Anyone working on traffic safety efforts – whether at the local, regional, State, or Federal level – knows that coordination between the various levels can be challenging. Even when agencies share the same overarching goal of safety, their policies, practices, and communications may not always align.
We are pleased to showcase a helpful resource released by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA): Strategies to Coordinate Zero Deaths Efforts for State and Local Agencies. Many of the strategies highlighted in the report result from Vision Zero Network-coordinated workshops in 2019 in Texas, Florida, and Colorado. The workshops convened more than 200 stakeholders to identify opportunities for increased coordination and progress toward the shared goal of zero traffic deaths. This blog highlights some of the most promising strategies and additional resources to support inter-agency coordination. We hope it is helpful in advancing your Vision Zero work.
Managing Speed for Safety
A resounding theme heard in the workshops (and in our other work around the nation) is the need for better State and local agency alignment on managing speed for safety, including effective speed setting practices. Because speed limits on many roads are controlled by states, if a city wants to lower speed limits on problematic roads to improve safety, many are forced to laboriously advocate for State legislation, often facing significant bureaucratic and political hurdles.
One of the most common roadblocks cities face is outdated rules limiting cities’ ability to respond to urgent calls from the community for safer streets. Many States rely on the 85th percentile standard to set speed limits. Using the 85th percentile speed to set speed limits has been proven to have unintended, negative consequences and can lead to more dangerous speeds as reported in this August 2017 Study by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The Study recommends modernizing traditional speed-setting standards to shift to a Safe Systems approach to incorporate other critical factors, such as crash history and the safety of people walking and bicycling. (Efforts are underway to revise this outdated approach at the national level.)
Vision Zero cities - including Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, New York City, and Boston - have successfully supported State-level legislative changes in order to have the ability to lower their local speed limits for the sake of improved safety. Vision Zero Network believes communities should have greater flexibility in this critical realm. Read more about Setting Safe Speed Limits on Urban Streets.
Cities are also redesigning streets with the express purpose of slowing travel speeds for safety. Design techniques like roundabouts, speed humps, medians, road diets, and other traffic calming measures are proven solutions to slow speeds and make streets safer. Designing “self-enforcing” roads is a foundation for the Safe Systems approach. We simply cannot educate or enforce our way out of traffic safety problems. Cities must build a foundation of streets, sidewalks, and bikeways that prioritize safety over speed in their design.
More on effective speed management and safe systems are detailed in the following resources:
- Institute of Transportation Engineers – Speed Management for Safety
- National Association of City Transportation Officials – City Limits
- FHWA – Speed Management Safety
- FHWA – Safe System Brochure
- FHWA – Safe System Training Course
Some Florida cities and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) are working to promote more ability to design for slower, safer speeds, especially to encourage more safe walking and biking options. Examples of results achieved with stronger coordination between local and State Vision Zero goals, including Hillsborough County MPO’s speed management efforts, can be seen in the 2019 Florida workshop report. For example, the Florida Department of Transportation Context Classification Guide describes context classifications from rural to dense urban. The FDOT 2019 Design Manual offers roadway designers more flexibility, and FDOT provides training and case studies in this Complete Streets webinar series. While this is progress for Florida, which has the highest Pedestrian Danger Index in the nation, many acknowledge these ideas need to be better implemented and institutionalized to be meaningful.
Building Strong Safety Culture, Starting Internally
One of the ways the Vision Zero / Safe Systems approach is different than the traditional approach is that it explicitly sets the goal of safety for all, not accepting that traffic deaths and severe injuries are an unavoidable outcome of modern mobility. Instead, there’s a commitment to safety culture that prioritizes the goal of safety in all decision-making, planning, and policies. This starts with building a safety culture internally amongst the agencies charged to lead traffic safety work. Read more about ways local, State and Federal agencies are incorporating a Safe Systems approach, including a safety culture, in their everyday work.
Essential to building an internal safety culture is willingness to modernize and embrace change in practices, policies, and even in the language we use. For instance, State departments of transportation (DOTs) have traditionally referred to “highway” plans, even when meaning to include other roads that are not highways. This can send a message that minimizes non-highway safety efforts being led by locals. The Colorado DOT recognized opportunity for clearer communication and alignment, and has changed the name of the State Highway Safety Plan, as part of the plan update, re-titling it the Strategic Transportation Safety Plan. Words matter. Ensuring that language, plans, actions, and decisions fully encompass safety partners’ work helps show understanding and solidarity. And, the title change is accompanied by an emphasis on strategies that center safety for all modes on all roads, not just moving motor vehicles on highways. The Plan emphasizes collaboration on Vision Zero, including in its vision and mission.
Colorado DOT leaders are also working to humanize the issue of traffic safety, reminding the public – and their own internal team – that these are matters of life and death. For instance, they set up roadside message boards displaying the current number of traffic fatalities for the year. As described on the CDOT safety web portal, the aim is that “this weekly memorial will be a wake-up call for everyone to drive more safely. Remember: It’s a person, not a number.”
Data and prioritization
Gathering, analyzing, and using data to understand the traffic safety issues in the community also requires coordination. MPOs can play an important role in coordinating with State and local partners on data and prioritization. The Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) coordinates closely with CDOT and locals to develop the Strategic Transportation Safety Plan, including leading a regional High-Injury Network analysis.
DRCOG developed this Regional Vision Zero Plan that defines necessary action initiatives and partners that need to be involved or take responsibility to advance its regional goal of safety for all. DRCOG mapped the regional High-Injury Network and found that 41% of the high-injury locations are in areas with higher-than-average numbers of households in poverty and minority populations. Given this disproportionate impact, DRCOG incorporates Vision Zero’s equity principles, referring to the broad goals of investing where needs are greatest; engaging the community in problem-solving; using data to focus efforts; and questioning the role of traditional enforcement, given concerns for racial bias in policing.
Leaders from DRCOG and Oregon Metro, the Portland area MPO, described their regional Vision Zero plans and focus on equity in this Vision Zero Network webinar. You can read more about the MPO roles in Vision Zero in our Traffic Safety at Metropolitan Planning Organizations resource.
Meaningful, Sustained Collaboration Improves Safety
An overarching takeaway from the FHWA-sponsored workshops is the value in strong communication and sustained collaboration between agencies working toward zero traffic deaths.
The report from the Colorado workshop describes coordination between Denver and the Colorado DOT on a Citywide Speed Limit Evaluation. The study compared speed limit changes based on the conventional (85th percentile) approach and a more context-sensitive (50th percentile) approach. Similarly, the report from the Texas workshop describes noteworthy road safety practices in Texas. For example, Austin and the Texas DOT coordinated on a pedestrian-focused Road Safety audit of a high crash location and used results to target safety improvement detailed in the Austin Pedestrian Safety Action Plan.
As a growing number of communities across the U.S. embrace zero deaths strategies, collaboration is critical and rewarding. You can view webinars from Texas, Florida, and Colorado to learn more about the above examples. We hope these ideas will inspire you to think about ways to coordinate with your State, local, and federal colleagues.