Throughout this dreadful year it has been tempting to look for something — anything — that amounted to a silver lining. Something that, amid all the death and depression, was a benefit we could gain, learn from, maybe even hold over to the new, post-pandemic world that we knew must be coming.
Among the hopeful theories discussed were two that involved the American dependence on our dangerous and polluting motor vehicles. With many people doing their jobs or going to school from home, with no restaurants or movies or sporting events to go to, the hope was that fewer people driving fewer miles would mean less in the way of carbon emissions and not so many traffic fatalities.
So far, it appears that Utah will have to settle for one out of two.
First, the good news.
Reduced rush-hour traffic in the urban counties of Utah made such a noticeable dent in air pollution that the Legislature passed a law directing state government managers to tell employees who can telecommute on the Wasatch Front’s many bad air days to do so, even after COVID-19 is over.
The people who monitor Utah’s air quality have always encouraged people to work from home when they can. They have reason to hope that the businesses and individuals who didn’t see the benefit before will now understand how well it can work, both for the employers and employees but for the community as a whole.
It is not the place of the state to mandate telecommuting for private businesses. But a new public information campaign, perhaps matched with some kind of tax benefits, would be in order.
Speaking of public information campaigns, the Utah Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol are launching an effort to encourage drivers to be a lot more careful out there. That’s motivated by the bad news part of what we have learned about our streets and highways.
Even though overall traffic is down in Utah during the months of pandemic lockdown, the number of fatal accidents is surprisingly up. Preliminary numbers for the year 2020 show that while the number of vehicles on the road dipped some 13% compared to 2019, the number of traffic fatalities rose by 13%.
It wasn’t so much on our high-speed highways, UDOT says, as on city streets. And it wasn’t so much because of the most obvious killer, excessive speed, as it was attributable to distracted driving, impaired driving and failure to wear seatbelts.
It wasn’t only the use of cellphones that causes distracted driving, though that’s a big part of it. Fiddling with the radio, eating or just looking off to the side for what seems like only a second or two also cause accidents.
And when accidents do occur, the fact that, after all these years, so many people refuse to buckle up means an otherwise survivable crash becomes deadly.
UDOT’s latest traffic safety campaign is titled “Our lies are costing lives.” That rises from the department’s conclusion, based on survey data, the most folks consider themselves wise and careful drivers, in fact, the wisest and most careful of them all, compared to all those other yahoos out there.
Such self-confidence is misplaced, UDOT concludes, as it excuses momentary demonstrations of risky behavior - speeding, switching lanes, responding to a text - that drivers think is OK for them, just this once, because, generally, they are such good drivers.
Utah’s traffic stats beg to differ.
Put all this together and the unavoidable conclusion is that streets and highways are bad for us. They kill us quick and they kill us slow. As we move back to life as it was B.C. (before coronavirus) we can choose to change our behavior in ways that make them less so.
More telecommuting. More use of public transit, on existing routes and via services baked in to all new housing and commercial developments. Safer paths for pedestrians and bicycles.
The high-density development that will be needed to accommodate our skyrocketing population has to have traffic reduction as part of its DNA. Even a shift toward cars that pollute less, or not at all, won’t be that much of an improvement if the highways are jammed and every urban intersection is a conflict zone.
Making Utah livable for people means putting their interests and needs ahead of always doing more to make room for cars.