02 September 2014

The unacceptable

Walking one day, I spotted one of the Google self-driving cars. It looked similar to the other cars in the road, except that mounted atop the car was a spinning apparatus that constantly scanned its surroundings.

I was quite glad to see it.

Another day, while walking from the hospital, I heard a medical helicopter overhead and looked skyward. The helicopter was swooping towards the landing pad with haste. I figured that this was not a routine transport, but a medical emergency. I spun around and headed to the trauma bay to see what was up.

An alert on the emergency department's computer screen filled me in on some of the story: the helicopter was carrying a child who had been struck by a car and was now in cardiac arrest.

The trauma bay was buzzing with activity. A pharmacist was busy drawing up medications. The trauma surgeons were contemplating their plan of action. The X-ray tech was wheeling in his machine. I perched myself in an out-of-the-way corner.

The patient arrived, bloodied and pale. Worried personnel were doing chest compressions. A nurse hooked the patient up to the heart monitor, and the head doctor asked the medical team to stop compressions (so that the heart monitor could detect the patient's heart rhythm). The patient was still. We looked at the heart monitor: it showed simply a flat line. An ultrasound confirmed that the heart had no activity. There was nothing to be done. "Time of death..." intoned one of the physicians.

This patient had been killed by a car while walking to school, becoming one of the approximately 33,783 motor vehicle fatalities that occur each year in the U.S.

A leading social scientist once wrote, "the history of public health can be written as a constant redefinition of the unacceptable."

I submit that this patient's death by car should be considered not just a tragedy, but an unacceptable tragedy. As I've written previously, a major solution to these automobile deaths lies on our doorstep: the autonomous car. With a concerted push for further research and development, many of the cars on the road could drive themselves, identifying hazards and preventing crashes.

But to get there, we need to decide that automobile fatalities are unacceptable. New York City has taken a commendable step in this direction, inaugurating the "Vision Zero" program. Below is an excerpt of the City's justification for the program:
The primary mission of government is to protect the public. New York’s families deserve and expect safe streets. But today in New York, approximately 4,000 New Yorkers are seriously injured and more than 250 are killed each year in traffic crashes. Being struck by a vehicle is the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14, and the second leading cause for seniors. On average, vehicles seriously injure or kill a New Yorker every two hours.

This status quo is unacceptable. The City of New York must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere “accidents,” but rather as preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed. No level of fatality on city streets is inevitable or acceptable. This Vision Zero Action Plan is the City's foundation for ending traffic deaths and injuries on our streets.

New York gets it. I hope the rest of the country will follow. And perhaps within my lifetime the automobile fatality can go the way of smallpox, eradicated for good.