch there, I recommended that they put up a fence, so long as the fence was outside of the right-of-way.

In retrospect I understand that this was utter insanity. Wider, faster, treeless roads not only ruin our public places, they kill people. Taking highway standards and applying them to urban and suburban streets, and even county roads, costs us thousands of lives every year. There is no earthly reason why an engineer would ever design a 14-foot lane for a city block, yet we do it continually. Why? The answer is utterly shameful: Because that is the standard.

Many European countries have made road design a primary component of their traffic safety agendas. Last week, Tanya reported that the Dutch have been particularly successful in this regard, reducing their traffic fatality rate to a fraction of the United States’.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Livable Norwalk illustrates how suburban-style street grids make building walkable, transit friendly communities more difficult. The Wash Cycle highlights AAA’s Lon Anderson description of the “war on cars.” And the Transport Politic asks whether we’ve entered a new, more austere political era in transportation funding.