prudent drivers as traffic calming

Now, on to why I brought up the topic of prudent drivers. A prudent driver on a two lane (one lane in each direction) roadway largely controls the behavior of irresponsible drivers. On wider roads, with two lanes or more in a direction, whether a one-way or two-way, the irresponsible driver can do as they wish, violating laws and endangering others. On the narrower roadway, the irresponsible drivers get irritated, and honk and cuss, but there isn’t much they can do about it. This difference in large part explains why fatality and severe injury crashes are rare on residential streets within neighborhoods, and are common on arterial streets with multiple lanes. It also explains why rural roads have such high crash rates, because the prudent driver there can’t really control other drivers. On two lane streets, prudent drivers set the tone; on multiple lane streets, irresponsible drivers set the tone.

We have proven, over the history of motor vehicle use in the US, that is is not possible to significantly change the behavior of drivers. Education doesn’t do it, enforcement (even when that used to be more common) doesn’t do it. Nearly all of the improvement in roadway deaths has been due to safer cars, not to safer drivers or safer roads, and now that improvement is reversing itself as more and more walkers and bicyclists are killed by irresponsible drivers.

I am not against education, if it is directed at the most dangerous behaviors, which it is not, and I am not against enforcement, if it is done in an unbiased manner, which it is not. Each state has an agency, usually called the Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), whose mission is to obscure the real causes of crashes and to blame walkers and bicyclist for their death and injury, and at the federal level, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) fulfills this function admirably. In this, they are often aided and abetted by the law enforcement agencies. The reason CHP is California is so opposed to automatic speed enforcement is because it would remove the mis-focus and bias that they otherwise rely upon.

Driver behavior must be controlled by roadway design. That is why I strongly believe that all multiple lane roads must be reduced. Two lane one-way streets must be converted to two-ways streets with only one lane in each direction (and any other lanes converted to pedestrian, bicyclist or transit use). Two-way roadways with two or more lanes in the same direction must be reallocated to other uses. Again, excess capacity would be converted to pedestrian, bicyclist, or transit use, or even to development as overly wide streets shrink to fit the real need.

I have no illusions about the huge change in traffic flow. Those drivers who have gotten used to having plenty of space for themselves (their cars) would have to figure out how to use less: fewer trips, shorter trips, slower trips. People would make different decisions about where they live, where they work, where they shop and recreate. As far as I am concerned, this is all to the good.

Our freeways are designed by the ‘best and brightest’ engineers to be as safe as possible, allowing errant vehicles extra space, protecting hard objects with guard rails and impact attenuators (crash barriers), and using ridiculously wide travel lanes, yet still have very high crash rates. Spending more money apparently doesn’t make freeways safer, and the explanation for this is risk compensation, the proven effect that irresponsible drivers will increase their unsafe behavior to maintain the same level of risk. Think about the daily news items about crashes that close freeways for significant periods of time, and how often they happen. None of these need to happen, and I’d argue that an irresponsible drivers is the primary cause of each and every one of them. This post is about local streets, not freeways, but it is worth remembering that irresponsible drivers are everywhere.

I don’t believe that one single death or severe injury for a walker or bicyclist is worth any amount of convenience for motor vehicle drivers. Not one.

So, I ask every transportation agency in the Sacramento region to:

  • cease widening roads, forever
  • analyze all one-way roads with three or more lanes to determine the most dangerous ones, and convert these within two years
  • analyze all two-way streets with more than one lane per direction for the most dangerous ones, and convert these within five years
  • analyze the remaining roads that are not one lane per direction, for the most dangerous ones, and convert these within ten years
  • complete conversion of all roads within twenty years
  • stop victim blaming

prudent vs. irresponsible drivers

The previous post was about prudent drivers. The table below shows how I think of prudent drivers, and irresponsible drivers. It is so hard to not be snarky about driver behavior, but I have toned it down quite a bit. If you think I am exaggerating, then you don’t spend much time on the roads walking and bicycling. I spend a lot of time doing both, probably averaging three hours per day, all of it closely observing driver behavior and the roadway built environment, because it is both my job and my advocacy. The irresponsible behavior is something I see every day, from a significant percentage of drivers. Notice that I did not use the term negligent driver, as is the legal term in my prior post on a prudent driver, because only some of this is negligent; much of it is just sociopathic.

Prudent Driver Irresponsible Driver
yields to pedestrians in crosswalks and waiting to cross never yields to pedestrians
takes turn at stop sign intersections goes out of turn at stop sign intersections
obeys speed limits, within 5 mph drives as fast as possible in all situations
on multi-lane roads, always slows or stops if a vehicle in another lane is stopped on multi-lane roads, pulls around other vehicles that are stopped, honks, and proceeds at full speed
rarely uses their car horn, and only to prevent a crash often uses their car horn to make those other idiots pay attention and get out of the way
is aware of what is going on around them is focused on other things than the road
doesn’t use their smart phone while driving, other than wayfinding holds ongoing conversation on smart phone; texts when they think they can get away with it
passes bicyclists with a safe distance, even when it means waiting yells at, honks at, and close-passes bicyclists, because they don’t belong on the road
believes all people have a right to share the public space on the roadway believes that right to the roadway is determined by the value of their vehicle and social status
will do anything to avoid a crash revels in crashes when they know they are right
knows the the cost of building and maintaining roads is subsidized by everyone is certain that gas tax monies are being illegally diverted to other uses
knows that parking is never ‘free’ and someone, or all of us, are paying believes that the right to free parking is guaranteed in the constitution, and that the parking space in front of their house belongs to them
could be a male or female (or non-binary) is almost always a male

a prudent driver

700. Basic Standard of Care: A person must use reasonable care in driving a vehicle. Drivers must keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles. They must also control the speed and movement of their vehicles. The failure to use reasonable care in driving a vehicle is negligence.

Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions, 2019

The term ‘prudent driver’ does not exist in law or case law for California, though it does for some other states. The concept is useful enough that I’d like to explore it here. The term is closely related to other concepts such as a ‘reasonable person’, ‘prudent man‘, ‘prudent person’, ‘duty of care’, and ‘standard of care’. The Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) document, excerpted above, is often referred to a ‘case law’, instructions for how to interpret legal codes, based on court findings. Many terms in California Vehicle Code are left intentionally fuzzy, but case law removes much of, but not all of, this fuzziness. In civil law, which is what this document covers, the three criteria for establishing liability are negligence, causation, and harm, meaning that the person acted in a negligent way, and harm was caused by the negligence.

Of the two issues most relevant to people walking, speeding and failure to yield are the most significant.

706. Basic Speed Law (Veh. Code, § 22350): A person must drive at a reasonable speed. Whether a particular speed is reasonable depends on the circumstances such as traffic, weather, visibility, and road conditions. Drivers must not drive so fast that they create a danger to people or property.

Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions, 2019

Section 706: Basic Speed Law (and sections 707 and 708), presents the idea that violation of the speed limit is not, per se, evidence of negligence on the part of the driver, but that the test is whether the speed was reasonable. In most European countries, violation of speed limits is negligence, but unfortunately that is not the case in the US. But the document does lay out pretty clearly that the driver is responsible for controlling their vehicle and anticipating the presence of other users on the roadway.

710. Duties of Care for Pedestrians and Drivers in Crosswalk (Veh. Code, § 21950): A driver of a vehicle must yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian who is crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection. When approaching a pedestrian who is within any marked or unmarked crosswalk, a driver must use reasonable care and must reduce his or her speed or take any other action necessary to ensure the safety of the pedestrian.

A pedestrian must also use reasonable care for his or her own safety. A pedestrian may not suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle that is so close as to constitute an immediate hazard. A pedestrian also must not unnecessarily stop or delay traffic while in a marked or unmarked crosswalk.

The failure of a pedestrian to exercise reasonable care does not relieve a driver of a vehicle from the duty of exercising reasonable care for the safety of any pedestrian within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection.

Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions, 2019

Section 710 covers the failure to yield to pedestrians violation, CVC 21950. The case law does have some interesting quotes:

“While it is the duty of both the driver of a motor vehicle and a pedestrian, using a public roadway, to exercise ordinary care, that duty does not require necessarily the same amount of caution from each. The driver of a motor vehicle, when ordinarily careful, will be alertly conscious of the fact that he is in charge of a machine capable of projecting into serious consequences any negligence of his own. […]”

“It is undisputed that defendant did not yield the right of way to plaintiff. Such failure constitutes a violation of the statute and negligence as a matter of law in the absence of reasonable explanation for defendant’s conduct.”

To summarize, my interpretation of the judicial guidance is:

  1. Drivers must control the speed of their vehicle, no matter what the posted speed limit, in recognition that they must always be aware of other users of the roadway and take all reasonable precautions to ensure that crashes do not occur.
  2. Drivers must yield to pedestrians who are exercising reasonable care in crossing the street, and the pedestrian has a presumption of right-of-way in the absence of other evidence.

So, a prudent driver would not be negligent, and a negligent driver would not be prudent.

Next post, more about how a prudent driver behaves.