Vision Zero

One positive benefit from COVID-19 has been the significant drop in vehicle miles of travel (VMT) – less cars on the highways. This is primarily the result of people working from home (WFH) and sheltering in place.

But Wait!

One would have assumed that with reduced cars on the road, there should then be a reduction in traffic deaths. Sadly, a wrong assumption.

Traffic deaths have increased :

“U.S. traffic fatality rate jumped 23.5% in May, compared to the year prior, despite the number of vehicle miles driven in that month dropping 25.5% amid pandemic-related stay-at-home orders.”

National Safety Council (NSC)

Why has this happened?! It is too soon, without additional data to draw specific conclusions yet. However, I notice significant speeding on roads where I live, including local neighborhood streets , with a speed limit of 25 MPH. This is generally consistent with the Governors Highway Safety Association, part of the National Safety Council stating:

…speed is another “dramatic problem” contributing to the increased traffic fatality rate, especially as drivers take advantage of open roads. An estimated one-third of all traffic crashes are due to speed, yet we’ve never given it the priority that it really deserves … because everyone speeds. We all do it, we’re all guilty of it and there’s never been public support, or really doing anything serious about it.”

Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA)

But for pedestrians and cyclists (the other transportation users) , this is a continuing trend – decrease in vehicle accidents, but increase in pedestrian deaths. Note this data is prior to the COVID-19, so there are likely more walkers and cyclists out there.

Washington Post, Charlie Riedel/AP

1. More walking has increased exposure, as one survey1 estimated that the number of Americans walking to work in the past week increased about four percent between 2007 and 2016;

2. Most pedestrian fatalities take place on local roads, at night, away from intersections, suggesting the need for safer road crossings. Over the past 10 years, nighttime crashes accounted for more than 90 percent of the total increase in pedestrian deaths;

3. Many unsafe driving behaviors, such as speeding, distracted and drowsy driving, pose risks to pedestrians, and alcohol impairment by the driver and/or pedestrian was reported in about half of traffic crashes that resulted in pedestrian fatalities in 2017; and

4. Finally, the number of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) involved in pedestrian deaths has increased by 50 percent since 2013. By comparison, (non-SUV) passenger cars’ involvement in pedestrian fatalities increased by 30 percent over the same time period. Although passenger cars still account for the majority of pedestrian deaths, SUVs – which generally cause more severe pedestrian injuries – make up an increasingly large percentage of registered vehicles.

Governors Highway Safety Association
Numbers of U.S. Traffic Deaths in 2008 and 2017, Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State, 2018


I speed at times as well, but now much more aware because I am a walker and cyclist. It is also personal, as a friend of mine, an avid cyclist, was hit by a car on a two lane rural highway. He did all the rights things – on the highway shoulder, riding with the traffic. Thank goodness he survived and is making a steady recovery. The driver was charged with reckless driving, passing a car, then over correcting and never saw my friend on his bike, in broad daylight.

A Response

Vision Zero, a concept started in Sweden in 1997 –

“…takes a systems approach to enhancing safety. Rather than exclusively faulting drivers and other users of the transportation system, Vision Zero places the core responsibility for accidents on the overall system design, addressing infrastructure design, vehicle technology, and enforcement.

Center for Active Design

This has migrated around the world, including the US, through the Vision Zero Network.

A New Vision for Safety

Communities then need to commit to the following actions:

» Building and sustaining leadership, collaboration, and accountability – especially among a diverse group of stakeholders to include transportation professionals, policymakers, public health officials, police, and community members;
» Collecting, analyzing, and using data to understand trends and potential disproportionate impacts of traffic deaths on certain populations;
» Prioritizing equity and community engagement;
» Managing speed to safe levels; and
» Setting a timeline to achieve zero traffic deaths and serious injuries, which brings urgency and accountability, and ensuring transparency on progress and challenges.

Vision Zero Network

While some cities and communities have adopted Vision Zero as policy, actual progress (reduction of accidents and fatalities) has been slow in the US, in contrast to other countries, for example Denmark:

Road deaths in Oslo (pop. 673.000) in 2019:

Pedestrians: 0
Cyclists: 0
Children: 0

The graph shows the reduction of road deaths there since 1975.

So why is the US so far behind, even with reduced traffic from COVID-19? A January 2020 Strong Towns post provide some reasons, given our placed based politics and how our communities have developed. Recommendations were provided for the long way forward.

The Why:

So Vision Zero as a design problem is just this: eliminate all instances where a driver could hit a pedestrian at a speed greater than 15 to 20 mph, even if one or both parties make a mistake.

This means in places where people will be out and about (i.e. streets), cars and trucks must either be kept out entirely, or must not travel faster than 20 miles per hour.

It’s a simple rule. No cars moving fast enough to kill a person in places where people are going to be. No people in the (rare) places where we allow cars to move fast enough to kill a person. That’s it. It’s not, at its core, about enforcement, or clever design, or better signage, or even better, more attentive, more conscientious humans. It’s about speed. Speed is what kills.

When you think about what would actually have to change in American cities in order to achieve that change in our travel speeds, that’s where it gets messy, though. Vision Zero is a simple engineering problem, but a wickedly complex social and institutional problem.

Holistic institutional and cultural changes:

An emphasis on allowing (and rebuilding) complete neighborhoods where you can meet many needs within a 15-minute walk, and cars (where they’re present) move slowly and defer to people on foot.

Connecting those complete communities to each other by high-speed roads and/or public transit.

Creating alternatives to driving, and unlocking the strength in numbers that pedestrians enjoy when walking is a mainstream activity (29% of Oslo residents walk to work, just shy of the 34% who drive).

Recognizing that bike and pedestrian infrastructure comprises many of the highest-returning investments a local government can make.

Eliminate things like free parking in busy areas, which induces extra car trips.

Enforcement where needed to deal with the minority of true scofflaw speeders. (Oslo has markedly strict penalties for reckless driving.)

Traffic calming to turn stroads into slow, safe urban streets.

Strong Towns

These are ambitious changes that will require persistence, leadership (political and community and from the bottom up), money and a comprehensive perspective. This not all about design, but really about lowering speeds on roads, accommodating total transportation needs – walking, cycling.

These changes are beginning to happen in larger urban areas (i.e. New York, Barcelona, Bogota, Milan and others) but will continue to be a major challenge in all communities.

My community (population of 10,000), typifies these challenges – reactive rather than proactive planning,road design for moving traffic (vehicles) rather than for all users and lack of leadership and funding.

This needs to happen to improve our quality of life and the environment. I am hopeful my community and others will embrace and become advocates for these needed changes to improve our quality of life and the environment.

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