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Driverless Policy Making

by Roger Lanctot | 6月 06, 2016

The Vision Zero movement, embraced by Sweden and select U.S. and foreign cities around the world, continues to elude the grasp of U.S. Department of Transportation leadership.  I was reading an impassioned letter to the President by Marianne Karth on the issue this morning - impassioned because Karth lost two daughters to a motor vehicle accident involving a truck lacking under-ride protection.

Karth points out President Obama's ability to wax eloquent on the issue of highway fatalities - as he did during a recent PBS forum - yet his inability to enunciate any focus on reducing highway fatalities as a policy priority.  In the PBS segment he contrasts the process of reducing highway fatalities over the years with technology and science with the inability to do the same to reduce gun violence.  (PBS segment: http://tinyurl.com/z6zsn9t)

The concerns of Karth and millions of others regarding steadily rising highway fatalities (an 8% increase for 2015 is anticipated) are only inflamed by the fact that most political leaders in a position to do something about highway fatalities are actually driven wherever they go.  The typical politician today is probably wondering what all the fuss is about driverless cars when their daily reality revolves around driverlessness.

The average senior politician in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world is driven wherever he or she goes.  Much has been made of the fact that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hasn't driven a car in years.  The same likely holds true for Republican hopeful Donald Trump.

How can these people appreciate the magnitude and urgency of the issue if they are completely removed from its immediacy.  Highway fatalities rose in 2015, a clear signal that not enough is being done.

Yet even as we struggle to come to terms with more people dying in cars that are safer on roads that are safer and at a rate that exceeds the increase in the amount of driving, we must also decide how driverless cars will fit into the transportation mix.  Again, our leaders don't drive so the perception of the problem is clouded at the very top of policy making.

Consumer advocates want to limit public testing of driverless cars.  Cities and states increasingly see driverless cars as a new tool to take on traffic woes and congestion and to democratize transportation and increase social mobility.  So far the U.S. Department of Transportation has spoken out in support and sponsored legislation to fund research.  So far so good.

But a commitment to Vision Zero is still missing - and the two issues are bound together.  Driverless car technology is a piece of the Vision Zero puzzle and policy makers need to determine how that piece fits in.

Unlike the battle over gun violence ongoing in the U.S., there is no National Rifle Association standing in the path of progress toward reducing highway fatalities.  Surely the auto industry recognizes the opportunity and the responsibility to take on this scourge.

Karth binds her thoughts into a five-point appeal:

"Would you (President Obama), in fact, make Traffic Safety a national priority–placing it on the list of important issues listed on whitehouse.gov and then do something about it, e.g.,:

  1. Set a National Vision Zero Goal?
  2. Establish a White House Vision Zero Task Force?
  3. Sign a Vision Zero Executive Order to allow Vision Zero Rulemaking?
  4. Get We the People involved in the action and the solution by promoting the development of a nationwide network of Traffic Safety/Vision Zero Community Groups?
  5. Appoint a Traffic Safety Ombudsman who would oversee all of this and be an  Advocate for vulnerable road users (which includes us all) —untainted by political pressures?"

Things have gotten so bad that now, according to Automotive News, new cars are being sold with airbags subject to recalls.  (NYTimes - Automakers Still Selling Cars with Defective Takata Airbags - http://tinyurl.com/jf6o4wv)  More than 100 people are dying every day on roads in the U.S. and, according to the World Health Organization's latest Global Status Report on Road Safety 700 are dying every day in China.

This is a global problem calling for global initiatives.  Karth shares this link for Vision Zero goals set by others around the world: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vision_Zero  Wikipedia notes 14 U.S. cities that have established varying versions of Vision Zero goals.  It's time for the U.S. to step up and lead.  This is no time for the U.S. to be in the backseat.

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