Webinar Recap: Words Matter: Effective Vision Zero Messaging

by Jenn Fox May 7, 2020 in News, Safety Over Speed, Webinars

One of the barriers to changing hearts and minds – and, ultimately, street designs and policies – around safe mobility stems from the ways we traditionally conceptualize and communicate about the topic. The good news is that we can overcome those barriers. To find out tips on how, we featured a savvy communicator in our May 5, 2020 webinar, Words Matter: Effective Vision Zero Messaging, see recording below and download the slides.

In the informative webinar, Barb Chamberlain, Director of the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Active Transportation Division, shared the importance of building common understanding and communicating about Safe Systems. Below are a few of our top takeaways. And we encourage you to watch the webinar recording for many more insights and hands-on ideas for improvement.

Chamberlain emphasized a key principle underpinning the Safe Systems approach that also fits closely with how we can more effectively communicate about safety. This entails expanding the sense of responsibility from being overly focused on individual road users to also include the designers of the system, including planners, engineers, policymakers, lawmakers, etc.

Traditionally, we haven’t been so skilled at this when it comes to transportation safety. But it is possible, as we do it all the time with other vital utilities.

For example, in our society, we come to expect a basic, healthy standard of water quality. We depend on a city to provide us with a safe water system, and, societally, consider it a catastrophic failure when something goes wrong, as has been demonstrated recently in Flint, Michigan. As Chamberlain explains: “We’re not filtering out cholera at the tap; that happens upstream. It is built into the system.”

Similarly, let’s look at the model of electricity: Thanks to well-designed systems, power is delivered to our households and it is set to the appropriate voltage. We do not deal individually with something that could be dangerous to us; we don’t expect people to have special gloves to touch high voltage lines or the switch in their house. Because we see the common good in providing electricity – and recognize the benefit of handling it mainly at an upstream versus individual level — we engineer separation of users from dangers into the system. So, it works for all.

We can use these as examples to improve our transportation efforts and align them with the Safe Systems approach. We need to be working upstream to ensure our systems prioritize safety, rather than continue to be overly dependent on each individual taking care of safety herself or himself. As Chamberlain succinctly explains: “If we keep describing safety as individual behavior, we’re going to keep believing that’s where the solution lies.”

What would a safer system – upstream – look like for transportation? It would include safely designed and designated places for all road users, including those walking, biking, using wheelchairs, and not only (or mostly) those driving. It would design for travel speeds that were survivable in the event of a crash, not catastrophic, or separation for vulnerable users from high-speed motor vehicle traffic where we don’t lower speeds. These are do-able things, if done at the upstream level.

This is a shift in the status quo for most places. And, how we talk about this shift matters.

This includes the need for some culture shift amongst those of us working on transportation issues – our internal teams and the partners we work with. It makes sense to invest time and training to support key stakeholders’ understanding of the Safe Systems approach. For example, there’s a big difference in articulating the occurrence of and solutions for “speed” versus “speeding.” The latter includes individuals traveling higher than legal or appropriate speeds. Thinking about “speed”, in general, relates more to the upstream systems we design. For instance, are policymakers setting appropriate, safe speed limits? Are engineers designing the roads to encourage safe speeds? Do a community’s enforcement tactics match their goals and values?

Washington State’s Department of Transportation is integrating the Safe Systems approach and closely related messaging into its work, and into the state Target Zero plan (Washington State’s Highway Safety Plan). Read our interview with Barb Chamberlain to learn more.

The below image from Washington’s Target Zero Plan reflects the State’s work on Safe Systems and the culture shift that reflects this way of thinking.

Source: Washington State Strategic Highway Safety Plan 2019, page 2

Additional Resources

Following are additional tools for communicating effectively for safe mobility for all:

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