Washington’s “Target Zero” makes about that much sense

Target zero is an initiative launched by Washington state government with the goal of reducing traffic deaths to zero by 2020. Noble enough. The traffic zero goes on to ask you how many of your family member it would be acceptable to lose per year. I couldn’t make this up.

The scoping study ran for two years and during that time there were 1,336 traffic related deaths. That’s about 650 deaths per year related to the study. During that time period the population of Washington was no less than 6.8 million, so as a Washington resident your chance of dying in a given year is about 1:10,000, contrast to your odds of dying in Washington in a given year at about 1:80, your a little less than 1% likely to die in a motor vehicle collision.

Let’s think about the alternatives
Better to be an immortal robot? Sure. Better to die of cancer/heart disease? Questionable.

Supose that this 1% epidemic is a problem worth tackling. We already have alot of data about the speeds which would dramatically reduce traffic deaths: http://gizmodo.com/how-likely-you-are-to-get-killed-by-a-car-depending-on-1778993900
So why aren’t we using this data to drive down deaths? Because it’s expensive. A 30 minute drive at 60 MPH, becomes an hour and a half at 20. That means an average highway commute (27.1 mins http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/article158605919.html) in Washington would increase from an hour per day to three hours per day significantly – impacting the quality of life of Washington residents. At the same time it would significantly impact the cost of last mile delivery services and other transit intensive services, but most importantly, lets not forget that lives are also measured in time.

From birth to death you get ~700,000 hours. Lets say we can save one person by adding 2 hours to the commute of everyone in the state, and lets assume that about half the people commute. So with ~260 work days per year, 2 hours per day, and 1/2 of 10,000 commuters per traffic death, that would cost about 2 million 600 thousand man hours for every life saved, with an estimated value of 350,000 hours remaining. I’d be willing to roll the dice on that one.

So Washington has chosen to focus on cell phone usage instead. Even though by their own metrics only 26% of traffic accidents involve cell phone usage in any way. I’m not sure how they plan on getting from 650/year to zero per year by “tackling” a problem that statistically only relates to about 170 of these incidents, but there it is.

Now in 2013 UW did a survey that 1 in 10 drivers was using a cell phone at any given time. With the average fatal crash involving 1.5 cars (http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/general-statistics/fatalityfacts/overview-of-fatality-facts) we would expect that by pure chance about 12% of crashes would involve a cellphone even if it had no bearing on the relative safety of the drivers. So about 80 of these drivers would be expected to get into accidents even if cell phone usage had no causal effect on fatal accidents, just by virtue of the volume of on road cell phone usage at any given time. In other words, 100% compliance with this law would be expected to eliminate about 90 deaths per year in Washington. State wide. In a state with a population of 6.8 million. Way to move the needle.

The other implication is that about 10% of commute time or 3 mins per commuter per day is spent on the cellphone. Now they have to just sit in traffic. An hour per day per 20 commuters, or 44 million cumulative hours per year. That’s 63 full lifetimes worth or 126 expected deaths worth. A net loss of 36 lifetimes per year. Interestingly the 63% of distracted fatalities are single vehicle, single occupant crashes so the preponderance of risk falls upon those who choose to engage in the activity.

As if it wasn’t enough to waste all this time, the legislature has to throw money at it too. I’ve contacted the Washington Traffic Safety Commission website and will update when and if they respond, but after reviewing hundreds of pages of documents, I’ve come to the conclusion that they don’t want anyone to know. I do know this much; more than 150 police departs are participating in the project. They are authorized overtime of up to 1.5x base salary, the project spent more than 600k on awareness campaigns in 2010, and they generated $14 million worth of speeding and seatbelt fines in 2013, 4 years before this ramp up. To the extent that the project is successful in curving the behavior, that incremental revenue will drive towards zero, while enforcement costs continue to climb. If it isn’t successful, then it’s a waste of everyone’s time, and the state’s money.

I get it, at the end of the day the legislatures need to choose their swords to die on. If they don’t have a social boogieman to fight, then they can’t show their constituency that they are moving the needle, but at the end of the day, all of us are going at one way or another. The government can’t stop that, and, frankly, I don’t even feel like they want to, unless it helps them get votes. The question you should ask yourself is how much are you willing to let the legislature limping on your freedom and quality of life, how much decisioning will you allow them to take out of your hands, for a marginal return on public safety? What price are you willing to pay for them to add a feather to their caps? When will we say, “wait a minute, enough is enough”?

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