The Vision Zero Strategy makes a global promise of zero road deaths and injuries by as early as 2020 in some countries. The shocking rise in traffic fatalities in the U.S. makes broader implementation critical.
On October 5, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that U.S. traffic deaths had reached a crisis level in the first half of 2016. During those first 6 months, fatalities leapt 10.4 percent over last year to 17,775 and counting. The belief is that 2016 will show an even higher number than the 35,200 deaths recorded in 2015, the most fatal year since 2008. This has led to the NHTSA, Federal Highway Administration (FHA), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and National Safety Council (NSC) to band together to create a Road to Zero coalition, a reflection of the Vision Zero Strategy already embraced by governments all over the world.
The commitment of Vision Zero is that there will be no traffic deaths or injuries by a certain year through infrastructure revision, driver education and innovative automotive technologies. What that truly means is more than new roads, smarter drivers and self-driving cars. Vision Zero is a life-change, not a just an infrastructure plan.
The genesis of Vision Zero
Sweden pioneered Vision Zero in 1997 in response to a disturbing disconnect it was noticing – traffic deaths are the only fatalities that are universally deemed acceptable. Human error is usually to blame for such tragedies and there is a general consensus that there’s an inevitability to these mishaps that makes them tolerable. Sweden doesn’t agree for two big reasons. First and foremost, loss of life is unacceptable in any form. Period. Second, placing all of the responsibility on human fallibility and treating it as a given that will never change is just an excuse. Shifting that thinking and looking at it differently changes the outcome – if you can never predict the human factor, then it’s the infrastructure that needs to be smarter to account for it before it can cause an accident. It’s why the basis of Vision Zero is, “In every situation a person might fail. The road system should not.”
Smarter roads are the driving factors behind Vision Zero strategy – task the minds behind these byways to come up with plans and solutions that protect motorists, pedestrians and cyclists from the risks they will encounter when traveling. Zero tolerance for death of any kind is what drives Vision Zero and it is what has led to its general ideals being embraced and encouraged around the world. And although Sweden’s 1997 goal of no traffic deaths and serious injuries has moved from 2020 to 2050, the progress the program has shown in this Scandinavian country is promising and encouraging to others.
The power of nothing
From Norway in 1999 to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in May 2016 and beyond, more and more state, local and federal governments have adopted the principles of Vision Zero as their own. Things are starting slowly with many areas in the U.S. beginning simply with stricter seatbelt laws as well as changing signage to clearly convey that the road is being shared with cyclists and pedestrians. While there has been some resistance due to the focus – make room for alternative modes of mobility to share the road effectively and create less congestion by lowering roadway access rather than broadening it – it has shown to be working, for the most part. A recent article written by Kelsey E. Thomas for the Center for Active Design website points out the benefits of what are called Road Diets, even in the most congested city in America, Los Angeles. It arguably proves that reduction, not expansion, actually does help.
Road Diets are basically street reconfigurations that are meant to change driving patterns to alleviate auto accidents. These systems are something that support what CalTrans discovered and announced earlier this year in regards to how much more congested and dangerous roads have become after adding more lanes.
Moving toward a safer future on the roads has global impact. Cities around the U.S. – San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and San Diego, to name a few – and countries around the world – joining Sweden are Netherlands, U.K., Canada and more – have created action plans for implementing their zero auto fatalities programs. To do so, governments are taking a data-driven approach to strategizing. The information they are gathering shows them both the downsides to current infrastructure as well as highlighting the benefits of innovative solutions. These innovations include such things as the road diets, creating separate and completely detached lanes for both walkers and riders, and showing how certain speed limits are better for pedestrian safety than others. Some of this is in response to the rise in pedestrian fatalities, which were up by an estimated 10 percent in 2015 and account for 15 percent of all traffic deaths.
This active push for road safety also includes supporting the faster incorporation of self-driving cars onto roadways.
Where the smart car meets the road
In late September, President Obama announced the federal government’s commitment to autonomous car development – prompted by the NHTSA’s findings of the 35,200 auto fatalities in 2015. This pledge is seen as a safe answer to the issues facing the world’s drivers today, because of the human error issue. In addition, the president and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx both announced the United States’ commitment to the Vision Zero concept on a national scale to coincide with the release of the report highlighting the crisis reached in the first six months of 2016. America has set the year 2046 as the goal for being traffic fatality free. Self-driving vehicles are considered the most viable answer to much of this in addition to a more comprehensive infrastructure built for road safety, not speed.
Connected cars, in general, provide a strong partner in safety with new anti-collision features and automatic pilot assistance. Needless to say, driverless technology is currently designed to be used in tandem with manual driving. In other words, turning on the system and taking your mind off the road completely is not the intent. Due to recent autonomous control accidents, different solutions are being considered in regards to full autonomy.
Volkswagen, for example, has filed a patent that would give drivers more involvement with its self-driving feature. This autonomous system enables the motorist to manually react to a situation without having to completely disengage the autopilot. This is in response to the slew of collisions that have occurred over the last year with current autonomous technology. The German automaker plans to get motorists involved with the controls of their car in order to ensure no accidents occur. And Volvo has answered the “who’s fault is it in a self-driving vehicle accident?” question that has plagued insurance companies. It has declared Volvo will take responsibility in the event of a collision involving one of its automobiles. This comes as no surprise considering Volvo’s partnership with Sweden’s Vision Zero strategy and how instrumental it is in its continued growth.
Envisioning a zero future
The announcement on October 5 was an eye-opening call to action that has set many new wheels in motion and highlighted plans already in progress. It shines a brighter light on an issue that has been a problem since the advent of the car. The world has been seeking ways to make a mobile world more accessible to all by making it safer since before Garrett Morgan’s first patent of the traffic light in 1923. The history of automobile legislation is full of incremental innovations that strive for better infrastructure and more user- and pedestrian-friendly vehicles. From rethinking the way we design our roads to evaluating speed limits in consideration of pedestrian safety, protecting ourselves on the roads requires a look at what, not just who, needs to change for a traffic fatality-free future.