Americans tend to think of Sweden as a snow-covered mecca in northern Europe—a place where people cross country ski to work, wear cable-knit sweaters, and eat lots of meatballs. But the Swedish people have made many weighty contributions to the global society—everything from the centigrade thermometer (Anders Celsius was Swedish) to dynamite (Alfred Nobel), the universal pipe wrench, the zipper, and cars such as Volvo. Vision Zero is among their latest contributions, and it reflects a unique point of view on road safety.
Vision Zero, adopted by the Swedish parliament in 1997, starts with a recognition that people operating vehicles sometimes make mistakes: they go too fast, stop too quickly, take their eyes off the road, and ignore other drivers. The solution, Vision Zero proponents say, is to design road systems and related policies to ensure those inevitable mistakes do not result in severe injuries or fatalities. Call it quixotic, but the goal of Vision Zero is to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities to… zero.
That is a very lofty goal, given that more than 40,000 people are killed—and thousands more seriously injured—on American streets alone every year. Vision Zero proponents refuse to chalk up these traffic “accidents” to the inevitable collateral damage of modern life. To them, modern society should be smart enough to eliminate them completely.
Research points to some factors that lead to these needless deaths and injuries. The width of roads, how land adjacent to the road is used, the speeds at which cars and trucks travel, the way intersections are designed—these can all be changed to put a significant dent in the number of road accidents.
For instance, Swedish researchers found that if a pedestrian or bicyclist is hit by a car travelling at 31 miles per hour (50 kph), the risk of fatality is 80 percent. If the car or truck were traveling at just less than 20 mph, the risk of fatality would be cut to 10 percent. This is not to suggest that traffic should never travel faster than 20 mph. What it does suggest is that when cars and trucks are operating near unprotected road users, such as in urban areas, slower speed limits make a lot of sense.
Most cities’ Vision Zero networks are made up of city leaders and representatives from key departments including Transportation, Public Health, Law Enforcement, as well as community stakeholders. These networks meet regularly to lead and evaluate the implementation of Vision Zero practices.
Many of these networks focus on reducing serious injuries and fatalities by taking steps to clearly define vehicle and pedestrian behavior at intersections. In New York, for example, most pedestrians are killed in crosswalks, when they have a green light to cross but are struck by turning vehicles who don’t yield to them. Since it launched its Vision Zero campaign in 2013, New York City has seen a 23 percent drop in traffic deaths. In 2016, the city recorded 229 fatalities, marking the lowest number since the city began tracking this trend and breaking the 2015 record of 234 traffic fatalities.
Vision Zero came to be in Sweden, but it is now a global phenomenon, with networks in countries across Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, in Latin America, and South Africa implementing its safety strategies. It has come to North America as well. Networks in Canadian cities including Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal, and Vancouver are implementing Vision Zero strategies. In the U.S., networks in ten cities including Boston, Chicago, Washington, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, New York, Fort Lauderdale, San Diego, and Los Angeles are doing the same.
Given the financial and emotional prices companies pay when their fleet operators are involved in accidents, these same companies may want to consider lending their support to local Vision Zero networks. Rather than putting the burden on trucking companies, pedestrians, or bicyclists, Vision Zero proponents believe that making our streets free of fatalities and serious injuries is a society-wide problem that must be solved on a society-wide level.
For more information about Vision Zero and how you can help reduce and eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries, visit https://visionzeronetwork.org/