At its core, Vision Zero is a simple concept—that the acceptable level of collision deaths on our roads is zero. Anything more is a need for safety improvement.
Note that I said “collision deaths”, not “traffic fatalities” or “auto accidents” or “incidents” or “oopsies” or anything else that anonymizes or trivializes the 35,000 deaths/year that result when a vehicle is driven on our streets in a way that turns it into a lethal weapon.
We don’t trivialize human safety with household appliances, blithely accepting toaster electrocutions as routine accidents, or even accept safety shortcomings with cars themselves; when a car model’s brakes or ignition switches cause human injury or death, there’s a congressional investigation.
But roads are different.
Far too often, the civil planning traffic goal in the US is maximum car-based throughput. The more cars you can move through an area at higher speeds, the “better” the traffic flow. A little speeding—which happens everywhere there’s no gridlock—just fits right in as a flow enabler. Mission accomplished.
And yet, for people who bike or walk, speed kills. Collide at 20 mph or less with someone walking or biking, and that person has a 90% chance of survival. Collide with that same person at 40mph, and there’s a 90% chance of death. This is the real impact of speeding in residential zones, and of houses built next to high-speed roads. People die. For many people, this fear is the #1 reason to not live an active, healthy lifestyle.
Vision Zero started in Sweden in 1997, with the policy that “no one shall be killed or seriously injured on Swedish roads.” In the years since, the fatality rate, already far below US levels, has dropped another 30%. How many lives in the US—drivers, cyclists, and walkers alike–could we save with a similar focus on safety for all? Ten thousand lives saved per year, maybe even someone close to you, is not an unreasonable estimate.
Vision Zero isn’t just about cyclists. It’s about anyone who uses a road, as a driver, a bike rider, or even just a child walking across the street. Since the Washington State Department of Transportation introduced “Target Zero” (like Vision Zero but 100% focused on cars) in 2012, car collisions are down 40%, with limited decrease in pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities.
That, ultimately is the main point. Our successes come where we focus. If we decide that saving lives is more important than going 10 mph faster through populated areas or texting while driving, then we can make changes to calm traffic and weed out inattentive drivers. If we decide that an active lifestyle that gets neighbors outdoors together is important, then we can make changes that separate families from fast-moving vehicles in the interest of neighborhood safety.
It all starts with you. What’s important to you?
(Next time: Specific steps to make your neighborhood streets safer.)
Special recognition to the Washington Bike Summit, organized by WashingtonBikes, for these insights.