“Vision Zero”: Not One More Traffic Death


Airline safety has improved dramatically in the last 10 years, after two 1996 crashes killed 375 people.

“This is the golden age of safety, the safest period, in the safest mode, in the history of the world.”

That’s Marion C. Blakey, former administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, speaking last month just before the end of her five year term. As today’s New York Times reports, Blakey presided over the FAA during the last half of a 10 year period in which fatal airplane crashes in the United States dropped by 65 percent, to one fatal incident per roughly 4.5 million departures. 

There have been no fatal airliner crashes involving scheduled
flights this year in the United States and just one fatal accident: a
mechanic who was trying to close the cabin door of a chartered Boeing 737 on the ground in Tunica, Miss., fell to the pavement during a rainstorm.

Airline safety improvements over the past decade can be credited in large part to a government directive issued after two 1996 crashes — TWA 800 off Long Island and ValuJet 592 in the Florida Everglades — killed a combined 375 people. Yet there is no such action demanded to address the ~42,000 auto-related deaths that occur on domestic streets, roads and highways every year.

Mark Rosenberg, founder and former director of the National Center for
Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, wants to change that. A proponent of the Swedish-born "VIsion Zero" (as in zero roadway deaths) movement, he has evidence to prove it can be done, writes Washington Post columnist Neal Peirce.

Traffic deaths, Rosenberg insists, constitute an epidemic we can
prevent. Sweden has succeeded, driving its yearly toll down to 440,
lowest since World War II. Annual traffic-related deaths of children,
once 118, sank to 11 at last count.

How did the Swedes do it? Tough seat belt and helmet laws, to be
sure. But they’ve also begun to remake their roadways. Red lights at
intersections (which encourage drivers to accelerate dangerously to
"beat the light") are being replaced with traffic circles. Four-foot
high barriers of lightweight but tough Mylar are being installed down
the center of roadways to prevent head-on collisions. On local streets,
narrowed roadways and speed bumps, plus raised pedestrian crosswalks,
limit speeds to a generally non-lethal 20 miles an hour.

Britain, New Zealand and the Netherlands are also
registering major success with safety redesign and tough roadway rules.
New Zealand cut its death rate by 50 percent in 10 years. But in the
United States, we’re "stuck," notes Rosenberg, at 42,000 to 43,000
deaths a year, adding:

"If those 42,000 deaths came from air accidents, air traffic
would come to a screaming halt, all airports closed until we fixed the
problem. But because our staggering numbers of road deaths come in ones
and twos, they don’t get attention. Fatalism is our biggest enemy."

Photo: ATIS547/Flickr

  • How short-sighted! Improving systems that threaten the biosphere.

  • Dave H.

    I disagree – if driving speeds are lowered, driving will both become less attractive as a mode and less threatening to other modes.

  • ben

    Amazing how we overlook issues like death, pollution, and negative impact so that americans can become a motorist.

    If this was a drug it would be illegal.

  • ddartley

    “On local streets, narrowed roadways and speed bumps, plus raised pedestrian crosswalks, limit speeds to a generally non-lethal 20 miles an hour.”

    Hey NYCDOT: Why the #@%$, Why the #@%$, Why the #@%$, Why the #@%$, NOT HERE??

    I’m sure NYC streets are more pedestrian-saturated than the Swedish local streets referred to. If they have reason to do it, we have more.

    Also, socialscientist’s remark reminded me of this notion I sometimes entertain. The statement itself is not serious, but the sentiment behind it sure is: want to make pedestrians safer? Get rid of seatbelts, airbags, etc.

  • Quite a lot of the advantage driving has over transit comes from abandonment of driving safety.

    It’s not just that everyone speeds on the freeway and nobody leaves a safe stopping distance that bugs me, as the redesign of city streets into mini-freeways, which are dangerous enough if you’re in a car, and absolutely hostile to anyone on two feet.

  • 20 mph enforced by architecture sounds great, but what do you think of the mylar divider idea? can you imagine NYC without jaywalking?

  • Brian Stanke

    No Jaywalking? Sure, just put in a raised “mid-block” crossing every 150-300 ft on every road. If you had a crossing that often would you mind the barriers?

  • Stuck at 43,000 deaths? Here it is 2015 and now we are down to just 32,000 annual deaths from almost 55,000 in 1972, back when we only had 60% as many cars on our roads too. Of the 32,000 are about 5,000 pedestrian deaths and 780 bicyclist deaths too, problems crying-out for infrastructure redesign to improve safety for all roadway users rather than speed reduction, which hurts the 90% of us that drive by taking productive time away from us..

    So Sweden uses traffic circles to replace signaled intersections with? I wonder how the average bicyclist feels about their personal safety riding in a crowded traffic circle with cars, buses, and trucks all trying to move toward their turn at a fairly high speed compared to that of the average bicyclist versus crossing signaled intersections on green lights instead?

  • Or without reckless bicyclists cutting across midblock too?

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