January 3, 2024 BY Tiffany Smithin News

What We’re Getting Wrong about Vision Zero & Lessons for 2024

“Why is Vision Zero failing in the U.S.?”

It’s the most frequent – and frustrating – question I heard last year. And I get it. Looking at the disturbing data of the past few years, (see below), triggers alarm and dismay. Thinking of the human toll and devastation reflected in these numbers demands answers.

This is alarming, to say the least. But, reporters, elected officials and even some fellow road safety advocates are asking the wrong question. Instead of “Why is Vision Zero failing?” we should be asking: “Why isn’t the U.S. implementing Vision Zero seriously?” 

Setting a goal of Vision Zero – safe mobility for all – will not make a difference. Nor will simply developing a well-meaning, or even an ambitious, Vision Zero Plan. Even re-designing roads and lowering speed limits in a handful of problematic areas are only isolated, baby steps. Worthy steps – yes – but not sufficient to meet the moment.

Can we change the status quo in the U.S.? Absolutely. It has been done in other places, including major cities in Europe; Mexico City and Bogota, Colombia. See graphic below and here.

Source: Recommendations of the Safe System Consortium was released in 2021 and developed by a group led by the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE).

What Works to Advance Vision Zero?

We call out two major shifts we need in the U.S. to make meaningful progress on safe mobility for all: First, we must start making decisions based on the realities of physics and second, we must move beyond today’s piecemeal approach to change.

Minding the realities of physics to advance Vision Zero means recognizing the frailty of the human body and re-designing our transportation system to respect these inalienable physical vulnerabilities. Our most promising way of reducing the frequency and severity of crashes is by reducing speeds, especially where there are a mix of people traveling both inside and outside motor vehicles. As the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) states in its 2023 report, Safe System Approach for Speed Management: “To achieve safer speeds, [t]he Department believes it is important to prioritize safety and moving individuals at safe speeds over focusing exclusively on the throughput of motor vehicles.” 

For a community serious about advancing Vision Zero, it starts with recognizing the physics: Vehicle speed at the time of impact correlates directly to whether a person will live or die. As shared in NACTO’s City Limits report, see below, a person hit by a car traveling at 35 miles per hour is five times more likely to die than a person hit by a car traveling at 20 miles per hour. 

Source: NACTO’s City Limits report

And, as shared in USDOT’s speed report, referenced above, (p.9), even moderate changes in speeds can have major safety implications. Simply put, lower speeds means fewer crashes and less severe injuries when crashes do occur. This is even glaringly true for older pedestrians and for pedestrians who are hit by trucks and other large vehicles. 

It’s physics that we can’t afford to deny anymore. Making change is not rocket science. We know ways to do this right now, including redesigning roadways, sidewalks and bikeways to physically deter unsafe driving speeds; lowering speed limits; providing worthy walking, biking and transit options that remove the dangers of motor vehicles; requiring safety features in vehicles and leveraging technologies that prevent inappropriate speeds. All of these are existing, proven strategies used in nations that are succeeding with Vision Zero as described here and here and here.

So, we know what works, but we are not – at least not yet in the U.S. – showing the political and public will to make the changes needed to make safety paramount in our everyday transportation system. As Jamelle Bouie in this thoughtful October 2023 NY Times article explains: “America’s City Councils, city planners and traffic engineers would, in short, have to prioritize safety over speed and the efficient movement of vehicles. It’s the only way to stop what is an epidemic of violence...”

And as U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg shared at the 2023 annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors regarding cities making Vision Zero progress: “When we asked the mayors of those cities how they did it, they pointed to common solutions: lower speed limits in residential areas, protected bike lanes and bus lanes, curb extensions, high visibility crosswalks, more frequent traffic signals – but also using the moral authority and visibility of the mayor's office to encourage a fundamentally safer culture for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.”

Moving past a piecemeal approach to safety requires applying the physics of safe mobility – prioritizing safety over speed – not just in a few token places but holistically. 

While there is value, especially initially, in focusing Vision Zero efforts swiftly and pointedly on the most problematic injury locations, this “spot treatment” is only a starting place. Comprehensive change – reducing speed limits and designing Complete Streets fully, community-wide – is needed in all places where people are moving by a combination of walking, driving, biking, etc. This means moving from a project-by-project approach to one that makes wholesale change. And it means more fundamental changes, including lessening overall car dependence for so many trips by offering great transit, walking and biking alternatives and with road pricing policies), and also regulating vehicles to be safer, as the European Union and others are doing right now.

“Vision Zero and the Safe Systems approach call for a paradigm shift in transportation safety from spot treatment towards a holistically systemic approach – which is, perhaps controversially, unfalteringly at odds with the perspective of ‘balancing’ trade-offs between mobility of vehicles and safety,” according to this September 2023 transportation research journal article, The Safe Systems Pyramid: A new framework for traffic safety.

It cites nations adopting this more holistic Vision Zero approach and successfully reducing traffic injuries and deaths, as the U.S. slides backwards. Read our take on this new public health-oriented framework for road safety efforts.

Lessons Learned to Benefit Vision Zero

We have made transformational change before in this country when public health depended on it. We can learn from major, successful societal shifts that many thought was impossible, such as dramatically reducing smoking rates, which is credited with saving more than 8 million lives  in the U.S. in the past 50+ years. Challenging? Definitely. Achievable? Yes.

How do we lead a similar public health transformation to confront today’s roadway safety crisis? 

We can start by recognizing the magnitude of the problem and then acknowledging that big challenges merit big changes. We can respect the reality of physics and shift our decision making to prioritize safety over speed in how we design roads and vehicles and how we set speeds – throughout our communities.

In 2024, I urge us to move from asking Why is Vision Zero failing?” to asking — and acting on the challenge of – “How rapidly can we scale up Vision Zero in the U.S.?”

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