Tom Eblen

It caused 834 deaths in Kentucky last year. Why don’t we treat it like a disaster?

A student tried texting while using the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety’s distracted driving simulator in September 2013 at Bryan Station High School in Lexington.
A student tried texting while using the Kentucky Office of Highway Safety’s distracted driving simulator in September 2013 at Bryan Station High School in Lexington.

What would happen if tornadoes ripped through Kentucky and killed 834 people? The president and the governor would declare a disaster.

What if terrorist attacks wiped out more than 40,000 people across the country? People would panic, and politicians would scramble to try to keep it from ever happening again.

But consider this: 834 people died on Kentucky roads last year, state officials announced last week. That was 73 more deaths than in 2015 and the most in a decade. At least 218 people have died so far this year.

Nationally, 40,200 people died on roads in 2016, the most since 2007. Forty thousand, two hundred people; that’s more than twice as many Americans as died in the War of 1812.

How do we react to this carnage? Mostly, we shrug.

Unless they know a victim personally, most people casually accept this huge annual death toll — plus tens of thousands more injuries — as the price of transportation. We call them “accidents” — as if they are random occurrences that nobody can control.

Police and emergency workers, who must deal with this tragedy every day, try their best to publicize the problem and its causes, but nobody pays much attention.

More than half the people killed on Kentucky roads last year weren’t wearing seat belts. Speeding and aggressive driving contributed to 36 percent of deaths. Nearly a quarter involved cellphone use or other driver distractions.

Alcohol use contributed to 139 deaths. (No numbers for drug use were reported.) Of the 92 motorcyclists who died, 62 weren’t wearing helmets. Big trucks and other commercial vehicles were involved in 82 deaths.

There are several issues here worth discussing. The first is personal responsibility, which we excuse too often in ourselves and others. We love our cars. We’re in a hurry. We like to drive fast. We love our cellphones even more than our cars. We are busy. We have short attention spans, and cellphones have made them shorter.

Laws and new technology might force some change, but probably not much. People always find ways to evade them.

The answer is to make distracted driving as socially unacceptable as we have made drunken driving. How do we do that? I don’t know, but it will be hard. Unlike drunken driving, virtually everyone has been guilty of distracted driving at one time or another.

The recent uptick in traffic deaths follows a steady decline from the 1940s through the early 2000s. Much of that can be attributed to seat belts and other car design and safety improvements.

Traffic engineers would argue that roads are safer, too, but I’m not so sure. There is a good argument to be made that many costly projects to make roads safer have instead made them more dangerous.

Speed and aggressive driving have always been key factors in highway deaths. Yet, the American engineering solution for “safer” roads is usually to make them straighter and wider, which only encourages people to drive faster and more aggressively while paying less attention to what they’re doing.

This also makes roads less safe for slower-moving vehicles, and for pedestrians crossing the road or walking on nearby sidewalks. When people don’t feel safe walking or biking, they don’t, and that forces more people to use cars.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I am going to the Netherlands to help escort a group of college students on a bicycle tour. It will be my second bike tour of the world’s most bike-friendly country.

Kentucky and the Netherlands are very different places. The Netherlands has a population four times larger than Kentucky’s on less than half the amount of land. And the country is flat, unlike most of Kentucky.

Still, Kentucky could learn a lot from the Dutch about traffic engineering. The Netherlands has fewer than 600 traffic deaths a year — one of the lowest per 100,000 people of any developed country, and one-third that of the United States. Less than one-third of Dutch traffic deaths are cyclists, even though one-third to one-half of all trips there are made by bicycle.

On newer and busier Dutch roads, cars, bicycles and pedestrians are separated. Still, where everyone uses the same road, the Dutch design philosophy forces people to control their speed and pay attention to what they’re doing.

As the innovative Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman once said: “When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like that.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen