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When the pandemic kept people more at home in 2020, Americans drove far fewer kilometers than usual. But more people died in the streets.
Our streets are especially dangerous for pedestrians. I was curious to see if having more technology to enforce traffic laws would help – or if it would make the situation worse.
I’m reminded of this every time I see reckless driving in New York. (And there is evidence that this is increasing.) Part of me would like cameras everywhere to flash drivers with tickets for red lights or speeding violations. But I am also wary of mass surveillance.
I spoke about it with Sarah Kaufman, assistant director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. She said that in the short term, more automated traffic monitoring could make our roads safer and reduce potentially biased police stops by motorists.
In the long run, however, Kaufman believes that the best technologies for making our roads safer are those that take decisions out of people’s hands. This includes vehicles that are programmed to force people to adhere to speed limits and to brake at red lights.
Yeah, she knows some people will hate that. But, she said, we shouldn’t complain about the deaths and injuries on America’s roads and instead rethink what we think is normal when driving.
Let’s get back to the problem: cars have become safer for the people in them over the years, but the number of people who died on roads in the US last year still hit 42,000, according to preliminary data from an advocacy group. That was higher than the deaths in 2019, and the numbers weren’t an anomaly. The risks for pedestrians, motorcyclists and other people who are not in vehicles have generally increased.
Kaufman made a few points about the ways technology can make us safer and some of its limitations.
First, getting a ticket in the mail after a camera takes a picture of you accelerating or running a red light in your car can be a relatively effective deterrent, but it’s not perfect.
In New York and some other locations, traffic cards from cameras arrive about a month after the violation. A ticket could make someone think twice about speeding up the next time, said Kaufman, who said that enforcing the camera was extremely beneficial. But she said it didn’t prevent the risky driving at all.
A column in the New York Times Opinion last week said cameras detecting fast-moving drivers or expired number plate tags could also reduce police stops, which disproportionately affect black drivers and sometimes lead to violence and even death. (The encounter that resulted in a Minnesota police officer fatally shooting Daunte Wright started with a traffic obstruction.)
Black Americans are also at higher risk of dying from vehicle accidents, and Kaufman said more automated traffic surveillance could help solve what she described as dual problems: “over-police and under protection.”
However, Kaufman said that in the long run, the best road safety technologies were the ones that eliminated human judgment. She envisions more cities and automakers ditching technologies that automatically force the driver to stay within the speed limit and brake at red lights.
In some cities, speed limits have to be built into rented scooters and electric bikes. “Why isn’t the deadliest form of travel speed limited?” Asked Kaufman.
Although she believes her suggestion might make some people howl about restrictions on what they can do with their own cars, Kaufman said, “People die because some people don’t follow the rules. Why is this a fair system? “
I always get nervous when technology is suggested as a solution to man-made problems. Some road safety advocates have pushed for other non-technology changes, such as redesigned roads, greater enforcement of seat belt use, rules for safer, smaller cars, and moving away from our reliance on cars. And yes, Kaufman and I were talking about autonomous cars. They promise to be far safer but are unlikely to take to the streets in large numbers for many years.
In Kaufman’s view, what ultimately needs to be done is both limits to what we can do with cars and a rethinking of the role automobiles play in American life.
Tip of the week
Why is your WiFi slow? Try this.
Have you whimpered and cursed about your internet connection at home? I have. Brian X. Chen, a consumer technology columnist for the New York Times, explains how we can identify the cause of this slow connection.
Netflix movies take forever to load. Your video calls look grainy and sound garbled. Even surfing the internet feels sluggish.
You need to identify the source of the problem. Is it your router or your internet service provider?
Here’s one way to find out:
Download an internet speed test app like Ookla’s Speedtest (free for iPhones and Android phones) onto your phone.
Stand near your router and run a speed test with the app.
Go to a room farther away from the router and run the speed test again.
Compare the results.
A test result of less than 15 megabits per second is quite slow. For streaming high-resolution videos, speeds of around 25 megabits per second are sufficient. More than 40 megabits per second is ideal for streaming multiple videos and playing video games.
If the speed test results near your WiFi router were fast but further away, the problem is likely with your router. If the speed was slow at both test locations, the problem is likely with your ISP.
Once you identify the problem, reread my column on slow internet speeds to learn more about the solutions.
Before we go …
The secrets of TikTok: With a TikTok video hitting a nerve, like a weird dog or a man skateboarding on cranberry juice, no one can go viral quickly. However, the Wall Street Journal writes that some users say it is difficult to replicate a TikTok success.
How the pandemic changed book sales: People were buying more books in 2020 through mass retailers like Amazon, Walmart, and Target, where people tend to browse less and buy more titles from established authors and celebrities. “We sell pretty predictable things online,” a Barnes & Noble executive told my colleagues Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris.
Fun fact: Approximately 10 percent of all web searches are incorrect or typo. A BuzzFeed News writer tries to understand why she is bad at typing and delves into technology that will save us from our mistakes, including autocomplete on our phones and Google trying to understand our typos.
Watch these ducklings jump off a dock into the water. Some of them are not very graceful, but all are adorable.
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