Philbrick: Our approach to road safety needs to change
The intersection of Monterey Road and Curtner Avenue has been identified as one of the most dangerous roads in San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    Do children ride their bikes to school in your neighborhood on the sidewalks or in a dedicated bike lane? Is there a marked crosswalk for your elderly neighbor to cross the street with his dog? Does the young woman whizzing by on the e-scooter have space to safely share the road? When you are jogging after work, do you wear reflective gear? And if you do…is it enough?

    Our roadways are designed for motor vehicle safety and efficiency—but even with ideal road conditions, humans make mistakes. When it comes to vehicles, that often means life or death. As a nation, we need a major shift in our road safety approach.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that almost 43,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. in 2021. This number reflects a startling increase and projects that this fatality rate is the highest since 2007, despite new technology to protect motorists.

    When drivers and passengers in a motor vehicle take steps to stay safe—obeying the speed limit, wearing seatbelts, etc.—they significantly reduce the risk of serious injury or death. But for vulnerable road users, following safety protocols like using marked crosswalks and wearing protective gear can only do so much.

    To that end, on March 26, a car struck a mother and child walking their dog in a marked crosswalk in San Jose in a hit-and-run. The child went to the hospital and survived, but the mother and dog both died at the scene of the crash.

    People are dying, and something has to change.

    Similarly, just a few months ago our community in San Jose suffered a devastating loss when 18-year-old San Jose State University football player Camdan McWright was killed after colliding into a school bus while riding an electric scooter. This tragedy rocked our community. We have lost thousands of loved ones in motor vehicle accidents, and the numbers indicate the conventional approach to road safety in the U.S. is not driving down fatalities and injuries. We need a paradigm shift.

    Reaching zero will require a transition to a holistic, Safe System approach.

    The principles underpinning the Safe System approach acknowledges that humans make mistakes that lead to traffic crashes, but no one should lose their life or be seriously injured as a result of a crash. The principles also include the knowledge that the human body has a limited physical ability to tolerate crash forces; road safety is a shared responsibility; and all parts of the system must be strengthened so that if one part fails, road users are still protected.

    We need this robust system to make our communities safer. Historically, our roadways have been designed to move motor vehicles safely and efficiently, which means they often do not fully meet the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists—our vulnerable road users (VRUs). As a result, we are seeing increasing dangers to this population and too many crashes involving vehicles and VRUs—like the one that took the life of Camdan McWright.

    Data shows over 400 fatalities and 1,500 serious injuries occur on the Bay Area’s local streets and roads each year. If we break down the data further, we can see that from 2011 to 2021, Silicon Valley had thousands of bicycle-involved crashes that led to 141 bicyclists being killed and another 1,461 bicyclists injured. Just in San Jose alone, we have felt too many tragedies. In 2022, San Jose set a devastating new record: 65 traffic deaths and 33 pedestrian deaths.

    Unlike motor vehicles, VRUs lack an external structure to protect them when crashes occur, and they’re more likely to suffer a serious injury or even death. Proven, effective countermeasures are being underused at the federal, state and local levels, and we have long been concerned with the threat to VRUs. In 2018 and 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board published three reports on the risks to this vulnerable population and issued more than 30 recommendations focused on reducing VRU traffic deaths—numbers remain high.

    We need change. We need to see those numbers go down and know that we are taking action to save lives.

    We must use a Safe System approach to better protect VRUs and ensure safe roads for all. A Safe System addresses all aspects of traffic safety: road users, vehicles, speeds, roads and postcrash care. We must make better safety investments, from road treatments, vehicle design and collision-avoidance systems, to strong traffic safety laws and robust education efforts to mitigate injury risks for all road users.

    By adapting a Safe System approach, we can make our communities safer.

    San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. Her columns appear every first Wednesday of every other month.

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