Acting with Urgency: What’s Next for Vision Zero Nationally?

by Leah Shahum | March 9, 2022 | in News, Webinars

While it’s a major step forward to have a (first-ever!) national commitment to zero roadway fatalities, we know the path to zero will require serious work and willingness to change a stubborn status quo. 

We brought together some of the leaders we admire most for an honest and energizing conversation about “What’s Next?” on the road to safe mobility for all people. How do we build on this historic federal recognition that today’s roadway safety crisis is both urgent and solvable?

In our February 24, 2022 discussion – Acting with Urgency: What’s Next to Advance National Zero Traffic Deaths?we were joined by Jennifer Homendy, Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT); Dr. Jamila Porter, Chief of Staff of the de Beaumont Foundation; and Roger Millar, Secretary of Transportation for the State of Washington. More than 150 people from around the country tuned in to learn and – we hope – to help ensure these recent national commitments are acted on for the sake of every person who deserves to move safely.

There was strong agreement that the national-level Vision Zero commitment and release of the National Roadway Safety Strategy – especially its focus on shifting to a Safe System approach – offer new opportunities for meaningful, life-saving progress.

“The biggest thing is it called for Zero,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “You have not had that at the national level in the United States. That exists in other countries.” 

Secretary Roger Millar agreed with the significance of the new goal, and underscored the energy and passion national transportation leaders are bringing to this work. “The bully pulpit that has been created for this is hugely important,” he said. 

LADOT’s Seleta Reynolds added: “The shift to Safe Systems is really a paradigm shift that’s difficult to overstate how big of a deal that is.”

The traditional approach to traffic safety arose from a very American idea of individual responsibility, Reynolds explained, and reinforces silos between stakeholders, which are not always helpful. When you come at safety that way, it naturally leads you to things like writing more tickets or putting up more billboards. The thinking, Reynolds explained, is that “if we could just educate people about their behaviors, maybe we would get better outcomes. And I think we’ve seen the utter failure of that approach in the United States when you measure our results against most first-world countries around the globe.”

“We are not going to educate or enforce our way out of this,” Reynolds said — a theme that was repeated throughout the discussion.

This image acknowledges that, while we recognize the importance of people behaving safely, this is not always the case. So, ultimately, greater responsibility rests on the system designers and policymakers to improve the safety conditions, so that inevitable mistakes are not severe or fatal. This shift to prioritizing a Safe System rather than over-emphasizing personal responsibility is significant.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (U.S. DOT) shift to a Safe System approach, according to Reynolds, recognizes that you have to design a system that accounts for the reality that people are vulnerable and make mistakes. When those inevitable mistakes do occur, they should not be deadly. This leads to a more human-centric (and humane) approach to the design of the streets, vehicles, and overall systems (not just transportation safety, but also as relates to land use, criminal justice, environmental well-being, etc.). We can no longer assume that people will behave perfectly in today’s very imperfect system; we need to focus upstream, on the systems.

Dr. Jamila Porter of the de Beaumont Foundation was also encouraged to see the new National Roadway Safety Strategy emphasize the need for systems-level changes, moving beyond the traditional focus on individual behavior (read more about Evolving Beyond the E’s).

The National Strategy also points to equity as a priority, referencing President Biden’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. This has not been the norm in transportation planning and policymaking and is sorely needed, given that people of color are disproportionately killed in traffic crashes in the U.S. and are more likely to be killed in a traffic stop.

Dr. Porter stressed the need to go deeper – beyond simply mentioning “equity” – and to work at understanding and reckoning with the root causes of racial inequities within our transportation system. She also encouraged the addition of a clear definition of what the U.S. DOT means by “equity” in its Safety Strategy (a good reminder to all of us).

Below, we’ve summarized our additional key takeaways from the conversation and suggested actions for those of us championing Vision Zero: 

1. Get clear on what Vision Zero is and what it is not

In many places, there’s not yet a solid understanding of Vision Zero, or of the underlying principles of the Safe System approach. In fact, some – including local, state and even national organizations – are labeling efforts as “Vision Zero” or “Safe System” that are simply not so. For example, adding the words to a web page without taking the steps to make real changes to the work, is not helpful.

Vision Zero is not a slogan, it’s not even a program – it’s a fundamentally different way of doing things, based on the Safe System approach. 

The reality is that many agencies’ current policies and practices are not in line with the Safe System approach. This needs to be assessed and addressed. It won’t happen overnight, but it can start today, and you can help.

ACTIONS:

⇒ Invest the time to understand the principles of Vision Zero and the Safe System approach. More here and here and here.

⇒ Share these resources with others in your community – including engineers and planners; policymakers, such as City Council members and their staff and State legislators and their teams; and advocates. Host a brown-bag informational session over lunch or agendize an internal discussion at an upcoming meeting. These concepts are fairly new in the U.S., so offering learning opportunities are important.

⇒ Request that leaders at the city, regional, and state levels assess their policies and practices to see where they align with the Safe System approach, and where they do not, make a plan for change.

2. We’re starting to talk and think differently about roadway safety — now we need to act differently

“You have to hold us accountable for what we’re talking about and what we’re saying,” said Chair Homendy. “But at the same time, we need to challenge ourselves, as federal agencies, as state and local agencies, to think differently, even as advocates.”

This includes having difficult conversations and being open to new ideas and approaches. As Homendy shared, we need “to be comfortable being uncomfortable and open to criticism.” 

And this means making our voices heard beyond the usual “transportation circles.” While people working within transportation departments may be subject matter experts, they do not write laws or appropriate funds. So, policymakers who control legislation and funding need to hear from their constituents about the importance of prioritizing safety. The truth is that today’s organized voices for issues such as reducing congestion, building more roads/parking, and lowering the cost of gas are louder than the voices of advocates for safe, equitable mobility for all. We can change that.

ACTIONS:

⇒ Ask people for their input on how you or your organization can do better for long-term safety on our streets. Listen with an open mind – even to people you assume you disagree with or who have been critical in the past. 

⇒ Make sure decision-makers (including local and state) know about the new national commitment to Vision Zero. Lift up the voices of people most impacted by crashes and help their stories support the data showing the urgent need to change business as usual.

⇒ And, of course, ask these leaders to commit to prioritizing safety – then hold them accountable.

3. Recognize & strengthen interconnectedness of needs

The group emphasized the importance of recognizing and supporting related issues that have, in the past, seemed beyond the traditional transportation spheres. For example, we cannot ignore the facts that traffic stops are the most common interaction people in the U.S. have with police and these interactions disproportionately harm Black people. Also, people of color are dying in traffic crashes at disproportionately high rates, as their communities are less likely to be designed safely (big roads, fast-moving traffic, lack of sidewalks, etc.). 

“We have got to, as much as we can, in the realms of power in which we sit and the spheres of influence that we have, break down these silos,” Dr. Porter said. Addressing community and police violence must be part of addressing traffic safety issues. “We have to see how all of this is interconnected,” she said (we recommend reading the Untokening’s Principles of Mobility Justice).

In L.A., as is the case in most U.S. cities we’ve worked with, the streets with the worst roadway safety outcomes, especially for people walking and biking are more likely to be in communities with other pressing challenges, such as poor air quality, lacking transit access, and limited economic mobility. As Reynolds noted, there is also, often mistrust of governmental institutions that have histories of contributing to disparate, poor outcomes. This “requires a lot of humility,” Reynolds reflected. And for roadway safety leaders and advocates, she stressed that “their worries need to be our worries before our worries can be their worries.”

ACTIONS:

⇒ Invest in meaningful community engagement that learns about and builds on people’s wants, needs, and experiences. The work needs to be community-driven.

⇒ Offer Safe System resources, such as improved community designs, to communities that need them most, not just those with the loudest voices.

⇒ If your community has not yet developed a High-Injury-Network, it should. And that should be cross-referenced with other important public health/safety factors, such as air quality, socio-economic levels, demographics, traffic stop rates, and others. Share this powerful data with decision-makers and the public.

4. Don’t forget the vehicles

Important stakeholders long left out of the conversation are vehicle designers and manufacturers and safety regulators. 

“Why don’t we have automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning in every single car? Why don’t we have speed limiters, intelligent speed adaptation?” asked Chair Homendy. “We have that in Europe…Why aren’t we demanding that of our vehicle manufacturers here? Why aren’t we mandating it through legislation?”

Reynolds asked: “Why does anybody get to have anything called an ‘insane mode’ in a car that allows it to accelerate to high speeds in a short period of time when we know that speed is what differentiates a crash that you walk away from that a crash that you don’t walk away from.”

She pointed to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration as a model for safety culture where safety is seen as a collective responsibility among designers and manufacturers and operators of vehicles. There, safety investigations extend well beyond potential pilot error; they go back to the design of the aircraft, even to flaws in the factory that may have contributed to a crash. Why aren’t we bringing that safety rigor to cars today? Reynolds asked. “There’s a temptation to leave that to the consumer advocates and it absolutely should be the purview of safety advocates.”


Believe it or not, there were even more interesting and important topics discussed in the webinar. We suggest listening to the one-hour recording here.

Thank you to our panelists for generously sharing their time and knowledge.

Please look at our discussions in the Acting with Urgency series:
Register for Part III – What is the Road to Safer Vehicles – here.

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