Build In Safety With the Safe System Approach: Examples from U.S. Communities

by Tiffany Smith November 10, 2022 in News, Webinars

Too often, severe traffic crashes are seen as distinct tragedies that happen independently of each other. However, the reality is that these tragedies share common traits, are predictable, and can be prevented. The traffic deaths and serious injuries we hear about every day are largely the results of the current systems that normalize crashes and fail to address root causes that can be changed.

Adopting and implementing the Safe System approach is a way to make real change. The Safe System approach aims to eliminate fatal and serious injuries by recognizing that people will make mistakes, so our systems should accommodate those mistakes in ways that lessen their physical harm. A lot of this comes down to recognizing the basic physics involved – by lowering the speeds people are moving at and providing more separation of road users of different weight and velocities, we lessen severe impacts. In short, we can redesign our transportation systems based on the simple fact that the human body is fragile. 

There is growing interest in this approach, especially with the newly adopted National Roadway Safety Strategy and the Safe Streets & Roads for All program, investing federal funds in on-the-ground safe systems.

But what does this change look like on the ground? We brought together Vision Zero leaders in three cities – Hoboken, Seattle & NYC – to share ways they are effectively shifting their roadway planning and design to a Safe System approach, the basis of Vision Zero.

Check out our 1-hour webinar from October 27, 2022. And, below, see our key takeaways from this important conversation about making Vision Zero real on your streets. 

Safety Should be Proactive & Preventative

Seattle has become a leader in shifting from a traditional, reactive approach of roadway safety to a more proactive and preventive model. According to Bradley Topol of Seattle’s Vision Zero program, high speeds were identified as the leading contributor to serious injury and fatal collisions for people walking. A 2018 pilot project showed that lowering speed limits could slow average vehicle speeds by 2mph and reduce injuries by 20%. As a result of this, the City began to take a distinctly more proactive approach to lowering speed limits across the entirety of the city. This safety treatment was implemented without increasing enforcement — emphasizing the role that a Safe System plays in lessening the need for traditional punitive measures.

Miles of arterial roads with reduced speed limits (source: Seattle DOT)

Similarly, when it came to installing Leading Pedestrian Intervals (LPIs), which give people walking a head start when crossing the street, data showed that crashes at traffic signals represented 20% of serious and fatal pedestrian collisions in Seattle. Local and national analysis has shown that LPIs can be very effective, resulting in 35% less serious injury and fatal pedestrian collisions. Ultimately, Seattle transitioned from a reactionary approach to installing LPIs into a proactive approach by making it standard practice to install LPIs whenever signals were retimed. Seattle installed LPIs systematically across the city at a much faster and cheaper rate than waiting for a problem spots to arise.

LPIs installed at traffic signals (source: Seattle DOT)

As a result of this concerted effort to proactively install safety measures, 90% of Seattle’s arterial network now has 25 mph speed limits and 50% of all signals now have an LPI, underscoring the city’s commitment to integrating a Safe System approach into their street design processes.

Redundant & Reinforcing Measures Are Crucial

Not only are the above-mentioned interventions shown to be effective in reducing crashes and serious injuries individually, they serve as layers of redundancy in prevention — a core principle of the Safe System approach.

Ryan Sharp, Director of the Transportation and Parking Department for the City of Hoboken, New Jersey, shared how this principle works in designing streets in ways that reinforce their designated speed. Previously, Washington Street, a prominent retail corridor in Hoboken, was poorly designed for safety with excessively wide travel lanes, an inappropriately high speed limit, long pedestrian crossings, and no pedestrian signals.  

BEFORE: Washington St., Hoboken, NY (source: Hoboken DOT)

In an effort to reduce these safety risks, the City added curb extensions at every intersection on Washington Street, which significantly shortened pedestrian crossing distances and slowed the speeds of turning vehicles.  LPIs were programmed at each approach, giving people walking a 7-second head start into the crosswalk while all travel lane approaches are held by a red signal.  Additionally, they lowered the speed limit to 20mph (this was also instated city-wide) and a 15 mph signal progression, which incentivized drivers to travel at speeds closer to a bicycle pace and set up a “green wave” for people biking. And bike lanes were also added to provide dedicated space for micromobility users, while also narrowing the width of the previously oversized travel lanes, discouraging high car speeds.

AFTER: Washington St., Hoboken, NY (source: Hoboken DOT)

These new safety measures resulted in a street redesign that complements a lower and safer speed limit. Working together, these redundant safety measures help make Washington Street safer for all road users.

Start Quick & Light, Then Scale Up

NYC’s Vision Zero leaders understand that it’s not possible to do everything at once – especially in such a big city – so they have emphasized the benefit of starting with numerous, light, system-wide treatments. Rob Viola, Director of Safety Research & Policy at the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), highlighted examples of using simple, low cost treatments such as turn-calming, signal retiming for 25mph, speed hump installation, and LPIs, which have been effective at reducing failure to yield, speeding, and turning crashes. 

Presence of traffic calming measures city-wide (source: NYC DOT)

Examples of NYC’s successful safety changes that started small and expanded:

  • Left-turn-calming measures were shown to slow 85th percentile left-turning speeds by 60%; 
  • Adding LPIs decreased severe injuries by 30%; and
  • Re-timing traffic signals to encourage people to drive at the 25mph speed limit. 

Given these encouraging outcomes in their early efforts, NYC then shifted into a Safe System approach by scaling up these measures city-wide: 

  • Left-turn-calming measures were implemented at more than 600 intersections citywide;
  • 5,000 LPIs were installed across the city and targeted to areas with high concentrations of seniors, who are more vulnerable and were being disproportionately injured; and
  • Re-timing traffic signals was scaled up to cover 800 miles of the city. 

NYCDOT’s Viola emphasized that while these interventions are relatively simple to implement, they are also nearly invisible to drivers and don’t significantly impact road capacity, making them relatively easy to roll out on a broader scale. For example, NYC DOT found there to be no push back to the widespread addition of LPIs and left-turn-calming measures. 

Moreover, the City has found that having an abundance of these countermeasures have played a critical role in changing driving patterns, as people driving see more of these measures more regularly and become accustomed to their presence and more likely to influence their behavior.

Build Empathy into the System

To truly adopt a Safe System approach, a transportation system must recognize and account for the fact that humans will inevitably make mistakes and that our bodies are fragile. So, building empathy into the systems includes designing our environments in ways that provide additional time and distance for people, so that when they make mistakes the impact of these mistakes on themselves and others are not so severe.

Designing and operating safe transportation systems means focusing on people and their safety. This can look like stepped-up post-crash care in Hoboken, where a working group analyzes crash reports and gives input on what safety countermeasures to prevent other serious crashes. It can look like Seattle’s work to systematically lower speeds, without increasing policing enforcement or relying on punitive measures. And it can look like NYC’s efforts to prioritize LPIs in neighborhoods with a high concentration of seniors to ensure they have ample time to cross the street. 

Slide highlighting how the safe system approach differs from the non-safe system approach (source: Seattle DOT)

In all cases, systematic empathy means reforming the existing systems in ways that don’t fall back on individual blame for deaths or injuries, but instead encourages us to think critically about the existing factors and systems that create risks and make upstream safety improvements.

If you’re wondering where to start in adopting a Safe System approach, check out these additional resources to help your community begin to make that pivot:

For a deeper dive into these approaches, we encourage you to watch the 1-hour webinar . If you’re looking for more examples, be sure to explore our new online resource Demystifying the Safe System Approach: What does it look like on our streets? 

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