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What is ‘Traffic Violence’ and Why Do We Need To Talk About It?

Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Every once and a while, Streetsblog USA will get a tweet like this from a reader:

Or a comment like this:

Traffic Violence

Or an email like this (yep, this one’s real):

Traffic violence? SMH. You really are a ridiculous [redacted].

Of all the words in the street safety advocate’s vernacular, perhaps the term “traffic violence” provokes the most powerful emotions. For many, that emotion is simple gratitude, that the tens of thousands of preventable deaths that occur in the traffic realm every year have been recognized, in this small way, for the violence that it is. For others, it’s confusion about the connotation of intentional harm that creeps in when we remove the word "accident" from our vocabulary — or even rage that it provokes in people who say we are not presuming innocence of every driver involved in all car crashes by default.

Since at least 2013, Streetsblog has been using the term “traffic violence” to describe the epidemic of death and serious injuries that has raged on our roadways since the advent of the automobile. (The comment above is from one of former Streetsblog USA edtior Angie Schmitt’s articles, which is the first instance of the term we could find, though she said she did not coin it.) But the broader street safety advocacy community didn’t seize upon the phrase until around 2016, and even today, it’s not in widespread usage beyond a few wonky corners of Twitter. If you google “what is traffic violence,” the top hits will include one fantastic but locally focused article from the LAist, an advertorial from a personal injury law firm, and some guy’s private blog post, which questions whether the term is unnecessarily divisive:

Take this case of a San Francisco bus driver who had 35 years of experience and a clean toxicology report. Did he intentionally get behind the wheel that day to kill a jogger? Are we to have no empathy for the driver? This is one of the things I find so pernicious about this terminology. Under the phenomenon known as an accident, we can empathize sympathy for both sides. When we shift the language from accident to violence it makes it much more difficult to empathize with the perpetrator of such violence.

The ideas of "empathy" and "intention" are common to most criticisms of the phrase “traffic violence.” When we hear the story of the long-serving bus driver who unintentionally killed a jogger, virtually anyone who has ever piloted an automobile — and if you live in America, you probably havedoes feel compelled, at least for a moment, to put themselves in that driver’s seat and imagine how it would feel to realize that a human being has sprinted into your blind spot, and in a single, sickening moment, you have ended his life.

And indeed, reports of that San Francisco crash did reflect a cautious driver with a spotless safety record who felt badly “shaken” by what he’d done. To get through the day, we have to believe that most people in our communities would react in this way after they'd killed a pedestrian — or at least, that very few people in this world have it in them to intentionally murder a stranger.

No one in his right mind wakes up in the morning intending to commit traffic violence (except for those who commit premeditated vehicle ramming attacks — and there are a lot more of those than you might think, and state laws are increasingly making it easier for drivers to commit these disturbing crimes without accountability). Even drivers who choose to drive recklessly, or tailgate a cyclist in a fit of rage, or who simply let their attention flag for a few moments behind the wheel — and all of these are choices, even if sometimes they are thoughtlessly made — usually did not put their key in the ignition that day with the intention of snuffing out another human being.

The San Francisco bus driver may well have been giving his full attention to the road when he struck and killed a jogger; considering that most riding a bus is about 60 times safer than driving a car, it's likely he was.
But he did so at an intersection that has six lanes for drivers in one direction and no curb bump out to shorten the crossing distance for people on foot. A confluence of roadway engineers and city planners and the broad consensus of the community as a whole made a collective choice to design this road this way, despite the fact that these sorts of design choices have proven, again and again, to invite collisions between vulnerable road users and drivers. That single engineer or planner may not face accountability for the negligence, but his or her choices did contribute to that jogger’s death — as did the choices of the council that wrote the manual used by that engineer as he or she finalized the plans, and the leaders at all levels of government who decided to prioritize the speed of drivers over the safety of walkers, and even the person who designed the bus.

And that list is not exhaustive.

Violent systems do not come into existence by accident, and they certainly do not persist by accident. America has collectively chosen, every day, to perpetuate a violent transportation landscape that results in roughly 38,000 preventable deaths every single year.

Violence that occurs in the traffic realm is, by definition, traffic violence. A car crash is always a car crash, even if the driver is ultimately found not guilty of criminal negligence. And when we feel a sense of unease saying these words, it is because we have been raised in a culture that has systematically and deliberately worked to shift the blame for that violence onto victims, down to the subtlest workings of the language in the news reports we read.

“Families for Safe Streets has the term ‘traffic violence’ in our mission statement and we selected it intentionally,” said Amy Cohen, co-founder of the New York-based non-profit that is working not only to end car crash deaths in America. “[Crashes] are not ‘accidents’ but a preventable and violent public health crisis. While we will not end this crisis with words, they do matter. The first step to putting in place the systematic solutions to end this epidemic is to recognize that we have a problem that we can fix.”

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