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Originally published Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 3:00 PM

Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Smart growth can curb traffic deaths

Reducing vehicle miles traveled, combined with "smart growth" local land-use policies that focus on concentrated out development, writes Neal Peirce, is a long-term, effective route to reduced road carnage.

Syndicated columnist

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Each year, Americans travel about 3 trillion miles in their autos and trucks. Four million miles of roadways have been built for our vehicles.

We drive practically everywhere — to work, to school, to health care, recreation, much more. Cars and truck fleets are a huge part of the American economy. So what's not to like about all this motorized world?

One answer: our overwhelming dependence on foreign oil that depletes our cash reserves and entangles us in trouble-plagued regions of the world.

But we pay an even bigger personal price for a motorized world. It's our health.

Look what rises when the number of miles that people drive goes up, notes transportation expert Todd Litman. Fatal traffic accidents increase. Total air-pollution emissions, related to asthma and other diseases, rise. And people's rate of obesity, linked clearly to diabetes and heart problems, goes up.

These risks, says Litman, help explain why residents of the United States have life spans that average 1.5 years less than most other advanced industrial countries — even though we spend 2.5 times as much per capita on health care.

And there are big social costs — severe limitations, in a public transit-short nation, on the mobility of millions of our poor, elderly, people with disabilities and youth whose access to jobs and educational opportunities is limited.

America needs a full "rethink" of its transportation policies, according to a new report — "Transportation and Health," written by a Partnership for Prevention including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a safe-transportation research center at the University of California at Berkeley, and the engineering firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

The panel confirms a range of common-sense ideas. Examples: Increase public-transit services, to provide alternatives to auto use. Cut tailpipe emissions, chief villains in health impacts. Change the makeup of our vehicle fleet so that our cars are smaller and rely less on high-carbon power.

And then, to cut back radically on the motor vehicle-related injuries and fatalities that darken so many Americans' lives, the expert panel suggests even more efforts to reduce DUI crashes, to increase seat-belt use, and to cut back the speeding that everyone knows can so easily kill. In tune with the times, it also endorses expanded steps to cut back on the growing phenomenon of distracted driving caused by cellphone conversations and texting.

It's a good idea, the Partnership insists, to focus substantial federal transportation assistance on such areas as bicycle lanes and paths, medians, crosswalks and narrower street designs to reduce traffic speed. It endorses both the Safe Routes to School and Complete Street programs — the very types of transportation "enhancements" currently under attack by leaders in the new Republican U.S. House majority.

But would all these steps be sufficient unless ones are taken to actually reduce our use of motor vehicles? In a "free wheels" mentality America, the question's almost unpatriotic. But it's precisely the point that Litman (interestingly, a resident of Canada) makes in critiquing the Partnership report.

Global evidence, he argues, suggests that reducing actual vehicle miles traveled, combined with "smart growth" local land-use policies that focus on concentrated and less-spread-out development, is a long-term, effective route to reduced road carnage that can't be ignored.

One piece of evidence: a study by researchers of 280 U.S. counties rated by how sprawled-out their development is. The survey showed that the 10 counties highest in "smart growth" — i.e., compact and mixed forms of development — had less than a quarter the per capita traffic fatality rates than the 10 with the most scattered and single-use growth patterns.

That's more than a statistic: It's a gauge of personal safety that is naturally a top concern for American families. Yet in all the debates about smart growth, it's rarely if ever raised.

Ironically, while Americans grouse constantly over the cost of fuel, research also shows that pump-price increases actually cut back on traffic-crash deaths and air-pollution deaths.

And there's a whole array of potential (and still unrealized) reforms that would likely provide significant safety benefits. One example would be "Pay-As-You-Drive" vehicle insurance (premiums based directly on annual vehicle mileage). Or making workers pay directly for parking that their employers provide.

Whatever the method, the point's the same. Driving involves dangers to our lives, livelihoods and personal health that the familiar remedies, from seat belts to auto-safety standards, can only partly relieve. We need to redesign our roads and elevate safety measures for cyclists and pedestrians. And most important, the time is at hand to recognize that the compact, mixed-use communities celebrated these days as "smart growth" represent a huge potential for safer and less accident-scarred lives.

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is nrp@citistates.com

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