Wear: Driving or scooting, it’s all about weighing the risk and reward


Highlights

Scooters have taken hold in Austin, but moving that quickly without a helmet can be hazardous.

Driving killed more than 37,000 in the U.S. last year, though the death rate per mile has steadily fallen.

Most people accept that risk — a 1-in-170 chance of dying in a wreck over a lifetime — for car travel’s utility.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of acceptance of risk — and scooters and automobiles.

This week, my colleagues Kelsey Bradshaw and Katie Hall wrote a story about scooter safety in the wake of the city’s first known serious injury involving one of those vehicles since Bird and Lime brought them into the Austin market in April. The woman, helmetless and riding a Lime scooter, hit a curb Sunday, pitched forward and hit her head on the pavement.

Officials have not released the woman’s name or her condition, but witnesses at the scene said it didn’t look good.

I’ve taken a few scooter rides in the past several months, and of course witnessed many more while driving around the downtown area. As the weeks have gone on, I’ve found myself shying away from using them.

I feel a bit unsteady on a scooter, and I’m neither comfortable navigating around pedestrians on sidewalks (where that’s legal) nor eager to ride a scooter in a regular traffic lane with cars. And of course, I don’t carry a helmet with me. And although the scooter companies encourage helmet use, officially and on their apps, the reality is that almost no one is going to have one handy.

About six years ago, riding a bike about 5 mph while on vacation, I contrived to get the front wheel catawampus (long story) and went down quickly and hard to the pavement, cracking a rib. So, at my age and ability, the idea of going suddenly from upright on a speedy scooter to eating asphalt is pretty distasteful.

But I see plenty of people riding them at or close to their top speed of 15 mph, zipping down curb cuts from the sidewalk, across an intersection and on their breezy way. I find myself thinking, boy, I sure hope you know what you’re doing.

But, at the same time, I am OK with getting behind the wheel of my Mazda CX5 and driving hundreds of miles at up to 80 mph, sometimes passing big trucks with a concrete jersey barrier 3 feet to my left and the 18-wheeler the same distance from my right fender. I might grip the steering wheel a bit harder at those moments, but to get to where I’m going with dispatch, I’ll do it, again and again.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has compiled U.S. road death stats going back to 1899, the dawn of the automobile age. In that first recorded year, when self-propelled street vehicles still numbered in the thousands nationwide and moved only somewhat faster than a horse, the agency says, 26 people died in motor vehicle accidents nationwide.

It would be another two decades before federal regulators, using some sort of statistical model lost to history, would estimate the total number of vehicle miles traveled by automobiles and thus be able to get a sense of how frequently starting up the engine led to a death. In 1921, when 13,253 motorists, passengers, cyclists and pedestrians died in U.S. vehicle accidents, drivers traveled an estimated 55 billion miles on the mostly dirt roads of the time.

That equated to 24 deaths per 100 million miles. Or, put another way, a death every 4.2 million miles.

No doubt people who owned automobiles back then drove considerably fewer miles per year than the 10,000 or so annual miles each driver on average puts in now. But if they had driven that much each year, and did that for 50 years, that means a 1921 driver would have had something like a 1-in-8 chance of dying in a vehicle accident during his or her threescore and ten.

That was far from negligible risk.

But even so, automobiles grew more and more popular, and public policymakers continually made decisions to facilitate that form of transportation. Road building, in other words, and the taxation and condemnations to support it. And people willingly paid. Whatever it takes to get from here to there faster and faster.

And over time, with continual safety improvements in the design of cars and the civil engineering of those roads, as well as the education of those empowered to pilot a car or a truck, the risk of driving (or riding along) almost continually decreased even as the annual death count continued to rise.

By 1972, the country’s worst year ever in terms of total traffic fatalities with 54,589 (just less than the total U.S. deaths in the Vietnam War), fatalities per 100 million miles had fallen to 4.33. Since then, the toll has continued to fall almost every year, even as driving has increased.

Last year, the highway safety agency estimates, 37,150 people died in road incidents, with about 3.2 trillion miles driven. The key figure: There were 1.17 deaths per 100 million miles, or about a fourth of that 1972 figure.

So now, people who drive for 50 years have about a 1-in-170 chance of being killed in an accident.

Riding on airliners, by contrast, is much safer (750 times safer). So is swimming in the ocean (eight shark deaths a year worldwide) and maybe even playing with tarantulas. And, perhaps, riding a scooter at 15 mph. The jury is still out on that one.

For most of us, we’re probably more nervous about taking a plane flight or bumping into a shark, thanks to Stephen Spielberg. Academics have devoted a good deal of time and library space to this discrepancy in logic, and I looked at some of what they had to say online.

Mostly, it comes down to control. When you turn the key and back out of the driveway, you are in charge of that vehicle (rather than leaving it to a pilot and the airline’s mechanics). Yes, you’re entering a system with thousands of other independent actors, some of them inattentive, others unskilled or sleepy, and more than a few driving under the influence of alcohol, street drugs or an antihistamine. But you, well, you are none of those things, right? And the evidence of a lifetime is that nothing truly bad will happen, at least until it does.

But there’s also a calculation at work, a balancing of risk and reward. Driving that potentially lethal machine gets you expeditiously, and on a schedule of your choosing, to work, to food, to recreation, to romance, to medical care, to family or friends or football and, ultimately, back home. Access to all those is just too valuable in comparison with that chance of calamity.

I did find, on YouTube, a series of videos offering help for fear of driving, which unbeknownst to me is apparently a real thing. I found some very odd videos from people who had apparently appointed themselves experts on this phobia.

Coming soon to the internet, perhaps: 10 tips for overcoming a fear of scootering.



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