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The way we make streets safer is to make them more dangerous

The way we make streets safe is to make them dangerous. That is to say, when people perceive the real danger, they respond by being more careful. So our task as engineers is not to design roads to be wider, straighter and flatter – in most instances that is making them more dangerous by giving the illusion of low risk – but to design them so drivers correctly perceive the level of risk they are assuming. In places with pedestrians and cyclists, that means we’re doing our job if drivers feel safe only at speeds less than 20 mph. On high speed roadways, that means we’re doing our job when there are no random or unforeseeable ways for drivers or anyone else to interfere with the traffic stream. For the stroad environments in between, we need to pick either a road or a street design or, if all else fails, do what we can to lower speeds by helping the driver perceive the real risks.

Texting while driving is a very real problem. The cause of the problem, however, isn’t recklessness but an incorrect perception of safety on behalf of drivers who feel little risk in texting. We can write all the anti-distracted driving laws we want but, at best, we will only displace the problem, replacing texting with some other distraction. To really address this problem, we need to be willing to incorporate driver psychology, including risk response, into our engineering approach.

Read more: Texting in your risk gap | Strong Towns

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