As we start a new year, it’s understandable to feel discouraged by the appalling trends in traffic safety in our country.
Roadway fatalities are increasing at astronomical levels. Many policymakers and media overlook long-standing, systemic safety solutions, leaning too much on soft “education” strategies that tend toward victim-blaming. And the status quo approach to traffic safety exacerbates additional injustices toward people of color and low-income people.
These problems won’t improve by chance, but by intentional change. This will take more than nibbling-around-the-edges change but, instead, fundamental change. This will take a paradigm shift.
And despite the challenges, I feel hopeful that we can make real progress toward Vision Zero in 2022. Here are the main reasons why:
1) Powerful voices are increasingly calling for change
A growing number of people no longer accept business-as-usual when it comes to people killed on our streets in largely predictable and preventable ways. Advocates in all types of communities, including members of Families for Safe Streets, who’ve lost loved ones or been hurt in crashes themselves, are raising their voices and holding their leaders accountable at new levels.
And more decision-makers are responding. Newly elected mayors of major cities, including NYC, Boston, and Cleveland, came into office with high-profile commitments to prioritize safe mobility, especially for those most severely impacted: people walking and biking, low-income people, and people of color.
At the national level, there is unprecedented recognition that Vision Zero, and the Safe System approach that underlies it, are viable and worthy. As U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said in November 2021: “Just about all of us can think of the names of people we care about lost in a crash. And yet, too often these deaths are described as if they’re somehow inevitable, as if it was just the cost of living in the 21st century, when the truth is these deaths can be prevented.”
And, as of this writing, at least 55 members of Congress are co-sponsoring the first-ever Resolution to commit the nation to a Vision Zero goal by 2050.
Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, said in a November 2021 statement: “Don’t think of numbers, think of people. Put them at the center of every decision about our road system. That’s the paradigm shift that we need—to make our many layers of traffic hazards into layers of traffic protection, so that when crashes happen, nobody pays for it with their life.”
2) New funding & policy directions offer transformation
Newly legislated federal funds can boost Vision Zero work across the nation. A promising component of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is the first-time Safe Streets & Roads for All grant program, which will offer $5B to local- and regional-level agencies to plan and implement Vision Zero efforts. This is important not only because it’s new funding prioritizing safety, especially for those most severely impacted in crashes, but also because the grants will go directly to cities and regions, rather than getting caught in state-level bureaucracy, which often waters down the impacts (Find out more about the National League of Cities’ new Safety First Challenge for Safer Streets).
And the Safe System approach is called out explicitly in the new federal infrastructure bill. This is an encouraging step away from business-as-usual and toward a more effective and equitable approach that recognizes the need to be human-centered in traffic safety work, and to focus on upstream, preventative strategies. An encouraging example includes a requirement for new cars to include technology to prevent drunk driving. So, rather than relying on after-the-fact police stops, this can prevent the dangerous behaviors before they happen.
We’re encouraged to see U.S. Department of Transportation leaders embracing the Safe System approach, and we hope this will be institutionalized in policies and funding decisions for a long time to come.
In many local communities – and even some regional and state levels – leaders are making policy changes that have the potential to shake up the status quo approach to safety in consequential ways. A few recent examples include:
- Seattle recently announced it will deprioritize low-risk public safety violations, including biking without a helmet and expired/missing vehicle registrations. These will no longer serve as primary reasons to make traffic stops, given concerns about racial and economic inequities in enforcement. Other cities are considering similar changes.
- Many cities are choosing to prioritize safety over speed by lowering their speed limits, including Minneapolis & St. Paul, Denver, San Francisco, and Charlotte, just to name a few.
- The State of Colorado’s new policy will require transportation projects to measure climate impacts and incentivize funding for green mobility options, such as transit, walking, and biking.
We know that reaching Vision Zero will be neither quick nor easy. And change will not likely be linear because we are unraveling decades of outdated, but deeply institutionalized, policies and practices.
“For decades, our streets and our cities have really been planned & designed around the fast and efficient movement of vehicles, and it hasn’t necessarily been centered on the safe movement of human beings,” says Allison Schwartz, Vision Zero Coordinator in Seattle. “What we do see is that when we apply the tools, the engineering treatments that we have, of which there are many, we do see safety improvements on our streets for everyone traveling, whether they’re walking, biking, driving or getting to transit. So, there are promising positive movements where we do make investments. It’s just scaling that up, being able to do that at a citywide level comes with challenges and is going to take time.”
But, we have reason to be hopeful – if we redouble efforts, push for change, and focus on what matters most in 2022 and beyond.