To be truly impactful, they need to recognize one big thing
Today, car accidents are a tragic, but common part of our cultural experience. Living in a commuter city, you’re likely to pass an accident on the road at least once per week, and chances are you’ve been involved in accidents yourself in your lifetime. If you were lucky, you walked away without a scratch. Of course, that’s not always the outcome.
Cities around the world are working hard to ensure that today’s high accident rates become a thing of the past. With the internet of things, smart mobility technology and smart infrastructure options abounding, the consensus is that a future of zero-fatality, accident-free roads is not only possible, but within our grasp. However, the approach cities are taking to the problem of driver safety may still be too reactive to create the change they’re hoping for.
One key part of these vision zero initiatives is the use of crowdsourced traffic data from mobile phones to identify high-risk intersections and areas where a disproportionate number of accidents and slowdowns occur. This is a major step forward from today’s system, in which risky areas are identified based on emergency response data and police reports (when they’re filed).
However, the idea of reactively responding after accidents have occurred is still decidedly low-tech, no matter how the data is being gathered. Cities change and grow continually, so the safety of the city will be constantly in flux as potential new hazard zones are introduced and retroactively identified. To truly be effective in creating a zero-fatality future, cities need the ability to proactively identify areas where accidents are likely to occur, so they can prevent accidents before they happen by adjusting speed limits, posting warning signage, or even rethinking and reconstructing the infrastructure in certain locations.
What this boils down to is that cities need the ability to measure and stop unsafe driving where it starts – with the drivers. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, upwards of 94% of accidents are caused by human error. The term “human error” may seem vague, but professional drivers and the organizations that employ them actually have a very clear picture of the specific behaviors that comprise safe and unsafe driving.
Commercial fleets understand the importance of correcting individual driver behavior better than anyone, which is why they often allocate budget and time to training drivers to perform more perfectly across a variety of situations on the road. It may be unreasonable to expect cities to accomplish the kind of intensive, one-to-one training for its citizens that commercial fleets undertake, although some degree of education could be provided through advertising campaigns, public service announcements, and voluntary training courses.
Cities might, rather, be able to take the same approach that ride hailing companies like Uber have taken by developing custom mobile apps that recognize and track driving behaviors like harsh braking, acceleration, and speeding. Not only can tracking these behaviors give drivers the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and improve their driving over time, it can also give cities the kind of granular data they need to identify problematic intersections and act to improve them before accidents ever occur.
They can take this a step further, as Uber does, to reward drivers for good driving with instant digital coupons to nearby coffee shops or other vendors. Not only does this give drivers an incentive to adopt the app and practice safe driving, it also gives the city a potential source of advertising revenue to fund their app’s development and marketing.
Of course, to be truly smart, cities of the future can’t just be zero-fatality – they’ll also need to run as efficiently as possible, in terms of commute length and environmental impact. Good driving behavior creates other incidental benefits like better-flowing traffic and improved fuel efficiency for less overall pollution, both of which can have a substantive impact on a city’s health, culture and marketability.
Vision zero and smart cities initiatives are on the right track and are geared up to play a major role in shaping our world over the next few years. But to be truly impactful, they need to recognize that, as long as people are behind the wheel, cities can only be as smart, safe and efficient as they empower their citizens to be.
The views expressed are of the author.
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