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Using Technology to Make the Vision of Zero Traffic Fatalities a Reality

Eliminating road deaths is a tall order, but cities nationwide are taking the challenge.

In 2015, more than 5,300 pedestrians in the U.S. were killed by moving vehicles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (PDF) — an almost 10 percent increase from pedestrian fatalities the prior year. Although the public has largely accepted (or perhaps turned a blind eye to) these statistics, one entity is looking to reverse this alarming trend.

The Vision Zero Initiative — a platform created via public-private partnership for the collected knowledge about technology around traffic safety, according to its website — was formed in Sweden, and has made its way to cities across the United States, including New York; Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; and Denver. The program enforces a simple yet ambitious goal: to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.

Shifting the paradigm in which residents view crashes as an accepted aspect of driving requires a multifaceted approach, including vocabulary usage and safer street designs. In a webinar hosted by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, representatives from San Francisco, New York City and an advocacy organization in Seattle explained how to go from vision to reality in this space.

Like most programs, nothing will happen without leadership and someone pushing for results. In New York City, for instance, Mayor Bill de Blasio made reducing traffic fatalities a prominent aspect of his campaign, explained Rob Viola, director of safety policy and research at the city’s Department of Transportation (NYC DOT).

One reason why this program can work in cities throughout the country is safer streets should not be a partisan issue. “Transportation changes are a political good that can be distributed to your constituents,” said Viola.

And according to the Big Apple’s Vision Zero progress report, the first three years of the platform's presence in New York City is the safest three-year period in the city’s history.

After de Blasio took office in 2014, he pressured the DOT to accept, “a culture of experimentation.” The city went on to conduct several pilot programs from using new methods of road restriping to redesigning streets to protect people who walk or ride their bicycles. One thing that changed, explained Viola, was they moved on quickly from projects that did not yield expected benefits. City leadership, he reiterated, is crucial to getting widespread buy-in to a vision zero program.

Along with leadership from politically elected officials, road safety projects are more likely to attract media and garner attention from the public. City officials should keep progress in the public eye by getting a series of wins often and early, explained Luis Montoya, who leads a section in the Livable Streets subdivision of the SF Municipal Transit Agency (MTA).

The city launched a campaign to complete 24 projects in 24 months. They can be as labor and capital intensive as installing a protected bike lane or as simple as line restriping or sign installation, explained Montoya. The key is to focus on high injury corridors identified through data collection.

One such corridor, Mission Street in San Francisco, was the site of nearly one-fifth of all crashes in the city. The MTA installed red transit-only lanes and converted some through lanes to turn only, which increased safety considerably. In an independent study done by Zendrive, speeding, aggressive acceleration and hard braking had all declined.

Both Montoya and Viola stressed the significance of using that early momentum to get a big win as early as possible. One action is to pass city legislation reducing the speed limit in major cities. New York City was able to pass Local Law 54 of 2014, which reduced the default speed limit in the city to 25 mph.

Studies have shown that risk of severe injury or fatality when being struck by a vehicle increase dramatically if the vehicle is traveling over 30 mph. A person walking struck by a person driving 40 mph is eight times more likely to die than one struck by a person driving at 20 mph.


San Francisco is working on its own legislation on this front, putting hopes in AB 342, which allows for the use of automated speed enforcement cameras for ticketing. The technology is currently forbidden in California, but the bill creates an exception for San Francisco and San Jose for a five-year pilot program.

“I really encourage you to aim high and set some really big goals,” said Montoya. “These are the things it is going to take to get to zero.”

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.