Saturday, April 03, 2021

Texas radically reduced traffic enforcement with no noticeable impact on road safety

What's the relationship between traffic enforcement by police and roadway safety? Arguably not much. Over the last decade, the number of traffic cases brought by Texas cops has plummeted, according to the Office of Court Administration's 2020 Annual Statistical Report:

Over the same period, though, roadway deaths per hundred-million miles first rose and then declined to pre-2010 levels, despite major population increases over this period coupled with radical reductions in police enforcement. From TXDOT's annual crash statistics:

Whatever drove that up-and-down trend, it doesn't seem to correlate with the trend in traffic enforcement. 

Question: If radically less traffic enforcement seems to have no noticeable impact on traffic fatalities, what precisely were we doing it for?

How to square these seemingly contradictory notions? Grits has long believed the disconnect can be explained because road safety has little to do with anything police do. Instead, it's largely a function of consumer habits, anachronistic road rules, and most importantly, traffic-engineering decisions. CityLab featured an essay this week making that point. It blamed a national spike in pedestrian deaths last year on "laws that lock in dangerous street designs and allow vehicles known to be more deadly to non-drivers."

CityLab suggested street-design issues had outsized influence. In particular, with fewer cars on the road in 2020, people drove much faster on wide, American streets. With more people working from home, thus more likely to be out walking, this structural defect caused pedestrian deaths to spike even as miles-driven declined.

That makes much more sense to me than looking for local causes to explain national phenomenon. Same goes for murder rates: Don't look for local issues like homelessness in Austin or bail in Houston to explain a murder spike that also occurred in Lubbock, New York, Los Angeles, and dozens of other US cities.

In Austin, partisans want to blame increased pedestrian deaths on the city's homeless policies. Somewhat more plausibly, others blame the problem on speeding. But in the bigger picture, it's that Texas cities where most people live are designed for cars, not people. For these and related reasons, Grits favors turning many of Austin's downtown streets into pedestrian-only thoroughfares and building out pedestrian infrastructure across the highway into East Austin.

Indeed, there are pedestrian-friendly capital projects all over the city that would improve quality of life and boost safety much more than comparable sums spent on cops.

I'm not surprised to see pedestrian deaths creeping up even as overall deaths-per-mile-driven declines. To me that likely reflects the changing nature of Texans' land use, as most people use their vehicles for shorter drives in urban settings and urbanization spurs a boom in pedestrians that challenges the state's car-centric urban planning culture.

These are predictable problems. And surmountable ones. And most of the solutions don't involve police.


Gadfly said...

Can we get car companies to stop jacking pickups ever higher? There's been several stories about that in the last year. It's a real thing, and it's unsafe for both cars and pedestrians.

Anonymous said...

Parking enforcement doesn't really go in the same category as traffic (= moving) enforcement.

I think a lot of parking violations would be more statutory (eg in a legal spot, but the meter expired), without any conceivable safety issue.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If you don't think the overwhelming majority of that is traffic, 3:02, you've got another think coming.

Texasyankee said...

The City Journal author started with a conclusion and then looked for evidence for that conclusion. Just read the first paragraph and then her mini bio at the end of the article and you will know what her opinion is. That it appeared in a Bloomberg publication which is anti car should not be a surprise.

Both of you write that pedestrian deaths increased but neither of you say from what number to what number. I looked it up and could only find the total for the first half of 2020 when 2957 deaths were reported compared to 2951 for 2019, an increase of 6. What did happen was that pedestrian deaths per auto mile driven increased by 16 percent.

Comparing pedestrian deaths with miles driven when everyone seems to agree that pedestrian miles walked increased in 2020 is a false comparison. To get a true comparison we need to know how many more pedestrians there were in 2020 and how many more miles they walked. Given those facts, I would expect pedestrian deaths to increase. With lighter traffic I would expect pedestrians to engage in riskier behavior by crossing in the middle of blocks, not looking both ways and generally being less attentive.

From my own experience, I blame pedestrians more than drivers. Here in the Alief part of Houston there are a lot of pedestrians, mainly immigrants walking to the Home Depot to find work. Many times I have been startled by a darkly clad person stepping into the street and forcing me to take evasive action. There are also a number of people walking at night for exercise who do not wear light or reflective clothing or carry a light.

Anonymous said...

Immigrants or hispanics? I doubt you have the balls to roll down your window and ask. Brown people in work clothes walking to a home depot, oh the humanity!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@2:22: Bloomberg publications are "anti-car." Huh.

Not sure why the exact number (based on incomplete data) makes a difference to you, but the author did give the details:

"Earlier this month, the National Safety Council reported that more than 42,000 people in the U.S. died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, an 8% increase over 2019. What makes this so surprising is that Americans traveled 13% fewer miles by car, because of coronavirus-related lockdowns. So the 8% increase is really a 24% increase on a per-mile-traveled basis — the highest year-over-year jump in 96 years."

In fact, if you read the article instead of jumping to the author's bio to give yourself permission to ignore it, you'd discover other countries witnessed traffic-death *declines* during the pandemic roughly on par with the decline in miles driven. Examining reasons why the US is an outlier with an increase is a reasonable intellectual exercise, but the "i" word surely may exclude certain parties from the conversation.

Finally, focusing on 2020 ignores the main point of this blog post that a more than 50% decrease in traffic enforcement had no aggregate effect on road safety over the last DECADE. That's true regardless of the cause of pedestrian deaths or whether or not Bloomberg is "anti-car."

I do admire your conclusion: "From my own experience, other people besides me are at fault (possibly immigrants who work at Home Depot in Alief?) and I need to reconsider neither any of my own behaviors nor any government policies that produce bad outcomes because I've found someone to blame." It's perfect, like a Know-Nothing Manifesto. You're speaking for a whole generation.

Texasyankee said...

You are a typical liberal, progressive, leftist: If someone disagrees with you, you get nasty instead of addressing the point.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

What point remains unaddressed, 2:59? Your myopic experience driving past The Home Depot in Alief doesn't trump actual research based conclusions on the topic. Neither does name calling. I see nothing to rebut. But you do you, whatever makes you feel better

Anonymous said...

Next time I'm at Home Depot I hope you ask me for my papers, I'll show you my DD214