Talking with Toks Omishakin, Director of the California Department of Transportation, about integrating equity and Safe Systems

by Jenn Fox | May 24, 2021 | in News, People Behind the Progress

When we learned that the biggest state in the nation is making an explicit “pivot” to the Safe Systems approach, which underpins Vision Zero, we couldn’t wait to learn more, so we reached out to Toks Omishakin, the Director of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), who is leading the charge. Prior to his Caltrans appointment in 2019, Omishakin was a Deputy Commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Transportation and, before that, Director of the Nashville Healthy Living Initiative. His early leadership at Caltrans includes creating two new high-level offices – Safety & Equity – signaling priorities for the agency, including increasing attention to pedestrian and bicyclist safety and addressing racial and income justice issues in the transportation system. Toks has shared that Caltrans will not be “your Dad’s old transportation department” and we’re seeing positive signs of this already.
Vision Zero Network: We read with great interest about Caltrans’ pivot to a “bolder and more focused approach” to combatting a rise in traffic fatalities and serious injuries. This includes incorporating a Safe Systems approach, which sets safety as an ethical imperative and recognizes that humans make mistakes, so designers and owners of the transportation system should prioritize ways to minimize crash impact energy on the human body. Why do you see this as an important shift? And what are the biggest changes you hope to see from this pivot?

Director Toks Omishakin: Thank you for this opportunity to share more information regarding our safety programs at Caltrans. Our innovative measures are developed to save lives; we can never have too many conversations about our work in the context of safety.  We are proud of our past successes in traffic safety and are always exploring new and innovative measures to enhance safety.

We have established four pillars to guide new initiatives: Implementation of the Safe System Approach, Doubling Down on What Works, Accelerating Advanced Technology, and Integrating Equity. We’re leveraging available and proven countermeasures as we implement more proactive, data driven initiatives. Transportation safety is shared by everyone: from pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers to engineers, automobile manufacturers, law enforcement, and policymakers. We want to incorporate this philosophy into our messaging and reflect it in our programming.

We believe this pivot will save more lives. It will also empower California, leading us on the path to become a national leader in adopting the Safe Systems approach— which will ultimately lay the foundation for future safety initiatives.

VZN: The holistic Safe Systems approach recognizes people will make mistakes on the roadways sometimes, so it is important that system designers, including staff at agencies such as Caltrans and other transportation and policy agencies, can design systems and set policies that reduce the severity of crashes. This means prioritizing safety over speed, for instance, and designating safe space for people walking and biking. What are some examples of how Caltrans will be a leader in Safe Systems going forward?  

Director Omishakin: First of all, it is important to note that Caltrans already recognizes roadway users make mistakes and we account for that in our design and construction of roadway features.  Our roadways are safe for the reasonably careful user, and tolerances are designed and built into the system to provide added protections to anticipate, accommodate, and mitigate human error. 

We hope to continue to lead in this area by building on our momentum and incorporating Safe Systems at all levels of our organization: from our programming to our design and collaboration with other stakeholders. At the program level in 2019, we launched a Pedestrian Systemic Safety Monitoring Program that incorporates a systemic approach into its modeling and analysis. By thoroughly exploring the details of a pedestrian versus vehicle collisions, we plan to initiate projects beyond any single collision site to mitigate potential collisions at other locations.  This proactive approach protects travelers on a systemic level.

We want to introduce these elements into other programs as well. Recently, we initiated an innovative research project based on developing a Safe Systems approach to setting speed limits; this will position us to become a leader in speed management as well.

VZN: Unsafe speed is one of the top cause of crashes and fatalities on California roads and around the nation, and yet California has an outdated approach to setting speed limits. This California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) Report of Findings calls for a long-overdue shift in how the State advises setting speed limits. Many California cities want to adjust speed limits to improve safety – including changing the 85th-percentile approach to a Safe Systems approach for setting speeds. How is Caltrans responding to this call for change?

Director Omishakin: We agree with the CalSTA Report of Findings and are working to implement many of its recommendations.  For the long term, we want to move towards a Safe Systems-based approach to setting speed limits, and the purpose of our research project is to lay that foundation.

California’s new Crash Data Dashboard is an important new resource that allows public queries.

In the interim, our work is also invested in shorter-term initiatives. Where appropriate, promoting traffic calming designs while providing clarifying guidance to practitioners is one example of this. By utilizing existing design flexibility and engineering discretion — while simultaneously setting speed limits—we can identify opportunities to benefit the public.

VZN:  While studies find that speed safety cameras can reduce speeding by 14-65% and serious car crashes by up to 44%, using cameras requires a legislative change in California. As with modernizing their speed setting practices, California cities are hamstrung to implement safety measures that they know to be life-saving for their citizens. What can we expect to see from Caltrans to support cities to leverage these proven tools for automated enforcement that can discourage unsafe behavior, while also lessening the dependence on police-initiated stops, which are being called into question around the nation because of concerns for racial bias in traffic stops?

Director Omishakin: Law enforcement has always been a supportive partner in traffic enforcement to protect roadway users.  We appreciate that speed safety cameras can be controversial for stakeholders for multiple reasons, including privacy rights, data security, and even bias. For any camera effort to be successful, the emphasis needs to be safety above all else. Additionally, any sought-after safety improvements as a result of camera use would have to be supported by data. Caltrans will continue to engage in conversations with cities, law enforcement, the Legislature, and other stakeholders on this topic.  

VZN: We are committed to promoting effective and equitable speed management strategies, recognizing that there is a long history of police officers using traffic stops to target people of color. As discussed here, we want to support communities working to disentangle police activity from traffic safety efforts, including Vision Zero. And we know Caltrans shared this statement in December 2020, acknowledging “that communities of color, under-served communities, and tribal governments experienced fewer benefits and a greater share of negative impacts associated with our state’s transportation system.” How do you see Caltrans’ Safe Systems pivot and other safety-focused efforts supporting racial equity and justice?

Director Omishakin: Caltrans is working to increase collaboration and partnerships with external organizations. Together, we seek to identify and implement best practices, technology, and lessons learned; these will advance delivery of safety enhancements that are responsive to the priorities and needs of underserved communities. 

You can hear directly from Director Omishakin in his Bike Month video. Photo credit: Caltrans

The Caltrans Office of Race and Equity (CORE) is increasing community engagement specifically in underserved and tribal communities. Over the next 18 months, Caltrans will lead interpersonal public engagement listening sessions between Community Based Organizations, residents of underserved neighborhoods, CalSTA, and the California Transportation Commission (CTC). The goal of the listening sessions is to better understand the history and experiences of communities impacted by the transportation system.  These sessions also enable open forum discussion of the current opportunities, needs, and challenges related to transportation. Participants will be asked to share their individual and communal experiences related to transportation access.  The listening sessions will generate data-driven and contextual reports that disseminate listening session findings by region. These findings will help guide Caltrans, CalSTA and the CTC in evaluating and adjusting our internal and external procedures—specifically those that may have affected marginalized communities, priority populations, disadvantaged neighborhoods, low-income communities, households, and tribal governments.

Within CORE, our Native American Liaison Branch is working to increase tribal representation amongst our decision-makers.  We are also developing methods to better coordinate with tribes to ensure their safety priorities are reflected in the “safe systems” approach that could address the underreporting of incidents on reservations and rancherias.  

VZN: We want to applaud you for creating the important, new role of a Chief Safety Officer within Caltrans. As a new year is upon us, where are you focusing the most effort to improve road safety in California this year?

Director Omishakin: Caltrans prioritizes safety in every single area within our reach. Safety is our number one focus throughout all segments of our work, in every capacity.  Much of our efforts in the coming year will be focused around our four guiding pillars in addition to building the new Division of Safety Programs. We are also are adding staff and resources to further advance all our safety initiatives within our new Division of Safety Programs. And, as mentioned, the department is focusing on speed management, pedestrian and bicycle safety, and implementation of new proactive measures.  While these efforts might not produce immediate results, it will ultimately help us reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

VZN: Thank you, Director Omishakin, for your leadership on safety, equity and sustainability at Caltrans. We wish you and Caltrans great success.

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