Driving under the influence

keysA reader recently chided me for including a drunk-driving incident in a list of Mass. Ave. crashes that killed or injured pedestrians.

In 2009, a drunk driver struck a local business owner in the Teel St. crosswalk and sent him to the hospital.

None of the other collisions involved alcohol, at least as far as we know.

But if we are honest we will admit that we are all driving under the influence.

The influence of Mass. Ave., a road that tells us to drive too fast.

The influence of other drivers, who are fast, and inattentive, and aggressive.

The influence of advertising, culture, and groupthink, which normalizes bad driving.

During the discussion of the complete-streets proposal at Town Meeting this spring, former Selectman Annie Lacourt admitted that she is sometimes not a good driver.

She and others stood to benefit, she said, from streets designed to discourage excess speed and to focus drivers’ attention on pedestrians in the roads.

The complete-streets resolution, calling for a town-wide policy for street design, passed handily.

If Lacourt’s confession does not strike a chord within you, you are not alone. In his fascinating book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What That Says about Us),  Tom Vanderbilt says that most drivers consider themselves to be above average in care and skill—but that most of us are worse at driving than we think.

In other words, you probably think this song is not about you. But you are probably wrong.

If you’ve honestly never sailed through a crosswalk noticing only too late that you should have stopped, you are a better driver than I.

Nonetheless street design makes it easier for all us knucklehead drivers to do the right thing.

A poorly engineered street continually requires us to override its implicit instructions about how to drive.

Good design can make the street feel less fast and curb lane changes.

The sign says safety—but the street says otherwise.

The sign says safety—but the street says otherwise.

It can end multi-lane threats and shift the attention of drivers from the chaotic flow of traffic to pedestrians in and entering crosswalks.

These are substantial improvements that break the spell cast by traffic and help us to be the better drivers we want to be.

After all, no one wanted to kill Bill Dotson. Or Margaret MacDonald, Florence Crotin, or Lucy Delgado.

Drunk drivers choose to drink and drive, but on Mass. Ave. we all do our best to cope with existing conditions.

As individuals, we do not control the conditions on the streets, only how we respond to them. But from time to time as a community and a society we make decisions about what those conditions will be.

These are opportunities to change the instructions the streets give us.

At those moments, are we cautious? Do we resist making the positive changes that could save lives because we are used to the “freedom” to drive fast and poorly?

If so, we are as morally culpable as the driver who chooses to drink before getting behind the wheel.

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