Chasing Zero: The Road to Safe Streets and Zero Traffic Fatalities

This holiday season, millions of Americans will take to the roads. Fortunately, the nation has made amazing progress over the past few decades to make those roads safer. The rate for people killed per mile driven has steadily dropped for years, according to data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Not only are the cars themselves safer, but drivers are better educated, and streets and highways are becoming better designed or adapted to keep everyone on them (not just drivers) safe.

However, despite these positive trends over time, traffic fatalities in the last year have spiked alarmingly. In the first half of 2016 alone, driving fatalities increased by 9 percent.

What is the reason for this massive increase? It is hard to pinpoint a specific cause except for the overall rise in driving that has come along with a growing economy and growing population. Indeed, the connection between the economy, driving and road fatalities is logical and well documented. Other potential reasons include urban sprawl, the growing number of elderly drivers, driving while on drugs and distracted driving.

Until we know the cause of this crisis, it will be hard to develop solutions. One thing seems to be certain: We are not going to be able to simply build our way to safety. Investments in infrastructure need to be targeted and strategic, focused more on pinch points and areas of recurring congestion or accidents, rather than indiscriminate building with safety as a hopeful byproduct.

One way to be more strategic is through the use of appropriate technology. Distracted driving is a national problem due, in part, to the fact that drivers have mobile devices with them at all times. Other innovations are treated as a means to greater mobility enabling people to travel farther, faster, with more ease. And that’s the rub. As a nation we need to shift the focus from just moving people and goods faster, and make safety a top priority. Safety should not an afterthought. It is an end goal.

We also need to make sure that disadvantaged communities do not suffer disproportionately. Many low-income communities lack sufficient pedestrian, bicycling and public transit opportunities, potentially making the roads a greater threat. Rural populations have excessively high injury mortality rates, where much of this increase is related to motor vehicle crashes.

Fortunately, the push for safer roads is getting stronger.

Inspired by European cities, the Vision Zero movement is an all hands on deck approach to transportation safety focused on improvements to streets and sidewalks, lights and lanes, as well as education and enforcement. The hope is that American cities from San Francisco to New York, to Washington will see dramatic successes such as those in Sweden.

Other organizations, such as the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, are working to harness the promise of technology to eliminate the 90 percent of crashes attributed to human error. Since computers do not get tired, distracted, or make mistakes, the theory goes, driving will be made safer and pedestrians and others outside the vehicle will be safer as well. While there are moral dilemmas to be sorted out (should an automated vehicle be programmed to minimize human impact, or protect the passengers in its car at all costs?), this technology offers great promise.

Other initiatives such as the National Safety Council’s Road to Zero are casting an appropriately wide net to figure out the best mix of regulation, infrastructure and education. Since there will certainly not be one solution to this problem, such a broad approach makes sense.

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In the meantime, especially during this busy holiday season, it is up to all of us to do what we can to make safety paramount.




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