The Reckless Driver! TM Narrative

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).

You can contact Chuck at [email protected] and on Twitter at @clmarohn.

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.

Source: Statista

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.

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  1. As follower of both Strong Towns and ET, this note was a joy to read. I knew Chuck was a Pack member, but to be able to hear his message in “Pack parlance” was a real treat. Thanks for this @clmarohn!

  2. This analysis of narrative construction and control is a reasonable start but needs to be taken further in order to better understand the underlying causes, and what’s needed to address them
    To be clear I don’t have any problems with Marohn’s main points. Yes, increased highway injuries and fatalities were not surprising given the major changes in driving patterns. Yes, the MSM effectively established a brick wall to prevent its audience from hearing and evidence and views inconsistent with its preestablished narrative. Yes, the MSM loves narratives that absolve its core audience and powerful elite groups from any responsibility and blames everything on ill-defined “others”. Yes, to some extent this narrative lets the public officials nominally responsible for minimizing highway injuries and fatalities off the hook.
    The author is clearly aware of the overwhelming political forces backing massive highway expenditures but seriously underemphasizes their role here. These are dominated by private sector construction/auto industry interests but work in conjunction with the government agencies that provide the funding. As with any other powerful economic interests, the political alliance structure creates some idiosyncratic outcomes (e.g. massive overspending on new construction, underspending on maintenance). As with other powerful economic interests, public policies and expenditures have been completely divorced from any consideration as to whether they help maximize broader public interests. As with other powerful economic interests, some funding for nominally public objectives is provided (studies on how to reduce drunk driving and highway carnage), but it is structured so that neither elected state officials or the safety professionals can ever publicly criticize the larger gravy train and can never propose anything outside a narrow range.
    Every one of these powerful interest groups has been spending decades constructing and promulgating narratives justifying their economic power and protecting them from any accountability for their impacts on the rest of society. The keys are creating the appearance that their power results from benign “market” forces and/or the will of the people as expressed through democratic elections. This creates the appearance that there is no other sensible way these activities could be organized, and that no respectable person has any meaningful disagreement with what they do (e.g. There Is No Alternative, and anyone who thinks so must be a luddite, Marxist or deluded conspiracy theorist).
    For the Highway Industrial Complex these high level narratives include the idea that increased highway construction expenditures drive massive economic growth and that America’s highway system was fully paid for by user fees. No one in the pack will have any difficulty identifying high level narratives supporting military spending, our current health care system, trillion dollar tech valuations, the growth of finance, the two-party duopoly, etc.
    All are based on kernels of truth, but are now totally divorced from objective evidence, but so powerfully ingrained that they are immune from criticism. America’s highways are funded by taxes, there is little correlation between personal tax payments and benefits received, and the most heavily used highways (urban commuter expressways) are massively subsidized. Saying the cost of highways is funded by users is like saying the cost of the United States Army is funded by users.
    The first MSM issue is that no story about specific issues (e.g. unexpectedly increasing fatalities) can make any mention of the well-organized forces that dominate the sector, or let any readers think that any of the arguments in the story might be influenced by the economic and political interests of those well-organized forces. None will mention the campaign donations received by elected officials pushing for increased spending.
    The second MSM issue is that it will always favor stories with only one side, as these require a lot less effort. It will quickly leap from “the dominant political/economic interests are powerful and well-organized” to everyone agrees with them and alternative views don’t exist. There is never any discussion of whether the broader public interest is being served. As the author discovered, proactive efforts to raise alternative views will simply be ignored. Occasionally out of laziness or prejudice, but often due to the inability to see the water they are swimming in.
    The third, and perhaps most important MSM issue is they will never ever admit previous reporting was wrong or deficient. Nothing is more important to the MSM than the status reflected in their ability to tell their audience what to think (and tell their audience what issues they ought to be thinking about.) If they were totally wrong about Weapons of Mass Destruction, they are certainly not going to publish anything conceding that earlier stories claiming increased fatalities were caused by massive sudden driver behavioral changes were not supported by any evidence and weren’t accurate. For decades many powerful interests co-opted the MSM by ruthlessly exploiting this weakness. Since they want readers to accept their pronouncements without looking behind the curtain, they can’t admit how many times they blindly promulgated manufactured narratives pushed by much more powerful interests who didn’t want the MSM looking behind their bigger curtain.
    Keep in mind that Pack members—with above average income, education and political involvement—play a role in this system as well. Massive highway spending so that people in distant suburbs can travel at high speeds whenever they want is very popular. Even more popular is that people don’t have to pay anything close to the true cost of that convenience Some portion of that popularity is because the Highway Industrial Complex successfully blocks public consideration of the true costs and benefits of alternatives.
    But the people who most like (and feel entitled to) free high-speed expressways are also the people who will most enthusiastically promulgate the manufactured narratives that help produce the goodies they like. And support the politicians who deliver them and feel aggrieved if anyone suggests something (e.g. higher gas taxes, really strict drunk driving law enforcement) that would limit their freedom.
    Propaganda can only be really powerful when it convinces some of the broader public to takes sides and fight on its behalf. You can’t fight back against that propaganda without breaking that link.

  3. Avatar for jrs jrs says:

    Thanks for this great piece. Fits with my observations about mask wearing and Othering as well. Although in passing, I was very surprised with how quickly everyone’s masks came off in public, no matter their social strata, when California ended the statewide mandate last week.

    One question: Did you try to shop this story to Fox News or other Conservative™ outlets?

    I’d expect, eg Fox News would be more approving from the Othering angle, as many of their viewers are in fact being Othered. But maybe they’d still reject because neither does your story fit the classical Libertarian™ narrative of I Drive As Fast As I Want Because Freedom.

  4. We moved into a new apartment in February of 2020, about one month before our CA lockdowns started and we all started working from home. Even though our new place advertised parking for two cars, the reality is that it’s a one car spot. We decided to park my smaller and newer (8 year old) car in the spot and have my wife’s older (20+ years) car on the street knowing that it wouldn’t matter (and might even provide an insurance windfall) if it got hit/damaged. We made this decision because the traffic on our 4 lane street is pretty heavy and fast as it is the beginning offshoot of a major road into another different major commuter road. If memory serves, the posted speed limit is 35 but cars were regularly doing 50-60.
    But lo and behold, about 3-4 months after we moved there road work began and lines were repainted on the street. Fortunately for us, the city decided to add a dedicated bike lane to this section of the road and shrank the lanes.
    Traffic speeds changed dramatically. People still speed but its more like 40-45 now. Getting in and out of the car parked on the street doesn’t feel like a game of roulette anymore and pulling out of the parking space area exit (a blind alley essentially) is much easier.
    All of this to echo @clmarohn 's call to action - getting your local city government to add dedicated bike lanes, parking spaces, expanded sidewalks with greenery, etc and shrink the lanes to force lower speeds really does happen in the physical world. I am extremely grateful for whatever (or whoever) caused my city to add that bike lane and while I didn’t have to do the lobbying myself this time, in the future, I’m ready.

  5. Thanks. But I am going to be in more trouble with spouse for buying another (your) book. Damn.

  6. Posts like this are why I am an Epsilon Theory subscriber! It is so refreshing to be provided with an explanation that is backed by empirical evidence instead of being just another “this is why you should hate those bad people over there” motivated reasoning “thinkpiece!™”.

  7. Avatar for Pat_W Pat_W says:

    In the 1990s in my massage practice I had a client who was a highway construction/maintenance lobbyist in Kentucky. He told me about the fancy dinners he went to in Frankfurt, where he was expected to attend meetings with KY legislators at least once per month. He had plenty of money to spend and his tips were generous. This was my first encounter with the highway industrial complex. The smell of corruption was arresting.

    Since that time I have noticed seemingly small things- like the way the roads in my small city get repaved every three or four years even though I live in the desert and the town could easily go 10 or more years between resurface jobs. Of course, that would force drivers to go a bit slower, ha ha. The speed limits on our main thoroughfares which are often 5 lanes wide, are 45 to 50 mph. The population of the Coachella Valley is a little under 1/2 million yet. you can travel between any two points in under 30 minutes. It’s astonishing and no doubt extremely expensive.

    Up in the high desert, in a town like California City, roads were paved when the town was laid out in the 1960s and most early residential streets still have only that original pavement. It is cracked and faded and perfectly serviceable.

    Thank you Hubert for your detailed description of the influence and intransigence of the HIC. It gives me the broader context I needed.

  8. What stands out here is the difficulty in creating a counter-narrative. Of course, intuitively, we know this to be hard. But when equipped with all the right tools (authority) and attempting to use them in the same way that the dominant narrative leaders use them (news media) it still fails to take hold.

    It’s a reminder to me that the actual tools here are more than just credible authority, but the collective fear and apathy that has been successfully weaponized over a longer period of narrative building. I can accept a reminder of that.

    What I have difficulty accepting is that we’re stuck in this situation. I enjoy, as most others do, an individual metanarrative cleanse with a cigar from time to time. But we need to find a way to scale that cleansing as a society. We still don’t have enough collectively tipping our way to rebuild the narrative or assert new narratives.

    This is a common theme on ET, but this post really nailed the sensation for me. Great read.

  9. Avatar for jrs jrs says:

    Maybe the issue is that as an otherwise disinterested commuter who likes nice smooth black asphalt, I have no real personal skin in this game?

    (Of course, I have a little bit of skin as a lazy ER doc who enjoys getting paid to sleep. But that’s a pretty idiosyncratic situation.)

    What do I lose if these corrupt contractors take a little more of all that money we’re printing?

    Devil’s advocate. Find a counter-narrative that speaks to the above situation and we may have success.

  10. Thank you! It was a real treat. I’ve long been hanging out here at ET, reading everything and occasionally chiming in. It was a fun challenge to speak the language with some fluency. So much overlap.

  11. There’s a lot here, but let me agree that there is a tremendous insider incentive to keep the highway-building industry going, despite a complete lack of capacity to maintain the miles we’ve already built. If you’re interested, I wrote a series about the American Jobs Plan, the Biden infrastructure plan, before it was whittled down in a bi-partisan compromise. Short summary: It made the infrastructure backlog worse, not better, and was not a serious approach, despite the huge price tag. All that got worse with the compromise.

  12. Oh yeah, we shopped the original article, not this piece that addressed the MSM. The reckless driver narrative really cuts across political lines – it’s a very human diagnosis.

  13. Imagine my surprise when I tune into the Strong Towns Podcast for the first time and, voila, there’s @harperhunt!

  14. Avatar for Pat_W Pat_W says:

    Fitting to put this here:
    Last year California passed a law making it easier for towns and cities to set their own speed limits instead of being required to adhere to State regulations. Locally, Palm Springs has outlined numerous reductions meant to reduce traffic accidents and fatalities. It has some 4 and 5 lane thoroughfares which are lined with home. Some are posted 55 MPH!

    Most of the. step downs are just 5 MPH, and it will make a difference.

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