May 2017

Vision Zero Gains Momentum Across Nation


NACE is a founding member of the Road to Zero Coalition and Toward Zero Deaths Initiative.

By: Jenn Fox
      Vision Zero Network

From the Washington Post to Fortune magazine to Fox News, media outlets across the spectrum have reported similarly on one startling, new statistic—that U.S. traffic fatalities are at the highest level in a decade. These reports, based on National Safety Council statistics, estimate that as many as 40,000 people died in traffic crashes last year, a 14 percent increase over the past 2 years and the largest increase in more than half a century.

Amidst this distressing news, there is also reason for hope as a growing number of Federal, State and local efforts step up their commitment and urgency toward a common goal to ensure safe mobility for all. In addition to the national Road to Zero effort launched last year by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the establishment of Toward Zero Deaths goals in more than 40 States, there is also strong and growing leadership for roadway safety developing in diverse, local communities across the Nation.

As of this writing, more than 20 U.S. cities, from Anchorage, Alaska to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, have committed to Vision Zero—the goal of zero traffic deaths or severe injuries among road users—all in the past 3 years. This includes mayors, police chiefs, public health officials, transportation engineers, and others stepping up not only to set the bold goal of zero, but also to embrace a culture of safety in order to save lives.

Vision Zero is gaining momentum not only in the U.S. but also around the world. It was started in Sweden 20 years ago, where it successfully halved the number of traffic deaths even as trips increased, and is being embraced in nations as far away as Australia.

Vision Zero differs from a traditional approach to traffic safety in several key ways. First, it holds that traffic deaths and severe injuries are preventable, and that society has an ethical responsibility to anticipate and prevent these tragedies. Second, Vision Zero holds that system designers (including engineers, policymakers, and police) share responsibility with individuals for safety on our roadways. And finally, Vision Zero acknowledges that people will always make mistakes, so it is the role of facility designers to devise systems that ensure that mistakes do not result in fatalities or severe injuries.

Vision Zero is, at its core, a safe systems approach. It elevates the importance of systems – particularly the built environment and policies determining speeds – in encouraging safe behaviors. Vision Zero relies on data-driven decisionmaking to make the most of limited resources. It also compels a multi-sectoral and collaborative approach, enabling diverse stakeholders to work together toward the common goal of zero, and sets transparent milestones. As history has shown with initiatives to reduce drunk driving and to increase recycling, transparency is essential for ensuring political accountability and changing cultural norms.

Addressing the Role of Speed

To be clear, Vision Zero will not eliminate all crashes, but rather lessen the severity of crashes in order to avoid deaths and severe injuries. Vision Zero incorporates a variety of approaches, not unlike the traditional "4E's" of traffic safety, or "engineering, enforcement, education and emergency response," to which an increasing number of communities are adding "equity" and "engagement." Notably, Vision Zero elevates the importance of managing speed, acknowledging that speed is such a critical factor in determining the severity of crash-related injuries.

In the United States, nearly one-third of traffic deaths involve excessive speeds. Proven strategies exist to manage this problem, including designing roadways to prioritize safety over speed; setting lower, more appropriate speed limits; and leveraging proven technologies, such as automated speed enforcement, to encourage safe speeds.

On-the-Ground Efforts to Reach Zero

The early experiences in New York City, which was the first U.S. city to commit to Vision Zero 3 years ago, are encouraging. The last 3 years have been the safest on record, with traffic fatalities decreasing by 23 percent during that time. Local leaders credit this progress to the city's work in encouraging safer speeds by setting lower speed limits. Thoughtful use of safety cameras, greater investments in redesigning roadways for safety, traffic enforcement focusing on the most dangerous behaviors and locations, and robust public awareness campaigns have also been important contributing factors.

Many additional communities are stepping up their actions based on data-driven analysis, using strategies such as managing speeds, redesigning roadways with greater attention to the needs of people walking and bicycling, and focusing limited enforcement resources on the most dangerous behaviors. These efforts are being complemented with stronger engagement from community members, helping to position traffic safety as an issue deserving of sustained attention. Building on this growing community support for proven strategies to save lives, Vision Zero cities are passing an impressive number of funding and policy measures to advance their safety work.

In closing, it must be acknowledged that this work will be neither quick nor easy. But ask anyone who has lost a loved one in a traffic crash, and the urgency of Vision Zero efforts is undeniable.

For more information, please visit the Vision Zero Network.

Jenn Fox is an environmental engineer based in San Francisco, California. Ms. Fox works with the Vision Zero Network and cities around the US towards sustainable and equitable community infrastructure. 

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