This Wednesday, Alameda's city Transportation Commission meets to hear about the new Fernside Boulevard Traffic Calming and Bikeways Project:
This project will create a design concept to update Fernside Boulevard from Tilden Way to San Jose Ave, aiming to reduce auto speeds and increase safety and mobility for all road users, as well as develop design concepts to implement Active Transportation Plan bikeways. It will also work to develop a near-term striping update for Fernside from Tilden Way to High St that can be implemented with pavement resurfacing.
As a current member of the commission, I'll hold most of my thoughts and questions on the project itself for the actual meeting. (You're also invited to attend and participate at City Hall or by Zoom.)
Unfortunately, I can share one of my main thoughts about this section of Fernside in advance because it's outside of the scope of this project — and outside of the authority of the City of Alameda.
It's on this stretch of Fernside Boulevard that in 2021 Alameda resident Nicholas Bianchi was killed when his car was "t-boned" by a driver of another vehicle. The driver of the other vehicle sped through a stop sign without stopping and was reported to be likely drunk.
Among the other fatal crashes in California in 2021 due to drunk driving was another crash in which the drunk driver was responsible for killing nine people (seven of whom were children). This crash — in Avenal, in the Central Valley — drew the attention of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Experts in windbreakers inspecting airplanes
The NTSB is probably most recognizable when their staffers arrive in their blue windbreakers with large yellow lettering on the scene of a downed airplane.
It's also their staff and board members who appear on camera even when the airplane doesn't crash. Like recently, regarding the bum Boeings.
For all of the ways in which the American public no longer trust our public institutions, the competence of NTSB staff and leadership is an exception. Millions of Americans feel comfortable flying each year thanks, in part, to the rigorous impartial expertise provided by NTSB. We can trust that this agency will do it's best to find the root cause of situations like the current Boeing 737 MAX 9 issue, without any interference, distraction, or favor.
NTSB evaluates more than just air disasters. Their purview covers safety for all "modes" of transportation in the United States.
What the experts recommend for automobiles
So keep in mind the trust that you may have in those windbreaker-clad experts when you read their assessment of that 2021 fatal crash in Avenal, California, and what they recommend be required in all new vehicles sold in the United States:
About a third of all traffic fatalities in the U.S. are due to alcohol-impaired driving crashes—more than 13,000 deaths annually. Over the past five decades, the NTSB has issued more than 150 safety recommendations related to crash investigations involving impairment.
After a horrific New Years Day crash in 2021 that killed nine people including seven children, the NTSB called on [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)] to require all new vehicles be equipped with passive alcohol impairment detection systems, advanced driver monitoring systems or a combination of both that would prevent or limit the vehicle’s operation if alcohol impairment was detected. That recommendation remains open and classified as an “unacceptable response.”
Yes, the experts are effectively recommend that every single car in the US come with a breathalyzer. Keep reading to read why:
“This is a public health crisis that has devastated our country for too long,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “Adding to our devastation is the knowledge that there are technology solutions available TODAY that can prevent crashes like the New Year’s Day tragedy, and countless others since, from happening again…if we’re bold enough to act. And yet, we’re still waiting.”
The NTSB first asked NHTSA to advance in-vehicle technology that would prevent impaired driving in its 2013 report Reaching Zero: Actions to Eliminate Alcohol-Impaired Driving. That report called on NHTSA to accelerate the development of new in-vehicle alcohol detection technologies and addressed the role of enforcement and adjudication in achieving meaningful reductions in impaired driving.
“Countermeasures like education and high-visibility enforcement are an important part of the solution to traffic violence, but they alone cannot get us to zero, which is the only acceptable number of lives lost,” said Chair Homendy. “The best way to eliminate deaths and injuries for all road users is through the safe system approach, which builds in layers of redundancy to protect people.”
“Enough is enough. It’s time for NHTSA to save thousands of lives by requiring impaired driving detection technology in all new vehicles.”
But I don't wanna
Does that weird you out a bit? The thought of the federal government forcing you to blow into a tube before you turn on your motor vehicle.
I'm exaggerating the point. The NTSB recommendation encompasses a wider range of systems to either actively or passively detect the unsafe behavior that's associated with drunk driving. It's not just a breathalyzer that would meet this criteria.
But so what? Why not require everyone to breath into (or near) a tube before they turn on a giant multi-ton vehicle?
To me, this seems like a debate worth having — because I think the gain in safety for all is worth the inconvenience to individuals.
Unfortunately our country isn't even having this debate about "breathalyzers" in cars because we're all so distracted by other whizbang solutions.
GM and Google are instead "solving" traffic safety by building "self-driving" cars.
The US Department of Transportation and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America are "solving" traffic safety by connecting cars to each other via cell phone data connections. Drivers, as if they aren't already distracted by so many screens, will get even more on-screen notifications informing them they are, say, entering into a highway workzone and are advised to reduce their speed.
The NHTSA (named in the press release I pasted above) isn't even distracted by whizbang solutions – that agency is just organizationally inept and captured by the automotive and trucking industries they're charged with regulating. Over the last year, ProPublica and Frontline have been reporting a series on NHTSA's systematic failures to improve car-under-big-rig crashes — it's indicative of the more general failures at NHTSA to address vehicle safety more broadly.
Driving more safely, even when it feels like a drag
Eventually, all these regulators and automakers did the right thing with seat-belts — after they were forced to do so. And it was only with years of grumbling from hold-outs. (I remember the automated seatbelts in my grandparents' car in New Jersey, which they bought in attempt to get my grandpa Bill to stop forgetting and/or ignoring the seat-belt.)
For better or worse, cars are all equipped and controlled by computers now. No, they can't drive themselves. But the sensors on the outside of late-model cars do act some incremental safety benefits (not to mention also some conveniences, like adaptive cruise control on freeways). So why not do the right thing and require all new cars to have a breathalyzer (or equivalent sensors) inside the car itself?
Safety on Fernside
I do strongly believe that the most effective means of improving the safety of streets in Alameda is engineering improvements to those streets. And so at Wednesday's TC meeting, I'll be asking some questions and speaking to both "quick build" and long-term improvements that use materials like concrete to improve traffic safety for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers. Still, it's worth looking across all aspects of what causes crashes and what can be done to decrease their odds. Our society is systematic and thorough about this for aviation — we'd do well to look into our societal blind spots related to cars, trucks, the companies that sell us these vehicles.