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Heiko Leesment: Human life will be cheap as long as traffic safety deemed expensive

Heiko Leesment.
Heiko Leesment. Source: Keiu Virro

We should end the unfortunate pattern of efforts to improve the situation appearing only when someone has died in traffic. It is not quite normal that we notice problems and seek solutions at the expense of human lives, Heiko Leesment writes.

Attention has recently been paid to a worrying uptick in children's involvement in traffic accidents (recently by Eesti Ekspress). They betray a problem I have been talking about for years and the solving of which seems to be happening very slowly. Simply put, we are talking about sludge, which in this case means pedestrians having to share the road with cars, trains and bicycles.

The prevalence of life-threatening sludge

Children were walking very near to moving cars between Are and Pärnu-Jaagupi every morning as recently as a few years ago. Small and vulnerable, carrying gigantic backpacks. Also in winter, when snow piled on the roadsides forced them to walk on the road itself. I looked on in horror at the heavy trucks roaring past them. There is no light traffic road running parallel to the road there, meaning that the children's path is an inevitability rather than a choice. There are likely no plans for a pedestrian and bicycle path in the area as it would simply not see enough use.

At the same time, being forced to walk where they can inevitably has an effect on the children's sense of danger – what to a bystander appears as maddening traffic flow seems less dangerous when you're living in the middle of it. Just like domestic violence victims regrettably get used to their "fate," these children are used to moving between home and school in a life-threatening environment.

They do not even think to complain because their parents and grandparents got to school the same way. However, we understand in the context of domestic violence that simply because the last generation did something in a certain way does not make it acceptable. There should be a social awakening also when it comes to traffic.

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman's thinking fast and slow theory reveals the deeper danger of walking next to speeding trucks. The autopilot that guides the child 95 percent of the time has not developed to be cautious enough because the environment in which the child grows, develops and accumulates experience no longer seems as dangerous.

This was demonstrated by a tragic accident from the same area near Halinga from years ago. A child got off the bus, crossed the Via Baltica highway and then, for some reason, decided to dash back toward the bus only to be run over by a car. I would argue that children who grow up in an environment where they need to cross the road between fast-moving vehicles on a daily basis do not always have a realistic understanding of highways and the dangers of crossing them. Just like children who grow up next to a river can underestimated the dangers of thin ice early and late in the winter, because they are used to playing on it.

The Vision Zero approach, which revolutionized road safety in Sweden in the mid-1990s, is based on traffic being the responsibility of those who create the conditions rather than those who participate in it. The Swedes' approach to the problem is structural, while it is agent-based in Estonia. In other words, we're hung up on studying the behavior of traffic participants when looking for problems: too many drunk drivers, speeding etc.

Urging the children moving between Are and Pärnu-Jaagupi to wear a reflector would be an exercise in cynicism. I can tell you from practical experience that even if one does not exceed the speed limit, reflectors only highlight roadside pedestrians in perfect conditions, which are rare to say the least in Estonian weather. While wearing a reflector absolutely is the least we can do to protect ourselves, it is no guarantee, contrary to what public awareness efforts might lead one to believe.

Estonia refuses to accept responsibility on par with our Scandinavian role models. While the situation on our roads no doubt has improved, the problems are still those of developing Eastern Europe. It is clear as day that having to get around between moving trains is dangerous for pedestrians and will sooner or later lead to an accident, usually due to people not being careful enough. At the same time, the government, fascinated with the prospect of altering human behavior, is trying to change and improve pedestrians' behavior using signs, barriers and advertisements.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of behavioral science knows that this amounts to fighting windmills. Instead, we need to be addressing the root cause of the problem, which is the prevalence of traffic sludge – there are just too many dangerous places where pedestrians have to share the road with vehicles. By the way, Estonia has also laid down a vision zero target in its current traffic safety development plan. However, putting it in practice in meaningful terms requires responsibility to be taken, and we still have a long way to go in those terms.

What can we do?

First, we should end the unfortunate pattern of efforts to improve the situation appearing only when someone has died in traffic. It is not quite normal that we notice problems and seek solutions at the expense of human lives and, worse still, manage to turn it into a PR campaign.

One does not need to be clairvoyant to foresee tragedies in places where there are no safe solutions for more vulnerable traffic participants and where people are forced to walk surrounded by trains, trucks and buses.

Such deaths will continue, and if we are serious about improving the situation based on behavioral science, we need to reduce contact between pedestrians and vehicles. Anyone suggesting this is expensive is also suggesting that human lives are cheap in Estonia.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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