On October 5th, 2016, federal government, advocacy and community leaders at the national level stepped up in an unprecedented way to declare that “enough is enough” of the widespread suffering caused by traffic violence in this country.
Together, we set a new goal -- and with it much-needed new urgency and a new direction -- called the Road to Zero, a national campaign to eliminate traffic deaths in the U.S. within the next 30 years.
Road to Zero is a national effort led by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Safety Council, along with a steering council that includes the Vision Zero Network. While zero traffic deaths policies have been gaining momentum at the local government level for several years, this level of problem acknowledgement and ambitious goal setting is unprecedented in mainstream national policy.
There are well over 35,092 reasons this new effort is long overdue. This is the number of lives lost in the U.S. in 2015 alone to traffic violence – more than the number of Americans killed by gun violence , terrorism, and the Zika Virus combined. And at least another 2.6 million people suffered life-altering traffic-related injuries last year in the U.S.
Not Just Business as Usual
While the proof will be in the action and results, there is good reason to be optimistic that the Road to Zero can help shift the traffic safety situation in the U.S. First, the significance of an upfront acknowledgement from a wide range of influential national leaders that traffic deaths are preventable and deserve sustained attention shouldn’t be undervalued. Furthermore, the Road to Zero doesn’t just draw more attention to traffic safety. It sets specific goals and timelines for reducing traffic deaths and assumes that we can and will reach zero.
While city leaders have been committing to similar goals under the Vision Zero banner for the past few years, this is new to federal transportation policy-setters.
It’s a big deal.
The Road to Zero is launching with a public commitment to move beyond the status quo by employing new strategies, partnerships and resources to keep people safe as we move about our communities.
“Our vision is simple – zero fatalities on our roads,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We know that setting the bar for safety to the highest possible standard requires commitment from everyone to think differently about safety– from drivers to industry, safety organizations and government at all levels.”
Building on the Work of Cities
This national effort follows on the heels of a significant increase in attention and urgency at the local level toward safe mobility. In just the past two-and-a-half years, at least 20 cities have, for the first time, made commitments to Vision Zero – to eliminate traffic deaths and severe injuries among all road users.
These city Vision Zero leaders include mayors, chiefs of police, public health officials, transportation engineers & others who shape our communities and who have publicly acknowledged that these tragedies are preventable. They are already moving beyond “business as usual” to hasten progress toward safety by lowering speed limits, employing technologies such as safety cameras and re-designing streets to prioritize the safety of all road users.
And today’s Vision Zero leaders include victims, loved ones of victims, and diverse community members who are bringing momentous grassroots energy to the goal of safety on the streets for all. State governments too, deserve credit for recognizing the need to step up urgency, with more than 40 U.S. states including some form of a “Toward Zero Deaths” approach in their work.
We are seeing a new level of urgency, leadership and action toward this issue – and not a moment too soon. Both government and community leaders are increasingly recognizing the situation on our roadways, sidewalks and bikeways as the public health crisis -- a crisis that we can and must control.
How the Road to Zero Can Accomplish Meaningful Change
How can we ensure that the Road to Zero is not just a re-packaging of past well-meaning but ineffective strategies? Of course, traffic safety is not a new national priority, and people have been working hard for many decades to improve safety on our streets.
It can start by looking at what local Vision Zero efforts can bring to this national effort; a stepped-up urgency and a stronger incentive for action. The core principles of Vision Zero strengthen the data-driven focus on traffic safety and both coalesce and hold accountable a broader, more diverse group of stakeholders. It also brings an essential commitment to a Safe Systems approach. This includes, most importantly, emphasizing the systems in place that affect safety on the roadways over simply trying to influence individual behavior.
This means focusing more on the built environment and the policies that are the the strongest influencers of human decisions. Certainly, education efforts to influence behaviors that result in unsafe conditions will remain important. But increasingly, communities are recognizing that we have far more potential to advance traffic safety by focusing on the design of our streets and neighborhoods.
This is particularly the case when it comes to speed management. Policymakers and transportation system designers have great influence in managing speed, and we know that speed is the most critical factor in determining the severity of crashes and resulting injuries. Recognizing that, we are seeing more and more city leaders step up to encourage safe speeds through legislation, physical changes in roadway design to encourage safe speeds, and employing proven technologies such as safety cameras to discourage unsafe behavior.
For the most part, we know what needs to be done to get to zero traffic deaths. The tools exist today to prioritize safety over speed, but communities need the ability, the political backing, the resources, and sometimes the flexibility, particularly from state and federal government, to employ these tools.
This needs to be a central part of our conversation in the coming months on this Road to Zero. There are certainly going to be some sensitive topics on the table in our work. If we are serious about this, we have to make sure that it is, indeed, all on the table and that we are open to new approaches, especially as we’ve seen proven tools save lives elsewhere.
We need to have honest and sometimes self-critical conversations about what’s working and what’s not in current efforts toward traffic safety, and we need to be open to trying what we haven’t tried yet. I hope the Road to Zero can elevate these discussions. And I hope we can find ways to incentivize meaningful collaboration to reach our shared goal of safety for all, especially those who suffer disproportionately from traffic violence – seniors, children, people of color, low-income communities, people walking, people bicycling and people with disabilities. These are the people who will benefit the most when we are successful.
The Road to Zero is an opportunity for monumental change. It will take a focus and commitment on action, being open to change and focusing on the strategies that will bring the greatest benefits. It won’t be easy. But it can be life-saving.
We commit to share regular updates on this effort and do all we can to ensure it sets the bar high. Learn more about the Road to Zero here. And learn more about local efforts and recommendations on the Vision Zero Network’s Resource Library.