The Unites States is in the middle of a crisis. In the first half of 2016, motor vehicle deaths increased by 9 percent in the United States. That is a spike of a whopping 18 percent since 2014. Experts are not sure why exactly this is happening but there is speculation that an increase in urban sprawl, elderly drivers, and distracted driving could be major contributors.
No matter what the cause, it is readily apparent that the United States needs to reckon with this problem.
So what can be done? A small South American country may offer some hints.
The Bolivian capitol of La Paz was facing problems with cars failing to follow traffic laws. Despite having police enforce the laws and handing out tickets, cars were regularly disregarding traffic lights and speed limits, resulting in congestion, motor vehicle accidents, and pedestrian injury. La Paz isn’t facing a unique problem, every urban area grapples with problems caused by motor vehicles. But La Paz decided it needed to fix this problem and keep it’s citizens safe. Cue the Zebras.
Yes, zebras. Instead of increasing police presence or giving out more fines, the city decided to use more creative means. The zebra or cebritas program started in 2001 and is inspired by a Columbian program from the 1990s that used mimes to tease and shame drivers for reckless driving. Instead of mimes, La Paz decided to use zebras because crosswalks are known as “zebra crossings”.
So for the past sixteen years, people in giant zebra costumes have manned the crosswalks of La Paz. They are known for the comical ways they encourage drivers to follow traffic laws and educate pedestrians on how to safely cross streets. A search on YouTube will yield dozens of videos showing zebras dancing and making teasing gestures at cars until they stop. According to an article in The Atlantic, La Paz has 265 zebras out on the streets today. Many of these zebras are city youth who receive a stipend for their work.
The cebritas program sounds ridiculous, but according to the residents of La Paz the experiment is working.
This is not to say that the United States should immediately issue an army of men and women in zebra costumes onto streets everywhere. But rather, this speaks to a larger goal that we may have lost sight of in our search for better, faster, more efficient transportation. That is – safety is not a by-product of good transportation and infrastructure, it is a core goal. Bolivia is demonstrating this with zebra costumes and Columbia did it with mimes. While the solution here in the United States may not involve a costume, the effect should be the same.
The push for safe streets is growing. Movements like Vision Zero, Road to Zero, and the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets are all working to improve safety on streets and sidewalks as well as educate and enforce safety practices across the country.
Whether by zebra, mime, or more traditional means, safety should be priority and practice for everyone on the road.