Reaching Vision Zero: Analysis Shows it’s Achievable

by Leah Shahum | April 1, 2021 | in News, Zero Traffic Deaths

No one is saying it will be quick or easy. But, no one should say it’s impossible or pointless. Zero traffic deaths is achievable and, for the most part, we know how to do it.

In a National Briefing (full recording here and presentation here) with more than 600 people on March 31, 2021, the case was made that achieving Zero Traffic Deaths in the U.S. by 2050 is achievable. Especially now, as the nation embarks on major infrastructure investments and modernizations.

Let’s Do the Math -> Zero

Based on a growing body of data, expert analysis and reliable projections, we have the tools and the know-how needed to reduce traffic deaths by 75% in the next 30 years. 

A combination of policy changes, modernized road designs, and advanced technologies exist today and can be implemented to save lives.

These are not pie-in-the-sky wishes, but rather solid projections based on existing strategies and known conditions. The strategies include the following steps:

  • Advanced Driver Assistance Systems in all vehicles (existing technologies)
    • estimated up to 10,000 lives saved/year (Rand report)
  • Alcohol Detection Systems in all vehicles (existing technologies)
    • estimated up to 9,000  lives saved/year (IIHS report)
  • Roadway design improvements
  • Shift to more transit, walking, biking trips
  • Improved emergency response to crashes

31,500 estimated total

(¾ of the way to 42,060, estimated deaths in 2020)

Note that the estimates above do not even include the very substantial safety gains expected from future technological advances, not yet available but anticipated. Based on experience over the past decade, those coming tech improvements are likely to account for another 10,000 lives saved.

We think it’s important to point out that our projections are not including a push for more police enforcement — because of problems of racial bias and injustices — nor over-relying on traditional education — because of the track-record of victim-blaming.

Of course, all of these changes cannot be phased in at once, so this will take time. And it is possible, given the expected turnover in vehicles and investments in infrastructure and policy change. This is possible.

“While it will take a generation, the success of other countries and some U.S. cities demonstrates that a combination of approaches makes this an achievable goal.” 

– Rand Corporation, Road to Zero report, 2018

The 2018 Road to Zero report, developed by the Rand Corporation in partnership with the National Safety Council and many other traffic safety organizations, lays out the path to safety for all on our streets — people walking, biking, driving, riding transit — everyone.

“The Road to Zero proposes a strategy – based on data, experience and expert insight – that shows that dramatic reductions in traffic deaths are feasible, if we prioritize change.”

– Jeff Michael, Former Associate Administrator, NHTSA


What’s the Hold-up?

If we already have the tools and knowledge to make life-saving change, why aren’t we doing it?

The answer largely boils down to the need for stepped-up leadership from our policymakers and transportation and health professionals and industry leaders. We need them to recognize not only the need for change but also the feasibility of change. We need willingness to shift the status quo because it is not working. In fact, the status quo is killing us — 42,060 of us last year. 

As we learned in the National Briefing, our everyday transportation system is failing us in many significant ways. In addition to the unacceptably high death toll, there are economic costs (~$460 billion is spent each year on vehicle injury costs); climate costs (motor vehicles are a leading cause of global warming); and racial/social/economic impacts (traffic deaths disproportionately harm youth, seniors, people walking, people of color, and people in low-income communities).

None of this is an “accident.” Nor should it be a surprise. With today’s transportation system, we are getting the results we’ve designed for.

Photo credit: Angie Schmitt

Examples include roadways and policies designed for speed over safety; communities ripped apart by “modern” infrastructure; vehicles that endanger those outside of them. For more, read CityLab’s analysis of  The Rules That Made U.S. Roads So Deadly.

We must — and we can — change these rules and designs and policies to prioritize safety. We know how to do this.

Why Now?

The Biden Administration is rolling out an ambitious plan for infrastructure improvements. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to not only Build Back Better, but to also Build Back Safer. These goals must go hand-in-hand.

We can re-design roads to ensure safe mobility for everyone, especially our most vulnerable road users (youth and seniors) and those communities who have been systematically disadvantaged by unjust policies (people of color, low-income communities). To do this, we’ll need leadership at the top — leading changes to Federal policies and practices and funding formulas that are outdated and dangerous.

Examples include the need to change the following: 

What YOU Can Do Today

Shifting the priorities of today’s transportation system for a safer tomorrow will take much work — and that’s why your support matters.

Please take action to move us to Vision Zero. Here are ways we need your help:

1 – Sign onto our letter to President Biden & Secretary Buttigieg urging them to commit to and plan for Zero Traffic Deaths.

2 – Share your support for Zero Traffic Deaths by posting on social media (a special image can be found here). And some sample messages:

  •  I support the #ZeroTrafficDeaths campaign calling on @SecretaryPete to commit to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2050.
  • Traffic deaths are preventable and it starts with federal leadership for safer vehicles & safer roads. Join me by signing this letter

3 – Ask your friends, family, and colleagues to sign on too. And please reach out to 2-3 organizations you’re involved with too. We have 1,700 groups and individuals signed onto the letter so far, but this number should be much larger. 

4 – Contact your elected representatives to tell them you support stronger safety priorities in upcoming Federal transportation plans and funding. (It takes 5 minutes to email them and makes a big difference!)

  • Find your Congressional Representative here.
  • Find your Senator here.

Special thanks to our partners in the campaign for Zero Traffic Deaths nationally — Families for Safe Streets, Road to Zero Coalition, and Toward Zero Deaths.

Extra-special thanks to the others who presented at the National Briefing, including Jamila Porter, of the Big Cities Health Coalition, and Dongho Chang, of the Seattle Department of Transportation, and Amy Cohen, of Families for Safe Streets. Watch the thought-provoking conversation with them here.

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