Many science fiction stories involve humans battling for survival from the robots they themselves created. Unfortunately that future is already here. There are three ways cars kill us: quickly as in car crashes or collisions, slowly with smog and sedentary sitting and finally very slowly with global warming and sea level rise.
Starting with the first, automobiles kill about four Santa Monicans a year. While there is significant annual fluctuation (at least eight died in 2017 while none died in 2018) the average of about four a year over the last decade seems to be a stubborn unalterable statistic. Pedestrians and bicyclists are involved in about two-thirds of these fatal accidents. It is too early to tell the statistical significance of scooter riders, although one was killed last month when run over by a car in Ocean Park.
Second, is the pollution generated by cars both in their manufacture and operation. You already know the statistics. Motor vehicles (cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles) generate about half of the nitrogen oxides, a source of smog, in the air. Particulates (think of the Volkswagen’s diesel scandal) also have a deadly pernicious ability to lodge deep in lung tissue. All this pollution ends up everywhere so that half the US population lives in areas with unhealthy air according to federal air quality standards. Finally, there is the lead in soil from decades of leaded gas combustion.This fog of particulates, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxides and sulfur dioxide have a deleterious effect on all body organs including increases in cancer, heart disease, asthma, etc. etc. Needless to say fetuses, children and seniors are the most affected by these poisons, which cause about 30.000 annual premature deaths in the U.S. or statistically about eight premature deaths in Santa Monica. Notice that about twice as many Santa Monicans die from car pollution annually than from car crashes.
Finally, greenhouse gases (primarily CO2) which vehicles exhaust, provide about one-sixth of our country’s CO2 production (generating electricity provides slightly less than half). Greenhouse gases increase global temperatures which cause extreme weather events, heat-related deaths, flood, droughts all of which contribute to mass migrations and death by dislocation (think Africans and Middle Easterners drowning in the Mediterranean and more closeby Central Americans at the Mexican American border). Critically for Santa Monica, global warming’s sea level rise will inevitably destroy our beaches and our tourist industry.
So what can Santa Monica do to alter this cascade of disasters? In order of increasing cost here are seven things you can do: note that the first five are free.
• SLOW DOWN. This saves lives more than any single decision you can make. It buys both the driver and a potential victim reaction time and reduces impacts if they occur. Unfortunately, as the City gets more gridlocked and residents find it harder to get anywhere on time, WAZE is slamming drivers down alleys and secondary streets where they often travel at inappropriate speeds. I’m sure you have seen the signs sprouting like spring flowers, around schools advocating speed reduction. This is part of the City’s “Take the Friendly Road Campaign” of driver education to reach “Vision Zero” which is an ambitious goal of a City with no traffic deaths.
• PUT THE PHONE DOWN. Distraction is the enemy: we have all broken this law or been in a car with someone who is talking on the phone, handless or not, while being clearly distracted.
• BE VISIBLE: the vast majority of pedestrian/bike accidents involving death or serious injuries occur after 7 p.m. so wear light clothing at night or some form of working illumination or flashing lights on your bike or helmet.
• DRIVE LESS (OR NOT AT ALL). Santa Monica is a relatively flat City with relatively good weather. So if you have a choice for local trips, walk, ride a bus a scooter or a bike before just automatically taking the car. The car kills because it’s too easy sitting (along with our pervasive overall sedentary lifestyle) while it does all the work, instead of using a short trip as an opportunity for some exercise. Our reluctance to leave of our armored chariot comes from our laziness, but also from the perception that streets aren’t safe for pedestrians, scooters and bikes. While the City is making significant increases in safe infrastructures for bikes and pedestrian, for example, the proposed new 17th street separated bike path from Wilshire Blvd to Santa Monica College, this safety perception will not change until there are significantly better drivers on our streets. Therefore:
• OBEY THE LAW. As many different types of traffic will increasingly share the limited roadway, obeying the traffic laws for all vehicles becomes critical. Already you may have noticed the timing change of about a quarter of our traffic lights that allow pedestrians to start crossing before cars are given the green light. This makes the moving pedestrian more visible to drivers, before the cars enter the intersection. So while there are small tweaks like this that can, over time save lives, nothing saves lives like patience and correct driving by everyone. But if you must drive:
• USE A MORE ECONOMICAL CAR. Even if you do all the five free steps above to perfection you are still killing Santa Monicans with your car’s pollution so the more miles per gallon your car gets, the less murderous you are. It’s that simple. If you can afford it, get a hybrid car or even an all-electric car which you can recharge from all renewable (wind, photovoltaic, hydro or thermal) sources.
• GET A SMARTER CAR. There is a limit to how much “Net Zero” progress we can make relying on driver courtesy and attention in a City with small roads and many bars. Like the earlier mandatory seat belt laws, safety progress will really accelerate with safer cars. We do not have to wait for the driverless car. Already there are cars that have automatic braking ability when confronted with an obstacle in their path of travel. This will save countless bike and pedestrian lives.
So better drivers (that means everybody who drives anything), better cars, and better streets can save lives. But you can do your part now with these eight steps while waiting for the safer street infrastructure, and the eventual all-electric smart car’s complete penetration of the car marketplace. Till then, did I mention slowing down?
By Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA For Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Sam Tolkin, Architect; Dan Jansenson Building and Safety Commissioner, Architect; Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner; Ron Goldman, FAIA; Thane Roberts, Architect; Bob. Taylor, AIA; Phil Brock, Arts Commissioner.