Recent Connecticut pedestrian fatalities were not accidents at all

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As a young transportation engineer I have been stunned and saddened to read about the spate of pedestrian collisions throughout this state. In a recent six-day span, eight people were hit, and six were killed, on Connecticut roads.

These terrible collisions have led many in the community to plead with drivers to slow down and to put their phones away in this holiday season. I could not agree more. Putting your phone down and taking your foot off the gas could make the difference in saving a life. However, this plea doesn’t go far enough.

While we have all been accustomed to calling these tragic events ‘accidents,’ research has shown that these unfortunately common events are not accidents at all. The term ‘accident’ implies that these collisions are due to a random set of unavoidable circumstances. As those involved in any collision know – this is rarely the case. In truth, there is typically something that could have been done differently to avoid a potentially fatal result.

In the same way, safe roads don’t occur by accident either. Governments which have aligned their policies with the Vision Zero project, an informal international network of like-minded governments who share a goal of achieving zero fatalities on their roadways, have a clear strategy. Their framework, which sounds similar to the well-known OSHA mantra that ‘safety is no accident,’ suggests that safe roads occur as a deliberate result of three main factors: engineering, enforcement, and education.

The news of these recent fatalities have also come at a time when new findings from Dr. Norman Garrick, Dr. Carol Atkinson-Palombo, and Dr. Hamed Ahangari, at the University of Connecticut have shown that we don’t have to live with this reality – a reality in which roughly 300 people die on the road on an annual basis in Connecticut alone. Their study shows that since 1970 the United States has failed to keep pace with roadway safety improvements realized by our European peers – even after our higher population and driving habits are controlled for.

These researchers give us a glimpse of an alternate reality where some 22,000 lives nationwide would have been saved in 2015 alone if safety improvements on our roadways matched improvements seen in Europe since 1970. Twenty-two thousand.

Certainly, the United States is widely different from the European countries cited in many respects. However, the research still gives hope that there are many lessons that can be implemented here which have the potential of saving an untold number of needlessly lost lives.

Countless lives cannot wait for us to make these changes. Yes, we need all drivers to do their part by slowing down and avoiding distraction, but this is only on piece of the puzzle. Real improvements to road safety will only be seen when we address all three of these principals. Luckily, the report from UConn is one of many that have shown us that there is a better way to implement safety on our roads.

So today, as we watch other governments celebrate the success they have seen in implementing Vision Zero practices, here in Connecticut, we deal with a reality in which several of our communities continue to mourn for their losses. Unfortunately, it is also clear that we are going in the wrong direction. Recent fatalities on roads in the state have climbed a staggering 20 percent in the last two years alone. This should serve as an alarm for everyone and encourage all of us to demand change from our elected officials.

As a young engineer in the transportation profession, I reject the belief that there is nothing we can do to prevent the tragic loss of these innocent lives on our roadways. These victims are our neighbors, friends, families, and children, and we should do everything in our power to make sure that we don’t see them needlessly taken from our lives. We can, and we must, continue to search for solutions to make our roadways safer for everyone.

Parker Sorenson is a graduate student studying transportation and urban engineering at the University of Connecticut.

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