Ask safety experts what makes American roads so dangerous and they tend to reduce it down to three simple words: belts, booze, and speed. Of course, there are other contributors to traffic deaths. An improving economy has more people commuting to work by car. Mobile technology has led to a serious spike in distracted driving. And, in many parts of the U.S., a crumbling infrastructure makes the simple act of driving more dangerous. But those three perennial problems are the main causes behind a shocking 14% increase in traffic deaths in America from 2015 to 2017—amounting to more than 40,000 deaths per year.
Another Stunning Swedish Export
This unfortunate trend has left government agencies at all levels and in many countries scrambling to find solutions. Many of them are turning to Vision Zero. Like the famously safe Volvo automobile, Vision Zero is a Swedish import that has a plan for making roads virtually free of fatalities and serious injuries. Why Sweden? "We simply do not accept any deaths or injuries on our roads," says Hans Berg of the country’s national transport agency.
Today, after implementing Vision Zero in 1997, Sweden has the safest roads in the world, with only 3 fatalities per 100,000 people, compared to 5.5 deaths per 100,000 in the European Union and 11.4 in the U.S. The Dominican Republic comes in last with 40 deaths per 100,000.
A Mixture of Carrots and Sticks for U.S. Cities
The goal of Vision Zero is very clear: to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries while making mobility in general safer for all. Its proponents point to a number of ways to make traffic safer: improved roadway design, enforcement of safe speeds, implementation of proven safety technology, and a better understanding of the factors that contribute to roadway accidents, including dangerous behavior on the part of drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians alike.
Vision Zero adherents also call for harsher punishments for unsafe driving and failure to use seatbelts, and a renewed focus on municipal vehicles and taxis. The State of Massachusetts, the city of Seattle, and other jurisdictions across the country have recently passed resolutions giving local governments greater control over speed limits in dense urban environments. In 2016, the feds stepped in and earmarked $1 million per year for the next three years to help cities work toward the goals of what the Department of Transportation calls its “Road to Zero Coalition.”
Growing Momentum for Zero Traffic Deaths
Today a handful of American cities including Austin, Boston, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. have implemented Vision Zero programs, with San Antonio, San Jose, Denver, New Orleans, and Eugene, Oregon close behind.
Boston got involved after three high-profile traffic deaths occurred in 2012, one of which was the death of 23-year-old Christopher Weigl, killed when he collided with a large truck while riding his bicycle. His is one of many cases in which a trucking company has been sued for negligence for not equipped their fleets with side guards.
In New York, large trucks comprise 3.6% of all vehicles but are responsible for 32% of all bicyclist fatalities and 12% of all pedestrian struck-bys. Mayor Bill de Blasio has set the goal of eliminating road-based deaths in New York City by 2024. Since de Blasio implemented Vision Zero in 2013, traffic fatalities in the city have declined by 23%.
London Puts Market Forces to Work
London’s efforts to reduce fatalities might show the way. A 2005 U.K. study showed that the death of bicyclists involved in side turn crashes with large commercial vehicles decreased by more than 60% when trucks were equipped with side guards, and pedestrian fatalities dropped 20%. In fact, the benefits of side guards are so overwhelming that Japan and nations throughout Europe and South America have required side guards on trucks since the 1980s.
When you compare risk to rewards, it is somewhat of a mystery why side guards are so rare in the U.S., especially taking into consideration that the average fatality involving a large truck costs around $3.5 million. The guards add somewhere between $600-$2,500 for a single truck, depending on the vendor and specific design of the guards. Compared to their time-proven ability to prevent injury and death, it seems a wise investment to make.
Government regulators in the U.K. have come up with ways to “encourage” fleet owners to install side guards and other safety features like better mirrors, cameras, and blind spot monitoring technology. In 2008, London launched FORS---the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme. The purpose of this publicly funded voluntary certification program is to make sure freight companies have safe, sustainable working practices.
FORS would be just another government scheme were it not for the fact that consumers and local government in the U.K. now choose freight companies that are members of FORS over those that aren’t—leaving it to market forces to push improved safety features into the industry.
Technology: The Cause and The Cure
As one technologist recently put it, much of what is being done to improve safety resembles trying to drive by looking in the rear-view mirror. Rather than respond to preexisting accident patterns, regulators may someday demand the collection and sharing of driver and vehicle data to improve decision-making about the behaviors, locations, speeds, vehicle types, and roadway designs that lead to traffic deaths.
Someday, the roads will be exclusively filled with driverless cars and there will be no one to drink and drive, leave their seatbelts unclasped, or speed through intersections. When that day arrives, traffic fatalities may be considered the relic of a barbaric, Mad Max era of transportation. In the meantime, fleet owners will be well served to pay attention to the growing popularity of Vision Zero-like initiatives in the U.S. and around the globe, and find ways to work together toward this common goal.