Charles Marohn is the founder and president of Strong Towns, an organization that leads and supports the sort of bottom-up community-strengthening action we advocate here at Epsilon Theory. He is a professional engineer and a land use planner, with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a Master of Urban and Regional Planning, both from the University of Minnesota. Marohn is the author of Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity (Wiley, 2019) and Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town (Wiley 2021).
As with all of our guest contributors, Chuck’s post may not represent the views of Epsilon Theory or Second Foundation Partners, and should not be construed as advice to purchase or sell any security.
In March of 2020, as the pandemic began to take hold here in the United States, driving went down. In the business, we measure vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and it absolutely plunged. I have never seen anything like it. Just stunning!
The standard theory of automobile safety suggests that traffic deaths are a function of vehicle miles traveled. The more we drive, the more crashes there will be, and the more fatalities we will measure. The standard theory predicted that, with such a dramatic decline in VMT, fatalities would drop during 2020.
That was wrong. The opposite happened. Auto-related fatalities rose significantly.
Even more startling, fatality rates continue to climb even as overall traffic has returned to near pre-pandemic levels. This has put auto safety experts into something of a quandary, and they’ve been frantically searching for an explanation as more counter-theory data has come in.
The initial take was that Americans have suddenly become more risky on our roadways.
We have broadly taken to driving too fast, driving while intoxicated, and driving without a seatbelt, so says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In time, that narrative has been expanded to include psychological damage induced by pandemic conditions, explanations that track neatly with other pandemic-related cultural narratives.
The New York Times reports on something called “salience saturation,” the idea that Americans are so saturated with fears that we don’t grapple with the threats we face when we get behind the wheel. The same article cites “social disengagement” as another contributing factor, suggesting that, as we’ve become more disconnected from each other, our feeling of social responsibility to drive safely has diminished.
An article in CNN quotes a highway safety official suggesting that we are all so overwhelmed that it is “more difficult than usual for some drivers to focus on the road amid everything happening in the world around them.” Another official was quoted that their state had seen “an increase in road rage, street racing incidents and other aggressive behaviors.”
The Los Angeles Times takes it a step further by suggesting that speeding is due to “arousal breakout,” a fervent reaction experienced by those who chafe under lockdown restrictions. They quote one expert as saying that reckless driving is “a sign of the overall lack of consideration we’re showing for other citizens, whether it be wearing masks, or not getting vaccinated, or how we drive. It’s very aggressive. It’s very selfish.”
More recently, there are more and more articles in MSM like this:
“We have that small segment of the driving public that still continues to do egregious behavior, that still continues to do the kind of things that are outlandish and they continue to produce the tragedies that we still have.”US roadway deaths rise at a record pace , CNN (Feb. 8, 2022)
In other words: the problem is people. More specifically: other people. They are a selfish, nasty and brutish lot. They like to drive fast, especially now that they can stick it to the Man — and us good, decent folk — who only asked them to stay at home, wear a mask, and protect others.
This is the Reckless Driver! TM explanation for increased traffic deaths.
It makes for a really good story, but it is also wrong.
What actually happened is far simpler, less sensational, and — in many ways — more tragic.
American roadway design focuses on mobility, which from a design standpoint can be reduced to the variables of speed and traffic volume. The more vehicles we can move at high speed, the greater mobility everyone in an automobile will have, and the stronger and healthier our economy will be. Or, so the theory goes. We’ve spent trillions on this approach and have committed hundreds of billions more to expanding it in the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill.
This approach works great on highways, but on anything less than a major roadway, it is ridiculously dangerous. We achieve speed and volume by widening lanes, adding shoulders, removing obstacles from the side of the road, and basically giving drivers a lot of room to maneuver. We make it easy for people to drive fast and, not surprisingly, they drive fast.
On an interstate, where the traffic moves in one direction at a consistent speed, fast driving is not a problem. When we get into areas with more intersections, drivers exiting and entering the traffic stream, cars turning across multiple lanes, people on bikes, people on foot, and many other forms of random complexity, high speeds are a huge problem. These are the environments where most of our fatalities happen, places where our designs mix high speed with randomness.
Prior to the pandemic, these places filled up with commuters during peak hours. All that money spent creating extra buffer room went to waste in these situations because overwhelming levels of congestion forced people to drive slowly, an effect that suppressed the fatality rate.
When the pandemic began, that congestion went away, and drivers used that extra buffer room to drive at the higher design speed.
Fatalities went up as a result. They have continued to go up because, while VMT has roughly returned to pre-pandemic levels, it is now spread out over a longer period of time, not clustered in a couple of highly-congested, peak hours.
In other words: Way more people are driving during the most dangerous conditions, a now-extended period where high speeds are possible but there is also a high amount of randomness on the roadway.
That’s a pretty simple and obvious explanation, but not quite as sensational.
This is all interesting, but it’s not the interesting thing I wanted to share with my fellow pack members here at Epsilon Theory. To get to that, I’m going to give you a brief paragraph about me. Please excuse what may seem like indulgence.
I’m an expert in this topic. In fact, I’m one of the country’s leading experts. Not only am I a licensed engineer with plenty of applicable experience, I wrote a very popular and successful book on this topic called Confessions of a Recovering Engineer. I’m routinely interviewed by major news outlets on related topics and my writing appears frequently in media across the country. I’ve been invited to advise members of Congress, officials within multiple administrations, and many state and local leaders on street design, traffic safety, and related topics.
In the first year of the pandemic, when media coverage on traffic fatality rates initially appeared, the team at Strong Towns and I reached out to our contacts to proffer our angle and offer comment. Nobody was interested.
As time has gone on, we’ve written time and time and time again on this topic, recorded podcasts, and released a video series. We’ve distributed these to major media contacts we know who have been interested in our work in the past. There was no interest in our take.
In the last week, in response to yet another round of reporting, we offered multiple major news outlets an opinion piece. Ultimately — when we were again met by crickets — we were blunt with our assertion that their reporting was getting it wrong and that people would continue to die if we didn’t explore other, more credible and actionable, explanations. We were rejected repeatedly and in the most perfunctory way.
There are a lot of reasonable explanations as to why our insights were not compelling to major media outlets reporting on the rise in traffic fatalities. Maybe our pitch wasn’t that good. Maybe we’re not perceived as being as credible as we think we are. Maybe they are already working on this same angle. I don’t know, but as time has gone on, it’s been hard not to return to the most simple and obvious explanation:
The Strong Towns interpretation of events does not fit their narrative.
I’m not one of these people who runs around believing in broad media conspiracies. My wife is a reporter and I’ve watched her work through story ideas with sincerity and due diligence. I’ve worked closely with members of the media for more than a decade and I think most of those within it — at least at the level I’m working at — are good, honest people who want to get the story right.
But, they swim in the metaverse, the cultural waters shaped by narrative that we all live in. And the idea that Covid restrictions have caused a segment of the population to become reckless, selfish, and willing to endanger themselves and others is just such a perfect tale. It’s so juicy, delightfully affirming everything else we believe we know right now.
And, the fact that we can ALL easily identify this segment of the population makes it all the more compelling. Scientifically, reckless drivers aren’t a discrete subset of people. Statistically, it is a subset that includes literally all of us who drive. Yet, for the Reckless Driver! TM narrative, all that we need to know — all that we need to care about — is that this group doesn’t include me.
The Reckless Driver! TM is the Other. And we should all be scared of the Other.
When it comes to traffic fatalities, a narrative that blames the Other also conveniently lets our public officials off the hook. As I wrote, we’ve invested trillions in this system and just passed a bill to spend hundreds of billions more. From the top-down, prompted by the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy, we’ve established the systems and protocols for allocating public funds, applying industry standards, securing construction contracts, and having this process result in number go up across wide sectors of the American economy.
There is an entire industry centered around the systematic over-engineering of public infrastructure, and the Strong Towns notion that we could do far more with far less is a huge threat to that industry. It’s also a huge threat to our fetish with things like Automated Vehicles! TM and High-Speed Rail! TM and Electrify The Transportation Sector! TM and all the other Big Ideas! TM of the Nudgers. These expensive, expansive, top-down initiatives are the primary topics of discussion in transportation circles.
The NTSB is recommending we address the rise in driving fatalities with increases in the funding of law enforcement and public education campaigns, along with increased requirements for auto manufacturers and additional regulation of drivers. Some of these might be good ideas on the margins, but they are nothing new. They certainly won’t move the needle on traffic deaths, but they do support existing bureaucracies, programs, and favored constituencies.
But the worst thing that a narrative of fearing the Other does is that it keeps us from taking action on our own.
The state and federal governments may control our highways, but most streets and local roads are controlled by local governments. They are controlled by us, and we can do a lot to improve their safety, almost always by spending less.
As Ben Hunt recently wrote right here on Epsilon Theory, “everything changes when you take agency over the narratives you culture and the narratives you inoculate yourself against.”
We can’t all be experts in every technical issue that crosses our feed, but we can train ourselves to resist the simplistic notion that other people — especially those we don’t know but find so easy to caricature — are to blame for the problems our society faces.
And, if we can do that, we allow ourselves room to step up, with clear eyes and full hearts, to join with our neighbors and make our cities, towns, and neighborhoods stronger, better, and more prosperous places to be.
We do that and we can’t lose.