In eighth grade Mr. Chomskey made my class memorize parts of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. The poem begins:
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
I can still hear that click-clack rhythm of hoofs beating in some recess of my memory. For those of you familiar with the poem, the tale of two Revolutionary War era lovers torn asunder by King George’s Army, you know that the Highway Man comes to an untimely end on the road in the glow of a midnight moon.
This was my first literary exposure to the danger of transportation, but we all grow up knowing that transportation is an inherently dangerous activity. Transportation will always be dangerous as long as human actors are making decisions about rapid movement and operating fast-moving and heavy vehicles. However, there should be an imperative to make transportation as safe as possible.
Two pieces of news strike this chord. First, Britain has outlawed texting while driving.
Britain’s new guidelines state that using a hand-held phone when causing a death will “always make the offense more serious” in terms of punishment and lead to prison time. Texting is given special treatment.
I hope that Britain’s action is a lead for federal US legislation. Some states have already begun down this path, but the feds can outlaw texting while driving as easily as they create a national drinking age of 21. Simply connect federal transportation (namely highway) money to laws banning texting while driving. That certainly passes constitutional muster.
Second, Transportation 4 America has reported that 76,000 Americans have died in the last 15 years while walking in or along a street. The FDA wants to ban summer oysters because 15 people (largely people with liver problems) a year die from food poisoning but this nation has yet to take pedestrian and road safety seriously.
This report also analyzes state and regional spending of federal transportation dollars on pedestrian safety, finding that many of the metropolitan areas in greatest need of improvement are spending the least amount on pedestrian safety projects. Nationwide, less than 1.5 percent of funds authorized under the federal transportation law, SAFETEA-LU, have been allocated for projects to improve the safety of walking and bicycling, even though pedestrians comprise 11.8 percent of all traffic deaths and trips made on foot account for almost 9 percent of total trips. SAFETEA-LU created a new safety program and changed regulations to make it easier to use what were once “highway funds” on a wider variety of transportation projects, including public transportation and pedestrian facilities.
At the state and local levels, no state spends more than 5 percent of federal transportation funds on sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic calming, speed humps, multi-use paths, or safety programs for pedestrians or cyclists. This is in spite of a more than 30 percent increase in total federal transportation dollars to states with the passage of SAFETEA-LU in 2005. The 52 largest metro areas averaged annual spending of federal funds on bicycle and pedestrian projects of just $1.39 per person. The average metro area spends 2.2 percent of their federal transportation funds on projects to improve conditions for walking and bicycling.
I’m not really sure when we will wake up to the fact that we are a multi-modal nation and that our culture of depending on cars to get us everywhere actually gets us nowhere. The number of deaths to pedestrians is downright unacceptable. It is a sign that we do not encourage walking enough, that we subsidize driving to an unhealthy degree, and that our development and growth has poorly prioritized the types of communities where people can travel safely without turning on a motor.
Transportation is about getting people from one place to another, and all people should have the right to expect to arrive at their destination safely. That should especially apply to those taking the least dangerous means of conveyance, their feet. Or else we may end up metaphorically like the highwayman:
Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.