BRIAN DICKERSON: Roads deserve no credit for drop in traffic fatalities

(TNS) You don’t need 20-20 vision to recognize how badly Michigan’s roads have deteriorated.

Now Detroit Free Press cartoonist Mike Thompson has proved that the decay is actually audible.

Go to ABetterMichigan.com and give a listen to the recording Thompson made as he drove across the Michigan-Ohio border on I-75 this week. If you can’t discern the exact moment when Thompson’s tires hit the Buckeye State’s better-maintained pavement, you should probably see a physician.

For the most part, even Michiganders who plan to vote against Proposal 1 (in the foolish certainty that chastened state legislators will react by delivering a cheaper, more efficient road-funding solution) no longer deny that their state has a serious infrastructure problem.

But I still get calls from seemingly sentient voters who insist that Proposal 1’s supporters are exaggerating both the condition of our roads and the threat it poses to motorists’ safety.

A few of those pavement-change deniers felt vindicated last week, when the Michigan State Police Office of Highway Safety Planning released data showing that traffic fatalities and serious-injury accidents both declined in 2014 (albeit not as sharply as in many other states).

How bad can our roads be, they ask pointedly, if fewer Michigan motorist are being killed or maimed on them?

False comfort

But there’s little evidence that the roads themselves have contributed to the heartening decline in traffic deaths. Michigan’s safety progress is consistent with a national trend that appears to have stronger links to other factors ranging from improved vehicle engineering to steadily rising compliance with seat-belt laws.

And although last year’s improvements (which included an 8 percent decline in fatalities and a 7 percent drop in crashes that resulted in serious injuries) coincided with a slight (.04 percent) increase in the number of miles Michigan motorists drove, the longer view reveals a steady decrease in driving over the last decade.

So it’s not that Michigan’s crumbling roads are becoming more hospitable, it’s that we’re navigating them in safer vehicles, with our safety belts fastened, and using them a little less often than we did a decade ago.

Exactly how many accidents can be attributed to road conditions is a matter of continuing debate.

TRIP, a national transportation research company that released a scathing report card on Michigan roads earlier this month, estimates that “roadway features” play a contributing role in a third of all traffic fatalities, citing a 36-year-old U.S. Department of Transportation study.

But the DOT study’s definition of “environmental factors” encompasses everything from view obstructions to icy road conditions, which prompted Free Press Lansing Bureau chief Paul Egan to conclude that an advertising spot attributing a third of all serious accidents to “poor roads” was exaggerated.

Criminal negligence

Last month, as I nervously changed a road-side tire I’d destroyed 500 yards earlier on a cratered access ramp to I-75 in downtown Detroit, it occurred to me that deciding what makes a traffic fatality inevitable can be tricky.

My ruined tire — the sixth I’d sacrificed to potholes since purchasing my car in January 2014 — left me no alternative but to attempt a quick change on the interstate’s slender shoulder. The temperature was in the teens, but I felt a cold sweat trickle down my back as I cranked the jack in the gathering dusk, stealing nervous glances as 16-wheeled semis roared past at a distance of 4 feet.

How, I wondered, would my death be classified if one of those trucks swerved too late? Would the first reports describe me as a careless pedestrian? A disabled motorist? Or would an investigator examining my tire put two and two together and deduce, correctly, that I was a victim of my state government’s criminal negligence?

I’m grateful not to know. But I really don’t want to be an exhibit in some future Legislature’s case for fixing the broken infrastructure Michigan should have addressed 10 years ago.

Brian Dickerson is the deputy editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at (313) 222-6584 or bdickerson@freepress.com.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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