What if we treated car crashes like plane crashes?

When a plane goes down, investigators pull out all the stops. They rush forensic technicians to the scene, pore over every shred of evidence and recreate the crash in detail.

The investigation takes months, even years, in order to figure out what happened and — most importantly — how to change aviation systems so it doesn’t happen again.

Aviation safety experts suggest or mandate changes covering any system that contributed to the crash, from the way pilots communicate to the design of cockpit instruments to maintenance procedures on the ground.

When a car crash seriously injures or kills someone, police, engineers and insurance companies investigate the wreck, but typically with a focus on assigning civil and criminal liability. Once charges are filed (or not), and the insurance settlements are agreed to, it’s on to the next crash. There’s little to no focus on changing the conditions that contributed to the crash in the first place.

Now, a group of urbanists is approaching the problem of car wrecks with a simple shift in attitude: What if we acted like these were plane crashes? Strong Towns, a national nonprofit group that advocates for urban policies, is holding a series of “Crash Analysis Studios” in which volunteers and experts carefully analyze the circumstances and contributing factors behind serious wrecks, with the goal of suggesting changes to lessen the chance they repeat.

“We’re trying to shift that mindset from blame to prevention,” said Edward Erfurt, Strong Towns’ director of community action.

The group just held its eighth studio, in Charlotte, analyzing a February 2022 crash in which Michael-Luther Black was killed while crossing West Mallard Creek Church Road. The crash fit Strong Towns’ most important criteria — it was routine, not a spectacular wreck that sent cars flying through the air in a fiery mess, but one of the thousands of deaths that usually merit barely a mention on the evening news.

“Our system’s broken,” Erfurt said. “We’re numb to it. When there’s an E. coli outbreak, we shut down lettuce until we can figure out where the E. coli came from. We’d immediately put a stop, a recall. When it comes to these fatalities and crashes, we’re not doing that.”

Of course, it’s easy to see practical reasons why we don’t treat car crashes like plane crashes. For one, plane crashes are vanishingly rare (the last fatal accident in the U.S. involving a commercial passenger plane was in 2018 when a Southwest passenger died after one of the Boeing 737’s engines exploded and sprayed the fuselage with debris). Car crashes, on the other hand, are exceedingly common.

Almost 43,000 people a year die in vehicle wrecks in the U.S. That’s about 118 a day. In Charlotte, there were 15,390 crashes with injuries in 2021, according to the latest comprehensive figures from the N.C. Department of Transportation, and 128 deaths.

From a practical standpoint, a two-year investigation of all of those on a par with what the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration do after a plane crash isn’t possible. But that’s why Strong Towns hopes to spin off a quicker way of looking at these wrecks, encouraging ordinary people to learn how to analyze their streets — measuring the speeds of cars, distances and sight lines, accident reports and more — to suggest simple, practical changes that might make future wrecks less likely.

A Valentine’s Day death

It was early morning of Feb. 14, 2022, just before sunrise, and Michael-Luther Black was crossing the street toward a bus stop. He was hit by a Buick Envision at around 7 a.m. while running across West Mallard Creek Church Road, near the intersection with Claude Freeman Drive, just west of I-85.

Black died at the scene. He was 19 years old.


Courtesy Strong Towns

The site of the February 2022 crash, when 19-year-old Michael-Luther Black was struck and killed by a Buick Envision while trying to cross the street to catch a bus. Strong Towns took photos of the pedestrian’s point of view (left) and the driver’s point of view (right) to more fully understand the contributing factors.

The Buick had a green light, and Black was crossing against the “red hand” pedestrian signal, police said. The driver wasn’t charged. A witness told WSOC-TV that Black was late for the bus and was trying to run across the street and catch it before the bus pulled away.

Seems like an open-and-shut case, right? A pedestrian crossed against the light and got killed by a car that had the green light.

But Strong Town’s team of experts and Charlotte-based volunteers identified several contributing factors that could be addressed:

  • There’s no mid-crossing pedestrian refuge. Sprinting across approximately 110 feet of roadway in the pre-dawn light trying to catch a bus is dangerous. Putting a small, concrete “island” in the middle of the crosswalk, giving pedestrians a place to wait out of traffic, would help alleviate that. “We’re talking about a very, very long distance,” said Christopher Miller, a civil engineer in Charlotte and a participant in the crash studio. “You should probably have some sort of a median able to break up the crossing into multiple separate movements.”
  • Long cycles on traffic signals. Pedestrians wait about 1½ to 2 minutes for the walk signal, Miller said. Changing the traffic signal timing — maybe during peak bus times — could make it so pedestrians don’t have to wait so long and feel like they have to rush across the road if they miss the walk signal. Jaden Blank, who led the Strong Towns volunteer effort in Charlotte, also pointed out that the bus comes only about once an hour. Increasing that frequency (which is a larger issue Transit Time has addressed elsewhere) could make pedestrians like Black less inclined to rush across traffic and catch the bus. “If he’s caught at the end of that signal, that’s the difference between him making it to work that day or him not making it to work,” said Blank. 
  • Speed limit. Miller recommended lowering the speed limit from 45 mph to perhaps 35 mph. When Blank measured the speeds of 500 cars on Mallard Creek with a Strong Towns-provided radar gun, he found almost half of them were exceeding the road’s 45 mph limit. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), the average risk of death for a pedestrian hit at 50 mph is 75%. At 42 mph, the risk of death drops to 50%. So even if people still crept above the new speed limit of 35 mph, they’d be a lot less likely to kill a pedestrian if they were driving 40 mph rather than 50 mph. 
    Graph of speeds on West Mallard Creek Church Road

    Strong Towns

  • A mix of pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicle traffic. Why not get rid of the pedestrians and bicyclists altogether? For a gathering of urbanists, Erfurt made a suggestion that sounded tantamount to heresy. West Mallard Creek Church Road is a wide, high-speed road that connects directly to I-85 and I-485. The developments around it are unfriendly, even outright hostile, to pedestrians. Reconstructing Mallard Creek into a “complete street” would cost millions to widen sidewalks, shrink travel lanes, put in more buffers and reconfigure signals. And it would probably stir up a hornet’s nest of opposition (lower speed limits and take car lanes?!). So why not just give it over to cars and focus efforts elsewhere? “I think an approach that could be taken here is to remove the sidewalks. Remove the bike lanes. Allow this to be a … vehicular route, completely,” Erfurt said. Pedestrians, bicyclists and buses could be redirected to a few selected, improved crossings — maybe even bridges above the road — and onto the side streets and shopping center streets in the area.

The fundamental problem Erfurt sees with roads like Mallard Creek is they’re being asked to serve other users when they are clearly built exclusively to maximize car speed. Putting in crosswalks that take 30 seconds to cross, daring pedestrians to play “Frogger” with no medians to pause and putting striped bike lanes makes no sense.
“Unprotected bike lanes on a 45-mile-per-hour road is a recipe for disaster. The cyclists have no chance at 45 miles an hour if they’re hit by a car. I mean, we’ll be talking about another studio and about another fatality with that piece,” Erfurt said.

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