Data says: Houston driving is very, very bad

distracted20drivingFrom the Houston Chronicle, an analysis of highway safety statistics that concludes what all of us who live here know at a gut level: our roads and drivers are a dangerous mess.

The death toll is the equivalent of three fully-loaded 737s crashing each year at Houston’s airports, killing all aboard. Losing that many planes and passengers would lead to federal hearings, but the Houston roadway deaths are met largely with silence, other than the occasional warning from public safety officials to drive safely and be careful crossing the street.

The nine-county metro region, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, leads the nation for fatal crashes involving drugs and alcohol, the Chronicle analysis shows. It’s No. 2 for fatal crashes, per capita, on federal highways in the 12 largest regions of the country. The Houston region ranks second for fatal wrecks that involve speeding and also trails only Dallas in crashes blamed on someone slamming into stopped congestion on the freeway.

I’ve lost my ability to be shocked by the terrible driving I see here every day: people cutting across multiple lanes on a busy freeway, people merging without looking into the lane they’re entering, people running stoplights at high speed, people texting and talking on their phones with no awareness of what’s around them, and so on. When I was in Germany a few months ago and we went on the Autobahn, the difference was stunning: people going fast kept to the left. People used signals to change lanes. Exits were well marked. It was organized and comfortable.

And fast, which brings me to my complaint with this analysis: it’s focused on speed. Speed is a factor in a lot of deaths on Houston roads, but I suspect it’s not the cause; more likely, it’s the factor that turns crashed caused by poor driving habits deadly. It’s normal to see people driving 50-60 mph on the narrow 1920s streets of my neighborhood; it’s normal to see 5 or 6 cars continue through an intersection after the light turns red.

And in fairness to the Chronicle they do identify a big underlying problem: enforcement is basically non-existent. I’m not sure what you have to do to get pulled over here, because the roads are filled with people driving dangerously and no sign of anybody being stopped and ticketed.

My solution would be a bit simpler: make getting a driver’s license significantly harder than it is now, and when people are pulled over, make the punishments incredibly painful, starting with lengthy suspensions of licenses and permanent loss if you violate that. And then some reasonable level of enforcement. And no “have mercy on me, I have to get to work” excuses to get penalties waived – take a fucking bus. You did something that put lives at risk, you pay the consequences.

(One other note: did the Chronicle hire some of its journalists back? After a long period of being completely crappy, they are starting to publish some good articles.)

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