Saving lives on our streets

January 29, 2024

Summary:

  • Traffic fatalities are a leading cause of death in America
  • “Vision Zero” is a strategy to minimize deaths from poor street planning
  • Local solutions still rely on state level leadership

 

From 2011 to 2020, over 350,000 people died on American roadways. Traffic fatalities are one of the biggest causes of death for Americans under the age of 55. Like the 50,000 Americans killed by gun violence, the 68,000 who die due to lack of access to healthcare, and the estimated 46,000 unhoused Americans who die each year, this level of traffic deaths – far higher than in virtually every other industrialized country – is a failure of policy. Many of the 30,000 American pedestrians killed on our the roads in 2023 alone died because our roadway planning prioritizes speed over safety, convenience over accessibility, and most importantly, cars over people. 

Too often, traffic violence is described in the media as “accidents” and “tragedies.” This kind of rhetoric obfuscates more than it clarifies. It conceals the actual issue: people are dying because many Americans drive too fast, which they do because our streets are increasingly built to allow it.

This problem is well illustrated by this headline from mid-January NBC4 Washington (DC) headline:

Under normal circumstances, cars do not move on their own initiative. This kind of reporting, along with the usage of “accident” rather then crash, obfuscates the situation by placing responsibility on the car, not its driver. This abstracts away the obvious violence of a driver smashing their car into a grocery store. This is the same lack of clarity also frequently seen in writing about police shootings.

Take Roxboro Street in downtown Durham, a one-way roadway running through Downtown and residential neighborhoods. Along its route is the Durham County Library, multiple churches, a dog park, and more. The road is signed at 35 mph. The Twitter account “Reckless Roxboro,” which tracks speeding on the street, noted that on January 15th, over 65% of drivers on the road were speeding. The 85th percentile of car speed on the street was 45 mph, and over 150 cars were going over 25Mph over the limit. These speeds are deadly: a pedestrian hit by a car at 30 miles per hour has a 20% chance of death; at 40 miles per hour, the survival rate is 46%, and at 50, its 75%.

People speed on Roxboro because they can. More and wider lanes give drivers more space, making them feel more comfortable and a lack of oncoming traffic means drivers pay less attention. With the lack of medians, the road also feels wider. The city also effectively does not enforce the speed limit. So it’s not just that people are speeding – it’s that speeding is the expectation. 

Vision Zero

“Vision Zero” is an attempt to flip this paradigm on its head. The framework, which was developed in Sweden in the 1990’s, takes traffic violence for what it is: not a tragedy or unavoidable accident, but as a specific and solvable policy problem that can and ought to be minimized.

Vision Zero emphasizes a “safe systems” approach, recognizing that human error is going to happen and that policymakers need to build transportation systems to reduce (or even eliminate) fatalities when those errors inevitably occur. That means traffic calming mechanisms like speed bumps and roundabouts, slower speed limits, narrower lanes, and grade-separated and protected bike and pedestrian infrastructure. 

Cities across the country have implemented “Vision Zero Action Plans.” These have varied in effectiveness from city to city. In the Triangle, the process is being carried out by the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization (learn more here), and in Charlotte, by the city. The most effective of these action plans, like those in Minneapolis or Montgomery County, Maryland, include in-depth analysis of the jurisdiction’s roadways; not just where the most dangerous areas are, but why they’re so dangerous. This analysis is integrated into road design, planning and zoning decisions, transit decisions and more. Its more than just reacting to currently dangerous roads – its future-proofing our roadways themselves. 

Beyond just saving lives, Vision Zero planning also touches on sustainability and quality of life goals. Fully 50% of American car trips are under 3 miles in length, a distance that can be covered in under 8 minutes on an e-bike or scooter and under 15 manually. Safer infrastructure would go a long way to making it possible to replace these short car trips with bike rides or walks. It would save people money on gas, time wasted in traffic, and allow a more active lifestyle altogether. It would also save state and local governments money on maintenance. Roadway wear and tear increases exponentially with weight, and reducing the number of cars on the roadways would save millions of dollars in maintenance, in addition to thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s next?

Not everyone looks favorably upon Vision Zero planning. Many of the most dangerous roads in the state are owned by the state Department of Transportation (NCDOT), not local governments. Without buy-in from NCDOT leadership and engineering staff, NC cities are severely limited in progress toward Vision Zero. In Durham, for example, plans for federally funded protected bike lanes were derailed when NCDOT refused to sign off on the project, citing congestion concerns.

In a fast-growing state, with burgeoning cities and suburbs filled with people looking for more walkable areas, this sort of bureaucratic gridlock can’t last forever. The scale of death on American roadways is staggering: three times the death toll of World War 1 happens on our road every single year. And the situation is getting worse, not better. Workable solutions to this problem exist, leaving us with just one question: how many more Americans must die before we decide to finally implement them?

Samad Rangoonwala is an Opinion writer for the Daily Tarheel based in Carrboro.

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