Vision Zero spreads across the U.S.

By Robbie Webber

In 1997, Sweden undertook a road safety project with an ambitious goal: No traffic fatalities or serious injuries. A core principle of Vision Zero was that, “Life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society.” This is in contrast to the cost-benefit evaluations normally done when deciding funding and priorities for road safety engineering, enforcement, and education. (An interesting article in Accident Analysis & Prevention argues that the economics and assumptions of cost-benefit analysis bias against investment in roadway safety.)

The Vision Zero website says on its concept page, “No loss of life is acceptable.”

Another principle of Vision Zero is that all humans will make mistakes, including drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists, and roads must be designed to minimize the ability to make a mistake—not simply to make it safer when someone inevitably makes an error. This is done by making the road slower so that drivers have time to react to their own errors or to those of others, separating pedestrians and bicyclists with their own space on the road, creating pedestrian zones in cities, and providing separation between oncoming traffic. Strict laws and enforcement against driving under the influence of alcohol has also cut road crashes.

According to Claes Tingvall, one of the architects of Sweden’s Vision Zero policy, “If you take a nuclear power station, if you take aviation, if you take a rail system, all of them are based on [the idea that] they are operated by people who can make a mistake.” The same understanding should influence roadway design, where traffic calming, well-marked crosswalks and pedestrian zones, and separated bike lanes can help minimize the consequences of a mistake. According to Vision Zero philosophy, “In every situation a person might fail. The road system should not.”

Now the goal of zero traffic deaths is spreading in the U.S., principally in cities, but some states have also adopted Vision Zero plans. Oregon has its own twist, which sets a goal of 175 days without road fatalities. Washington State DOT has released its Strategic Highway Safety Plan, called Target Zero, with a goal of zero deaths by 2030.

The first Vision Zero for Cities Symposium was convened in New York in November. Cities have been far more aggressive than states in using engineering solutions to slow traffic and emphasize a multimodal approach to roadway safety. Their zero fatalities goals have also been more ambitious. In July, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director Ed Reiskin said their aim is for zero deaths within ten years. SFMTA has a list of projects toward this end and regularly posts updates.

New York has received the most publicity about its plan, in part because Mayor Bill DeBlasio pushed the effort quickly after taking office, and the city has lowered its default speed limit to 25 mph. But Chicago was perhaps the first large city to embrace a zero fatalities goal, and Portland, OR, is following quickly as well. The effort is spreading, and advocacy groups for safer streets in Philadelphia and Santa Barbara are pushing for faster action.

With road deaths of 11.4 per 100,000 population, the U.S. has a long way to go to become as safe as European countries. Sweden, where Vision Zero began, has reduced its fatalities to three per 100,000 population. Most of Western Europe averages fewer than seven deaths per 100,000 population. Even Norway, which has not made much comparative progress in its efforts to reduce fatalities, is still at only 4.3 annually.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.