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Excerpt from No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads by Neil Arason

From the Prologue

In 1913, the automobile began to be mass-produced on a moving conveyor by Henry Ford. Starting then, cars came off the assembly line and began to be sold in large numbers. With even more efficient assembly line production taking place over time, cars would be mass-produced at ever greater rates: by the 1920s, Ford was producing a Model T about every twenty-four seconds. But only simple roads continued to be built for them. And that was that.

Hardly any effort was made to determine if the amount of responsibility handed to the drivers of these machines was actually within the limits of the fallible human condition. We rarely worried about a poorly designed road because, when things would go wrong, it would mostly be viewed as the driver’s fault anyway. The car would end up as a grand experiment involving the world with little in the way of a back-up plan for the millions of failures to follow.

From the time the first automotive traffic death occurred at the end of the nineteenth-century, even before the age of mass production, we would allow automobiles, in mounting numbers, to run over our fellow human beings, disfigure them, inflict pain on them, and kill them in acts of bloody violence. We would give implicit permission for this to re-occur on a daily basis for over a century to come. Today, thirty-three hundred people die every day on the world’s roads.1

This progression would be accompanied by a continuous pattern of blaming human behaviour for this violence. Even with more data and a growing understanding of how people actually behave in the real world, we would keep designing systems that relied upon perfect driving—by every driver at every moment in time.

We created one of the biggest human-made and systematic methods for physically assaulting people in Canada and across the globe, and we needed systems to respond to this. So we created new laws, formed new insurance bureaucracies, and saw the rise of specialty lawyers and the near take-over of the justice courts for traffic matters.

To help us cope emotionally, we took the view that these physical assaults were acts of nature, and simply beyond our control. Such thinking continues to this day. On an October day in 2012, a family of four from Calgary was vacationing when, on a highway, a foot-sized rock shot out from a flatbed truck and came through the passenger-side windshield of the family car. The rock killed a young mother of two, Janice Cairns. The rock had likely become lodged between the truck’s wheels and no inspection caught it before it was carried onto the public highway, no sensors detected its perilous hiding place, and no guard or fender prevented it from becoming dislodged like a missile. Despite an array of possible measures to avert such a disaster, the police corporal on the crash scene simply said, “It’s an act of God.”2

But how can the by-products of human-made machines and human-managed systems end up construed as acts of God beyond our control? In our prevailing world view, we have thrown up our hands to let things simply take their own course. Perhaps we should not be surprised then to find that, today, the World Health Organization has estimated that 1.2 million people are killed worldwide, and up to fifty million injured, from motor vehicle crashes each year.3

The annual growth of the automobile continues to rise rapidly around the world. In the book Two Billion Cars, Sperling and Gordon estimate that there are currently over 1.5 billion motor vehicles in the world, and that this number will surpass two billion by 2020.4 This growth will especially occur in countries moving towards a car-dominated culture, including China and India but also much of south and east Asia, Africa, eastern Europe, Russia, and South America. Across much of the planet, the number of deaths and injuries caused by the automobile will simply rise.

Today, China is the world’s largest car market, which is not surprising given the dramatic expansion of its middle class. In many South American countries, the expected death toll from the automobile is still rising each year, and may not peak until 2020 or later. In fact, it is estimated that the number of people killed and injured on the world’s roads will rise by more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2020.5

In Canada, since 1950, over 235,000 people have been killed in motor vehicle crashes.6 In the last ten years, in this country, the number of people killed from all types of assaults combined with those killed by war and acts of terrorism made up, by comparison, the equivalent of just 15 percent of the total number of people killed in land-based transport accidents.7 In just ten years, from 1999 to 2008, over 186,000 people were hospitalized due to serious injuries from traffic accidents in this country.8 While Canada has made progress in protecting vehicle occupants, this progress has not been as steep as the best performing countries. Also, we are no longer making significant progress in protecting vulnerable road users, like pedestrians and cyclists. In the last decade in Canada, there was no progress in reducing fatalities and major injuries for pedestrians and cyclists struck down by cars, trucks, and buses.9