For decades, most of the safety advances in cars — seat belts, air bags, anti-lock brakes — have been designed to keep the people inside of them safer. But as vehicle fatalities have plummeted as a result over the years, we're now focusing a lot more on what happens to the people outside of cars.
Seattle last year had 15 traffic fatalities; five of them were either pedestrians or cyclists. San Francisco had 29 traffic deaths in 2014, including 17 pedestrians and three cyclists. In New York City, 248 people died on city streets last year — 132 were pedestrians and 20 cyclists.
All of these cities have now embraced campaigns to eliminate traffic deaths entirely in the coming years as part of what's become a national "vision zero" movement. Much of the push involves adapting city infrastructure or changing local laws like speed limits to protect cyclists and pedestrians. But the history of car safety poses an intriguing question: If vehicle technology has made it safer to ride in cars, should automakers now take more responsibility for making it safer for people who don't even use cars to travel around them?
SF Weekly's Leif Haven, writing about the latest fatality data in San Francisco, raises a provocative idea: "If California required better pedestrian-friendly design and smart anti-collision features, the auto industry would have to ante up, just like they already do" for state air-quality regulations.
Leif points to a project Jaguar Land Rover unveiled at the end of January. The automaker's Advanced Research Centre in the U.K. is currently researching "Bike Sense" technology to figure out what kinds of in-car cues would trigger the most instinctive reactions from drivers at the wheel when a cyclist (or pedestrian) is nearby.
The company is currently looking at technology that would "tap the driver on the shoulder" when a cyclist approaches the car. The sound of a bike bell could also ring from the speaker inside the car closest to the cyclist outside of it. Jaguar is also playing with door handles that would buzz when cyclists are nearby to solve the incredibly low-tech problem of passengers and drivers opening car doors into them:
Automakers who've solved more complicated technological problems could no doubt figure out this one, too. But the policy question raised by such technology is more complex: Should we require cars to include safety features that would protect cyclists and pedestrians around them? In a literal sense, this would force car owners to pay some of the financial cost of making streets safer for people who don't use cars. Put another way: It's asking them to pay for some of the externalities of car travel.
A public commitment to this kind of vehicle technology would make a philosophical point, too: that cyclists and pedestrians can't be solely responsible for their own safety on city streets (notice in the video above that the car isn't reacting to bad biker behavior, just reasonable bike behavior). For decades — and for some fascinating historic reasons — we've addressed pedestrian injuries and fatalities by suggesting that people on foot should pay more attention, as if the onus falls on the most vulnerable. As biking has grown more popular, we now often talk about cyclists this way, too.
Of course, in-car technology doesn't and shouldn't mean that pedestrians no longer need to look both ways before crossing the street, nor that cyclists shouldn't look out for cars constantly. But it would acknowledge that cars, with all their might and weight, carry a lot of responsibility, too.