During my 25-year career as a police officer, I saw too many terrible, horrific scenes involving injury and death — bodies in pieces, people impaled, some who had been crushed, individuals burned alive, dead and injured children — to count.
I’m not talking about murder scenes. These were traffic crashes. Those scenes proved to me that, among the many reasons that we should be investing in public transportation, possibly the most important is the one that is least talked about: safety.
During my first week on the job as an officer, I responded to my first serious crash. It took place on I-71 in Medina County, near Akron.
As I parked my cruiser and walked up to the scene, another officer yelled out to me to be careful where I was walking. I looked down to see shards of flesh all around me on the ground.
A teenage boy had been traveling with his mom when their car broke down. Another vehicle stopped to assist them, and the teen got out of his car, approached the second vehicle and was struck and instantly killed by a passing semi.
That was a sight that a 21-year-old rookie cop will never forget.
These types of grisly scenes are all too common on America’s roadways. The worst scenes I’ve witnessed on the job were those of car accidents — far outnumbering murders or any other type of accidental death.
Now that I’ve retired from the police force — and spent many years advocating for urbanism and mass transit — I’m wondering what it will take for people who don’t see every day the most tragic results of our reliance on automobiles to realize just how huge of a problem this has become.
Every year, more than 1,000 lives are lost to traffic accidents on Ohio roads. Nationally, the rate is even higher. The U.S. has been averaging about 34,000 fatalities annually — about 2,800 a month.
And these numbers appear to be rising.
The New York Times recently reported that traffic deaths in the U.S. rose 10.4 percent during the first half of this year compared to last year. The article noted the trend maintained “a steady climb.”
According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, since the latter part of 2014, traffic fatalities have been steadily rising at a higher rate than that which total vehicle miles driven have been increasing.
The statistics don’t spell out exactly why this is, but some have suggested distractions from devices like cell phones, increased speed limits on interstates and increases in drugged driving related to the heroin epidemic.
Let me provide the overarching reason: Driving automobiles is more dangerous than people realize, yet government-subsidized policies continue to keep us tied to them without providing alternatives.
As tens of thousands of people are dying every year from car crashes, we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars to widen I-75 and build a new highway interchange on I-71.
During the past week, interstates 71, 75 and 275 have been shut down for hours at least four separate times because of crashes, and yet we shrug our collective shoulders. They’re barely newsworthy anymore.
Have you driven north on I-75 through the mess of construction and curving, temporary lanes near Hopple Street? You should be careful if you do.
On the other side, buses and trains have fatality rates far below cars and trucks. A 2013 study in Research in Transportation Economics titled “Comparing the Fatality Risks in United States Transportation Across Modes and Over Time” found that busses and trains have a fatality rate of between .11 and .15 per billion passenger miles, while cars and light trucks have a fatality rate of 7.3 per billion passenger miles.
The researcher explains: “One might argue that transportation equipment, and in particular the motor vehicle, must be the most dangerous machines that we interact with on a daily basis. The annual toll in motor vehicle crashes exceeds the deaths resulting from the next most dangerous mechanical device, firearms, by about 40 percent.”
Ohio plans to spend more than $2.1 billion on roads and bridges for these dangerous machines this year. Last year, it spent $2.5 billion. Meanwhile, over the last decade and a half, the state has cut its contribution to public transit funding from $43 million to a scant $7.3 million last year. That’s just 63 cents per person — among the lowest rates of state spending on transit in the nation.
Simply put, public transit modes of bus and rail travel are extremely safe compared to car travel. Yet our political leaders won’t provide us with the resources to build these safer transportation alternatives. Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley won’t even allow the city to move forward with a feasibility study to learn what an Uptown streetcar connection might cost. This step is typically necessary to apply for grants that could end up funding large parts of the project.
The streetcar’s early ridership numbers have far outpaced projections, clearly showing how much interest locals have for utilizing mass transit in the city.
Cars and our auto-based lifestyle are not going away any time soon. Over the long-term, safety improvements like seatbelts, air bags and child safety seats have helped make car travel less deadly. But we have alternatives that we know are safer, more environmentally friendly and a boon to economic development.
Meanwhile, we know that driving is one of the most dangerous things that most of us do on a daily basis.
What is the hold up?
As a downtown Cincinnati resident, I often get questions about the “safety” of living in or visiting the city. My typical response is simple: It’s much safer being in a walkable urban neighborhood than it is leading a lifestyle where you have to drive everywhere. You’re more likely to get killed on I-75 on your way downtown than you are being downtown.
If Ohio had inter-city rail transit — which we would be well on our way to having if the federally funded 3C rail line between Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland wasn’t scrapped by Gov. John Kasich in 2010 — it is all but certain that fewer people would die on Ohio’s highways every year.
Without it, others who might have chosen the safer option will end up in crashes week after week.
Automotive deaths are part of a public health crisis. We need to invest in transit options to provide safer alternatives to driving.
DEREK BAUMAN is the southwest Ohio director for All Aboard Ohio, a statewide rail and public transportation advocacy organization, and an activist supporting urban Cincinnati. Contact Derek: [email protected] or @derekbauman.