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Leave the car home and use your legs

Norfolk Virginian-Pilot
Monday, May 10, 2004

By Thomas Hylton

The first Sunday of May 2004 was tragically unforgettable for the hundreds of motorists trapped for hours on the Chesapeake Expressway by a multi-vehicle car crash. A 22-year-old mother and a 12-year-old girl were killed when an SUV crashed head-on into their vehicles.

Driving is by far the average American's most dangerous activity. Every month, we lose more Americans to car accidents - about 3,500 lives - than we did in the 2001 terrorist attacks.  

Despite our considerable fear of violent crime, we are nearly three times as likely to be killed by a car than a bullet or a knife.   Moreover, the vast majority of homicides involve family members, acquaintances, and co-workers - factors that have nothing to do with daily activities like going to work, the store, or the park.  

Taking the two biggest life-threatening hazards into account - traffic accidents and homicides by strangers - University of Virginia researcher William Lucy found the newly developing fringes of Virginia's metropolitan areas are considerably more dangerous than traditional cities like Norfolk, Richmond, or Roanoke.

From 1988 to 1997, people were twice as likely to meet a violent death in Suffolk as in Norfolk, Lucy reported. The most vulnerable people, he said, are residents who drive the most frequently and longest distances on two-lane highways.

There's another, less dramatic danger to spending ever more time driving: obesity.   Largely because people are spending ever more of their lives driving instead of walking, the percentage of overweight adults has doubled in the last 20 years. Obesity is now second only to smoking as the leading cause of premature death. (Car accidents are still the leading cause of death for those under 35.)

This week, nearly 250 Virginia transportation safety specialists will gather at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott to discuss how we can make our highways safer. The conference will cover everything from drunken driving prevention programs to collision avoidance technology. But as long as everyone from teen-agers to octogenarians is piloting two-ton vehicles going 30-plus miles an hour, the highway carnage will continue.  

At the conference, I will promote two methods of transportation that are inexpensive to create and maintain, cheap to operate, and far safer than cars will ever be. They're called walking and bicycling.  

A century ago, when most Americans lived in traditional cities and towns, walking and bicycling were the most common methods of getting around. It was easy because we placed houses, stores, and offices in close proximity. Even if you used trains and trolleys, you still walked to the train station or the trolley stop. When cars first came along, they were adapted to existing neighborhoods.  

Despite 50 years of sprawling development patterns, one quarter of all trips in America are still less than a mile. That's a 20-minute walk or a 10-minute bicycle ride, max. In metropolitan areas throughout western Europe, anywhere from 16 to 46 percent of all trips are made by walking or riding a bicycle. That's an enormous amount of energy saved and traffic congestion prevented. And it's a lot safer. Americans are twice as likely to be killed in a traffic accident than the English, Dutch, or Swedes. And western Europeans have a longer life expectancy than Americans because of their healthier lifestyles.

To make walking feasible, we need to curb highway building and start retrofitting our existing infrastructure with more walkways and bikeways. We need more "traffic calming" devices to force motorists to slow down for their own safety and that of nearby pedestrians and bicyclists.

In Pennsylvania, where I live, the Department of Transportation has launched a four-year, $200 million Home Town Streets and Safe Routes to Schools program to make it easier and safer to walk and bicycle. I hope Virginia will do the same and more. For short trips, our legs are still the cheapest and best transportation system there is.



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