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Major arterial or minor arterial? Freeway or local street? The field of motor-vehicle safety statistics is more than a century old. One would expect such a mature field to have settled the basic question of the best way to report fatality risk.
We may be getting an incorrect understanding of the types of roadways that have the highest fatality risk. Engineers and traffic officials often say freeways are the safest roadways and local streets are the most dangerous. Freeways and expressways have strictly controlled access in order to eliminate intersections and driveways.
That view of safety is one of the main justifications for the mandated federal policy called functional classification. The goal of functional classification is to channel a large percentage of traffic onto a small percentage of roadways, specifically freeways, highways, and arterial roads.
Those roadway types are the most elaborate and designed to carry high volumes of fast traffic, often with full or partial access control. Functional classification has been very successful at achieving its basic goal of channeling and concentrating traffic.
Distribution of urban traffic and urban roadway miles.
Chart 1 shows how functional classification sorts roadways into a range of types. Traffic in the official statistics is reported as vehicle miles traveled VMT. National VMT is the sum of annual state estimates, which are based on gasoline consumption, traffic counters, personal travel questionnaires, and other methods.
To compare the safety of roadways, engineers and administrators adjust the raw statistics to account for exposure.
The Federal Highway Administration and indeed the entire mainstream traffic engineering field does that by dividing the number of fatalities by VMT. In other words, they use travel mileage as the measure of risk exposure.
The chart based on that metric looks like this: Fatalities per VMT by functional class Chart 2 confirms the mainstream view.
Interstates are the safest facilities and local streets are the most dangerous. But is that view truthful? Actually, the official statistics contain a critical logical flaw. VMT that is, travel distance is the product of speed and time.
Therefore speed is fundamentally intertwined in the fatalities-per-VMT metric. The way the variables are related produces the following outcome. For any time span, and assuming identical roads and drivers, the fatalities-per-VMT metric will always report that faster speed is safer see Appendix 1.
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