It's quite obvious that the increased pedestrian fatalities come form increased homelessness, drug use and where homeless people live (often around highways). Even that quoted NYT article says "In 2021, 70 percent of Portland’s pedestrian fatalities were among the homeless." This seems like a big omission in Mr. Smith's argument.

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Feb 19Liked by Noah Smith

I've got a hunch that cultural stagnation has at least something to do with a fear of transgressing boundaries. Killing sacred cows and challenging the prevailing wisdom used to be at the forefront of culture and it's not anymore. There's a deep fear of cancel culture, so people in our cultural spaces tend to play it safe these days - at least in comparison to the 70s and 80s. Additionally, the cultural gatekeepers have themselves become highly intolerant, far less willing than they used to be to quickly champion rule breakers. Think of the Lower East Side Movement of the early 1980s - people went to jail for showing the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, a gay artist whose deeply beautiful photographs of flowers, objects and naked men were deeply controversial at the time. But museums and gallery owners risked showing his work. Today? Not sure they would.

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While UK formally has a ban on phoning while driving, this isn't enforced. The get out of using hands free kits has been researched to be almost as distracting. Current car design of screens out of drivers view encourages distraction. Road designs have improved road safety by slowing cars. The weight rise translates into potholes under the fourth power law.

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Feb 19·edited Feb 19Liked by Noah Smith

I looked up the UK stats on road deaths : https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/reported-road-casualties-great-britain-pedestrian-factsheet-2021/reported-road-casualties-great-britain-pedestrian-factsheet-2021 which are in quite a contrast to the US. Personally I think a driver may be continued push to improve urban road safety with traffic calming measures and low speed limits (20 mph in most urban areas) which while disliked by most drivers while driving (including myself) must reduce frequency and severity of collisions. I think mobile use is at least as much an issue in the UK albeit it is theoretically illegal.

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Feb 19·edited Feb 19

I actually subscribed just to say here that the pedestrian deaths seem like a wicked combination of several things. It's not vehicle weight, but bluntness and especially height that matter. I'd also argue that tall vehicles didn't saturate the roads (used market) until the 2010's. Height is particularly important because of headlights. In the 2010s headlights became higher of the ground and as bright as welding arcs. I don't know a single person that doesn't complain that driving at night has become obnoxious because of this, and that jives a little too well with that evening death data. One more thing is that it's not just the phones, but the dashboard of a car has become giant shiny touchscreen entertainment systems in the 2010s, if not brighter, certainly more distracting, particularly at night.

So my theory is that it's a little bit of everything coming together, including Americans possibly being more burnt out and distracted than ever (walking and behing the wheel) which the data seems to support as well. What Urbanists are right about is that cars and pedestrians just don't mix well the way much of U.S. places are laid out. I often wonder if it's that more people are walking than before in that inhospitable environment.

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I would like to run a regression using canabis sales and opiate deaths to predict pedestrian fatalities. The fact that the increase is concentrated in the evening suggests intoxication has some explanatory power.

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Feb 19Liked by Noah Smith

Yes I guess it could either be the pedestrian or the driver that is distracted by their phone but I think that people generally look after themselves and the person in the most vulnerable situation is likely to be the most careful. In the UK where there is a law against phoning while driving there has been a 40% fall in pedestrian deaths since 2004.

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On the subject of philosophy, I think your point about the different expectations we have of philosophers of scientists is on the right track. I would argue that while both are essential and complementary, the way we engage with them in a chronological sense is exactly opposite. Science moves society forward by pushing the boundaries of knowledge and expanding our conception of what is possible, whereas philosophy grounds us in our essential humanity which connects us to all of our fellow humans across time and space.

There is no point for a student at the introductory level to read Newton in the original unless they want to out of personal curiosity because his ideas where a building block. We want students to know how our knowledge of physics got to where it is but we don't want them to think it remains where it was in the seventeenth century. Assigning a student to read Plato or Confucius or an ancient epic like Gilgamesh or the Bhagavad Ghita on the other hand is useful because that moment when you realize that you have a deep personal connection to an author who has been dead for thousands of years but knows you better than many of your supposedly closest friends do is the moment when you have seen into the infinite that Newton and Bohr and Einstein were trying to map.

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While I think it's reasonably likely that phones while driving is a cause of pedestrian deaths, it seems plausible thst phones while walking is too. In particularly the increasing ubiquity of listening to music or a podcast on your noise-cancelling airpods while walking.

This would help explain both the age and timing. I suspect prime-age adults are more likely to have a phone and be using it than either kids or 65+ adults (who I've never been able to successfully explain a podcast to). Hearing cars coming is also particularly important at night, when you may not see the car coming and the car may not see you.

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As always a great list: A few comments:

1. On pop culture, the "game" has shifted to gaming... which seems to be missing from this analysis. There is an incredible amount of creative innovation happening in this space. I don't think the stagnation argument holds. My son just became an intern at a gaming company with the title "Narrative Architect." I have discovered this is the gaming equivalent of a playwright or screenwriter.

2. On pedestrian deaths, the biggest correlation seems to be night time. The US infrastructure is much less friendly to pedestrians, especially in suburb situations. As there is growth in these areas (Florida being the exemplar), there is increased risk for pedestrians. The top states for pedestrian deaths are sunbelt growth states with mid-density situations.

3. On Mexico/China, completely agree.

4. On Education, there is a scattering effect in "standard" education. Once you have the ability to read/write/basic math, the channels for knowledge acquisition have grown well beyond formal education. The current "formal" education system (beyond K-6) needs major restructuring to adapt to the new realities of today's society.

5. On philosophers/physicists, I would like to take the other side. It is in fact very important in math/science to show HOW the most brilliant minds in the world at the time got it wrong. Almost always, they had a good argument. Today, math/science is presented in whole form. These are very deep/complex subjects, yet we expect high-schoolers to absorb/understand. In the process, we demotivate many students and lose them from the STEM fields. A true understanding of a concept involves understanding all the reasonable ways it was misunderstood earlier.

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Europeans have less nighttime pedestrian casualties for a number of related reasons, but basically because they are more disciplined (or obedient or regimented) urban drivers. Laws are enforced, often with ubiquitous cameras, and not just speed cameras. Lane discipline. Lower urban speed limits. More roundabouts less traffic lights. Running Stop signs - actually, actual STOP signs are infrequent in Europe, as most intersections have one right-of-way and cross streets are Yield. No turn on Red. Hans-free cell phones (if at all).

A pointy-nosed heavy EV will roll you over the hood and injure you, but a slab-nosed F-150 (or Escalade) will just blunt-force smush you to death. Not many pickups in Europe.

But by far the biggest difference, IMO, is that European cars are hard-wired with daytime running lights and nighttime full lights. I would love to see statistics on how many American 'nightime' deaths are in fact dusk and dawn deaths caused by vehicles without lights on, with the drivers blind to the fact that they are essentially invisible to pedestrians.

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I think driver behavior has deteriorated, especially post pandemic: more speeding, aggressive lane changing, muffle noise, honking.

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Maybe this is a little too cute, but:

a) Phones are bright, but much less bright than the sun.

b) So in the daytime, you can still see objects when looking at your phone.

c) At night, phone-viewing contracts your pupils and impairs night vision. You won't notice things ahead of the car as well or react as effectively when you do.

Maybe a similar effect from those in-car touchscreen monstrosities that all cars seem to have now.

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"We expect philosophers to help us think about complex problems that usually have no definitive, verifiably “correct” answer... the latter requires nuance and depth."

Wow, is that a pollyanna POV. As soon as you say it cannot be verifiably correct, you open up the whole can of worms to every crackpot and fraud. "Nuance and depth" sound like euphemisms for vagueness.

Allow me to recommend my Disgust With Philosophy page: https://web.archive.org/web/20200809212411/http://huben.us/wiki/Disgust_With_Philosophy

"I believe philosophical thinking is a necessary tool. But not for any knowledge or wisdom. The only valid use I find for philosophy is to REJECT ideas: most prominently those of philosophers."

They contradict each other so very much that at most only a tiny fraction could be true.

They are usually not rooted in observed reality: they believe untestable things such as natural rights, souls or morality.

They play stupid word games.

Their logic is grotesque.

They usually slide in is/ought fallacies or ideals/absolutes which do not exist.

They do not use measurement or confidence intervals in their analysis.

Reliance on intuitions, which Steven Colbert mocks as "gut feelings"".

Archaic bullshit such as "truth", "natural rights", and "a priori knowledge".

It has all the rigor of a game of Calvinball.

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A couple thoughts on pedestrian deaths and a comment on bicycling fatalities.

A. Check the data, but I think you'll find that 95% or more of these fatalities do not result in any charges like involuntary manslaughter, against the driver. This literally means, pedestrians as well as bicyclists are at fault.

B. There is overall, a growing sense of entitlement, a diminishing level of personal responsibility. This means, Pedestrians and cyclists expect !!!! You to totally watch out for them, even when they illegally enter a crosswalk, do not check safe passage, bike uncarelessly so that drivers have to cross double lines for distance.

C. We have an older population. It is very factual that eyesight acuity, motion awareness and reflex times are worse after X age. Still, A applies.

D. Yes, there are distracted walkers. Tucson has mild weather and we have a high level of pedestrian fatalities unfortunately. I've seen multiple distracted walkers

Anyway..my 2 cents. It comes down to the basic changes in American culture as in B.

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Feb 19·edited Feb 19

Is the night-time concentration of pedestrian deaths a result of either drivers or pedestrians being more likely to be under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs?

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