Technology, urbanism, and the car: What is the future of road safety?

How is technology changing? To who’s benefit? And what does this mean for Vision Zero?

Well to begin with, the world is becoming more urban. By 2050 it’s expected that nearly 90% (87.6 to be exact) of Canada’s population will live in urban areas.[1] This has city planners, architects, engineers and policy makers re-designing our cities to be more dense, mobile, green and economically vibrant. Jennifer Keesmaat, City of Toronto Chief Planner presented the city’s compelling vision of this future in her overview of their complete street guidelines, which are intended to ensure safe and accessible streets for people of all ages and abilities.

This push for high-density urban living comes at a time when less people are driving cars to get around. According to Geof Bailey, Director of Vehicle Safety, Emissions and Product Programs at GM Canada, many developed markets have reached “peak car,” meaning the distance travelled by cars per capita will only decline as years go by. This seems to be the case here in Canada, as the number of licensed drivers continues to decline for those aged 16-54.[2]

But perhaps the biggest change is our desire to be connected. For example, survey research from the US suggests nearly half of 18 to 24 year olds would choose Internet access over car ownership and that higher proportions of Internet users are associated with lower licensing rates among young people.[2]

All of this clearly has the attention of car manufacturers, like GM, who are shifting their focus to autonomous vehicles, electrification, the sharing economy, and connected vehicles.

So what does it all mean for safety?

As Geof Bailey described in his presentation, the car of the future will take the Internet with you wherever you go.  Infotainment systems like Apple Car play already allow people to send messages, play music, get directions, listen to podcasts, stream radio and call people without ever touching their phone[3] but we in the injury prevention field know the risks of hands free devices can be just as, if not more, distracting than manually talking on or handling a phone.[4] So more tech could also mean more problems…. .

Also fewer people driving cars likely means more people using alternative modes of travel such as smaller electric vehicles (e.g., e-bikes, motor scooters) public transit, ride sharing services, and various forms of active transportation. However, this doesn’t guarantee we’ll get closer to Vision Zero. Consider the stats on vulnerable road users (i.e., pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists):

  • Between 1990 and 2012 both the number and rate of serious injuries and fatalities for vulnerable road users (VRU) has been decreasing, however;
  • There is a significant increasing trend in the proportion of motorcycle fatalities, and in the proportion of serious injuries for all vulnerable road users, when compared to all other road users.[5] 

In other words, we are doing a much better job at protecting drivers than we are of pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. And when it comes to vulnerable road users, younger and elderly people tend to be at higher risk. For example:

  • The elderly (76 years or older) are overrepresented among pedestrian fatalities, and serious injuries (they represent 18.5% of all pedestrian fatalities but only 5.8% of the population)
  • Those 15 years or younger are overrepresented among cyclists (they represent 23.3% of cyclist fatalities but 19.5% of the population)
  • Those 16 to 25 years old are overrepresented among motorcyclists (27.2% of motorcyclists fatalities and 13.6% of population).[5] 

If we plan to build complete streets and move more people with fewer cars then we must do more to protect our most vulnerable road users. As it stands, Canada lags behind the top performing countries when it comes to pedestrian safety,[5]  however, there is room for optimism. For example, simply implementing proven countermeasures could reduce the current level of pedestrian fatalities in Canada by over 60%.[5]  Cities are acutely aware of this and the newer road safety plans (especially those targeting zero) are prioritizing vulnerable road users through multiple, data driven countermeasures.

What about people who live in the suburbs and rural communities? Most cities with road safety strategies tend to come from larger urban centres and it’s not clear how people outside these areas will benefit from the push for high density, multi-modal city design. Some folks can’t afford to live downtown in large cities or would prefer more space in the suburbs. Typically, the only choice they have for travel is the car and this is often lost in the conversation on complete streets. Furthermore, we know that more people die from collisions in rural settings than in urban ones,[6] which is why continued promotion of evidence-based strategies (like these) to prevent such collisions is critical.

Of course, the real wild card in all of this is autonomous vehicles. If they are indeed safer and fully connected to our mobile devices then people may gladly opt out of big city living for more space in the suburbs and commute long distances without the stress of driving in traffic. This could disrupt the move towards green cities and complete streets and many are waiting to see what the future holds. 

The presenters and guest panels at the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals 2017 conference all touched on these issues in various ways but a more robust and comprehensive discussion on the dynamic interplay between safety, mobility, changing demographics, technology, consumer behaviour and the environment is needed. This could enhance the potential for new ideas and strategies to reduce the burden of injury from motor vehicle collisions and join more people together from various sectors in the pursuit of Vision Zero.


[1] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2014): World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision. Retrieved from: https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Country-Profiles

[4] McCartt, A. T., Hellinga, L. A., & Bratiman, K. A. (2006). Cell phones and driving: review of research. Traffic Injury Prevention, 7(2), 89–106. doi:10.1080/15389580600651103

[5] Vanlaar, W., Hing, M.M., Brown, S., McAteer, H., Crain, J., McFaull, S. 2016. Fatal and serious injuries related to vulnerable road users in Canada. Journal of Safety Research 58, 67–77.

[6] Transport Canada and Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators (2016). 2014 Canadian Motor Vehicle Collision Statistics.