It’s Time to Evolve Beyond the Es Approach to Traffic Safety

by Leah Shahum | January 20, 2022 | in News

Today’s approach to promoting safe mobility in the U.S. is failing. Traffic deaths are skyrocketing, with a 24% increase in the rate of roadway fatalities in 2020 over 2019.

Racially biased traffic stops are exposing unacceptable injustices endemic in policing and transportation systems.

Strategies aiming to achieve unachievable perfect behavior on the roads block progress on much-needed systems-level changes.

Continuing to depend on the Es – a long-revered approach to traffic safety – is proving neither effective nor equitable enough. We need change.

The Es – a focus primarily on Engineering, Education, and Enforcement – is a century-old approach to traffic safety that has been – and still is – used by most U.S. communities. Transportation planning embedded the Es long before Vision Zero became popular. While the individual Es have a role to play, they need to be better evaluated for shortcomings and held to higher standards, especially in terms of effectiveness and equity.

For too long, we have preserved a broken status quo. It is time to evolve beyond the Es.

Photo: Angie Schmitt

Vision Zero should be built on the Safe System approach

The Safe System approach is fundamentally different from the traditional Es. It can provide a more effective and just foundation for traffic safety work. 

Safe Systems are at the core of genuine and conscientious Vision Zero work. This begins with the ethical belief that no one should be killed or seriously injured in crashes. It recognizes that people (and machines) will inevitably make mistakes. In response, Safe Systems are designed to proactively reduce risks for people and decrease the severity of crashes for people. It is a human-centered approach.

To advance Vision Zero effectively and equitably, we need to make the systems we’re moving around in fundamentally safer. This means prioritizing safety in how we design our transportation systems (roads & policies & vehicles) and communities (land use & access), and ensuring that individuals can influence decisions that affect their mobility and freedom. With a human-centered approach, we can also better address injustices in our work, including police bias and harassment of Black people in traffic stops – institutional racism too often condoned in the name of traffic safety.

A Safe System can deliver more effective, equitable results

Over the past century, U.S. traffic safety strategies have depended disproportionately on influencing individual behaviors – especially through the Es of Enforcement and Education. We need to recognize the inequities and limitations in over-emphasizing enforcement (and education, but we’ll save that for another post).

This is not to say that there is no role for Enforcement and Education, but rather that these strategies need to be used more thoughtfully and in the right proportions. Nor do we want to diminish the fact that people have a responsibility to behave safely – they do.

But let’s face it: today’s transportation system is not generally designed to reward or encourage safe behavior. We design our roads and vehicles, set speeds, and allow people to drive in ways that increase risk, especially for people outside cars and especially for people who live and travel in areas built for speed rather than safety.

The good news is that people generally behave in predictable and consistent ways. We know what works to encourage safe mobility: in a Safe System, roads are built, vehicles are designed, and speeds are set so that safe behavior is the most intuitive and easiest way to go.

Of course, people will still make mistakes, and crashes will still occur. In these cases, a Safe System is designed to be forgiving. Examples include: lower speeds where people walking and biking mix with motor vehicles; investing in traffic calming features, such as roundabouts replacing Stop-signs; and incentivizing transit and smaller vehicles over menacing, tank-sized personal vehicles. With these and other kinds of systems changes, the inevitable mistakes we make on the roads are likely to result in fender-benders and broken ankles – not life-altering tragedies.

A Safe System lessens the need for enforcement

Too often, racialized enforcement, including discriminatory traffic stops and unjust fines and fees, are used in the pursuit of “safe streets.” Traffic stops are the most frequent interactions between police and community members, and they are a persistent and unacceptable source of racial and economic injustice in this country. A few data points to highlight some of the pressing problems linking the traditional traffic safety approach to systemic injustices:

  • Black drivers in the U.S. are about twice as likely to be pulled over by police in traffic stops and four times as likely to be searched, according to analysis from the Stanford Open Policing Project.
  • Municipalities too often target poor citizens and communities of color for traffic fines and fees, which can have outsized, negative impacts, according to a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
  • Communities of color and low-income people are more likely to live in neighborhoods where fast-moving traffic and dangerously designed streets are more common, increasing their risks, according to the Dangerous by Design report issued by Smart Growth America. 

But it does not have to be this way. We can reduce reactive police stops by focusing on more proactive, upstream strategies. Examples include designing self-enforcing roads (physical traffic calming works); improving land uses (designing communities for easy access to core needs and services); offering safe, convenient options for travel by foot, bicycle, and transit (fewer car trips is the top safety strategy); and managing speeds for safety (today, we’re largely ignoring scientific facts related to speeds and survivability). 

Vision Zero Network is committed to change

We acknowledge and accept the criticism that some Vision Zero advocacy, including our own early Vision Zero Network efforts and messaging, did not sufficiently call out the problems of unjust police practices that are part of longtime traffic safety strategies. 

Admittedly, when U.S. communities first began adopting Vision Zero, most continued to layer the new approach onto their long-existing Es frameworks, instead of recognizing and embracing the need for a paradigm shift.

At Vision Zero Network, we commit to improve our advocacy, help practitioners center equity, and support others’ important work in these areas. Our goal is to help advance Vision Zero in ways that are both effective and equitable. 

You can be part of the change

Achieving a Safe System will take time. It will take a new, collective responsibility to confront and change centuries-old norms, patterns, and systems. This includes reforming and reducing the role of law enforcement in traffic safety strategies as core to Vision Zero work. 

We look forward to working with others to evolve beyond the status quo, including recognizing which traffic safety strategies are effective and equitable, and which are not. And we look forward to helping to make change.

Here are some ways Vision Zero champions can help:

  • Assess your current Vision Zero efforts: Are there strategies that are built on unjust, ineffective practices that do not align with the Safe System approach (ex: “education” campaigns that focus on victim-blaming; relying on reactive traffic stops when a proactive roadway re-design is what’s needed for safety)?
  • Transition your work to the Safe System approach, moving beyond the traditional silos of the Es. See examples from Philadelphia, the State of California, and the Federal Highway Administration.
  • Learn more about the Safe System approach and share with others. 
  • Join us in learning more about the intertwined histories of traffic safety and racial injustices. Here are some resources we appreciate:

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