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RIP to the first victim of an autonomous car.  Details are still coming in, but it seems like an Uber robot SUV being tested in Tempe, Arizona killed a woman who was walking her bicycle.  Well, I guess technically some rich guy was already killed while incorrectly operating his semi-autonomous Tesla, however today’s accident feels more real to me and, judging by headlines, to everyone else as well.

I used to be deeply in love with the idea of cars.  They represented power, freedom, and status…until I tried to drive one and realized A) I am terrible at it; and B) it is profoundly easy to hurt or kill someone with a car.  American society is designed to normalize this in all sorts of ways… to such an extent that most people don’t even notice our rising traffic fatality statistics.  In Holland, if you kill somebody with a car, no matter what the circumstances, it is a real problem, but in America, even if you pretty much straight-up murder somebody through volition or grotesque incompetence, the police will come and rationalize a way it was the bicyclist’s or pedestrian’s fault and give you a hug and a root beer sticker. (If you kill more than six people you get a free foot-long hero sandwich!)

The deep indifference of the authorities is born out by the numbers: in 2016, 37,461 people died in traffic-related accidents in the United States.  If 40,000 people died in a war or by gun violence, society would be up in arms (so to speak) and we would be having a national conversation about how to improve things (editor’s note: in 2016, 38,000 Americans were killed by guns. What sort of dark carnival are we running over here?).

America is too spacious for us to ever be free of automated carriages.  I live in New York because, despite the cars, I can bicycle here (barely) and because there is a 24-hour subway (also barely…thanks a lot, Cuomo).  But beyond the coral-reef lifestyle of America’s one worthwhile city there is too much distance to cover.  Even if we were all Lance Armstrong (and we’re really not) we would still need motors to get around.

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We have decided not to invest in effective national mass transit. Likewise, we are not redesigning roads in ways which have been proven to make them safer in Europe and Japan (safer for motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike).  Our only hope of diminishing the carnage and damage wrought by our 1950s/60s era national transportation system is effective robot cars.  This won’t work if we take the lamentable current state of transportation as something to aspire to.

So, although today’s headline was scary and terrible, we need to keep looking at the bigger picture. We are fixated on the person tragically killed by a robot car because it is novel and garners attention (look, here I am writing about it too), but the real headline should be the hundred people who were killed in the United States today by normal human drivers.  Of course, that is the same story every day so nobody remarks upon it.   So Uber (and Google, and Tesla), get your act together.  Break down the data and figure out what went wrong and fix it.  Why didn’t your car stop (they are supposed to have faster reflexes than any person)?  Also, why was the “car” a giant hulking tank to begin with?  What is wrong with robot cars that are adorable little soft alien bug cars, like the Japanese are working on?

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Robot cars are coming and I believe they will be glorious, but a lot more work is needed…and more imagination and creativity are needed too.  So let’s slow down for a moment, but then speed up.  Think of the one person killed, but think of the hundred too.

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Let’s take a moment to celebrate some good news!  Pedestrian deaths in New York City dropped in a meaningful way during 2016 (this refers to people killed by motor vehicles, not people who just keeled over while walking home with their groceries–but you probably already figured that out) .  This statistic runs counter to larger trends: at a national level, U.S. drivers have been killing more pedestrians than in years past, yet in New York, the level of people killed by motorists has gone down (as you can see in the following NYC table).

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The fall in pedestrian deaths is occurring as the subway descends in quality (which we will get to later) and as the streets are filling up with non-professional, unqualified livery drivers who use Uber and suchlike apps to connect with patrons, so I think it is safe to attribute the trend to Vision Zero, a campaign to make the streets much safer.  Kudos to Mayor DeBlasio! This is a real triumph for him, and I want to thank him.

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The basic hallmarks of Vision Zero are lowering street speeds within the city, increasing driver awareness through road designs pioneered in the cities of northern Europe (where it is much safer to walk or bike but where efficient automobile traffic also keeps goods and services flowing) and enforcing traffic laws with automated systems–particularly speed cameras.  Street signals were also re-timed so that it is more difficult to build up dangerous speeds and so that pedestrians cross roads ahead of turning cars. At first the changes were politically unpopular, but the fact that this is saving the lives of the elderly and children is winning over politicians who were initially opposed.  Bob Holden, a city counsel member, who has regularly opposed street changes, new bike lanes, and safety improvements went on record saying “You can’t argue with saving lives. You can never argue that that’s the paramount here…I was wrong, I want to admit that.” (this is really praiseworthy too: if we had more politicians capable of looking at evidence, admitting errors, and changing direction, everything would be improving in innumerable ways).

Of course bicycle fatalities in New York City have gone up, and, though I blame car drivers (who are, after all, the ones traveling through the most populous region in the country in  difficult-to-control metal death chariots which run on poisonous explosions), this may also be because more people are bicycling. Indeed more people are walking, driving, and bicycling overall–both in the city and beyond.  More Americans are killed every year in traffic fatalities than died during whole course of the Korean War (and during the apogee of car culture in the 70s and 80s that number was closer to all the American fatalities in Vietnam…every year).  Maybe taking a page from DeBlasio’s book and re-examining some systems and behaviors long taken for granted on the road would save more people than a whole host of new miracle drugs and super surgeries.  It is definitely worth thinking about!

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