In 1815 the General Assembly approved "An act relative to the passing of Teams and Carriages in the public highways." Today's version of that law reads: "Upon all roadways of sufficient width a vehicle shall be driven on the right half of the roadway." But, in spite of this ancient "first rule of the road," Rhode Island has many head-on collisions. You do not need to hire a consultant to figure out why. A head-on collision only occurs when at least one driver is on the wrong side of the road.
Many Rhode Island drivers routinely cross over and drive with two wheels on the other side of the centerline. The problem occurs mainly when a driver is turning left or is traveling on a rural two-lane road that bends to the left. Take note next time you are on such a two-lane road.
Of course, the driver who crosses the centerline is not the only person at risk. Oncoming drivers and passengers are also in jeopardy. I wondered just how big the problem was. Specifically, how many people die in head-on collisions in a year? Is the problem serious enough to generate support for fixing it?
It should be easy to get statistics on automobile fatalities, I thought. The only question was whom to call. When a fishing boat sinks or an oil tanker runs aground, the Coast Guard opens an inquiry. When a plane or a train crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board immediately starts an investigation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration examines industrial accidents. And fire marshals investigate fatal fires.
The purpose, of course, is to analyze the incidents and try to prevent repetitions. But apparently there is no any analogous process with respect to automobile fatalities in Rhode Island.
I asked the State Police for statistics on traffic fatalities. Next I called the state Department of Transportation. Then I tried the Governor's Office on Highway Safety. At each agency, the persons I spoke with - two or three at each agency -- said either that they didn't have such statistics or that they were not at liberty to reveal them. (Besides, they wondered, how was I going to use the information?)
At one point, in frustration, I said just tell me the dates of the fatal accidents, say in 1996 or 1997. Then I'll look up the newspaper accounts myself. But they couldn't or wouldn't even give me that information. I should contact their lawyers, they said.
Eventually, I reached the right person in the legal office at the Department of Transportation and I submitted a written request under the Rhode Island statute on Access to Public Records. Several phone calls and seven weeks later, I finally got data for 1996 and 1997.
The statistics are sobering. More than one-third of Rhode Island automobile deaths occur in head-on collisions -- about 25 fatalities per year. To solve the problem would only require enforcement of the existing law. Two obvious steps could be taken:
Drivers who are accustomed to using whatever part of the street they prefer when "no one else is coming" may get irritated at being ticketed for the practice. And it will probably take a year or two to reform some drivers.
Nor will it ever be possible to keep all drivers on their own side of the street. A few who cross the centerline may be under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, or they may have swerved to avoid an animal or other unexpected obstruction, or they may have fallen asleep.
But most offenders are sober and awake. They are simply continuing an old bad habit. A couple of years of serious enforcement should break that habit. Then we might save 15 to 20 lives per year. The savings would really be much greater. In addition to those who die, some people "survive" head-on collisions with traumatic, incapacitating injuries. And for each person killed or incapacitated, dozens of family members and friends suffer too.
Might we be willing to accept the "inconvenience" of being required to stay on the right-hand side of the road in order to reduce the death and suffering?