What is the “Vision Zero” plan?

With the rapidly-expanding metropolitan populations in major Texas cities, traffic accidents and fatalities have been at an all time high in recent years. To combat this, many city governments across the country have been looking internationally for solutions to their respective traffic accident epidemics.

What problem does “Vision Zero” plan to solve?

The United States is currently recording 11 traffic deaths per year per 100,000 people. While this may not seem like a high rate, compare it to Sweden, which currently records about 4 traffic deaths per year per 100,000 people. This high death rate in the United States has many causes. The recent post-recession increase in economic activity has increased commercial activity, which results in more people driving to their jobs and more vehicles on the road. Additionally, the sheer land mass of the United States, especially in larger and more rural states like Texas, mean that people often drive longer distances at higher speeds to reach their destinations. These factors often result in more frequent and more harmful car wrecks. Comparing the first half of 2016 to the first half of 2015, there was a 3.3% increase in miles traveled on the road by all automobiles nationwide. This increase seemed to have an exponential effect on traffic deaths, as the number of fatalities in traffic increased by 10% during the same time period.

Looking more narrowly to Austin, Texas, one can see this traffic death epidemic up close. Since 2004, over 700 people have been killed in Austin in traffic accidents. From 2007 to 2013, 900 people were seriously injured in the same way. 2015 was the deadliest year for Austin on record, with 102 traffic deaths. The recent spike has led city leaders to seek out solutions to make the city safer.

How is “Vision Zero” being implemented?

Austin city leaders, along with many city officials across America, have looked to Sweden to implement new safety measures. They have found inspiration in Sweden’s “Vision Zero” plan, a model designed to bring the number of traffic-related deaths as close to zero as possible through heightened public awareness, smarter road and city planning, and stronger enforcement policies, among other things. One important aspect of Vision Zero is that it accepts that human drivers will always make mistakes. To combat this, the plan puts an emphasis on changing the road systems themselves to correct for the human factor of being mistake-prone. It also stresses the use of information technology through the collection of data relating to roads, traffic, weather, and more.

Austin officials have begun to implement their own version of Vision Zero over the last 6 months. Their plan outlines several goals, among those: smart road planning – for example, using round-a-bout intersections instead of stop sign intersections (data has shown round-a-bouts to experience less accidents); the lowering of default speed limits; adding more visible crosswalks and bicycle lanes; separating bicycle lanes from road lanes with physical barriers; encouraging transportation alternatives to reduce single-occupancy vehicles and increase walking and bus transit; enforcing laws better by increasing police officer patrols, adding overtime funds for officers on no-refusal weekends, and hiring additional criminal prosecutors for drunk-driving cases. The plan also seeks to collect and analyze data to predict which intersections are more accident prone, especially in the case of inclement weather. They hope to use this to help forecast accident hot spots in an effort to be preventive, rather than reacting to traffic accidents after they have already occurred.

Officials are also looking to the use of self-driving vehicles, though this is a much more long-term plan. Experts see this as a chance to use technology as a positive, running counter to the conventional wisdom that road safety has worsened with the prevailing use of distracting smart phones and tablets in vehicles. This is seen as a much longer term goal than the other measures in Vision Zero, as experts predict that it will take a minimum of 20 years for the number of self-driving cars to grow before they can effectively impact traffic safety. Some experts estimate that it will more realistically be about 50 years before a substantial number of vehicles in the city are self-driving.

Vision Zero Plans are being implemented all over the county, in cities such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and Seattle. While those behind the planning know that zero deaths is unrealistic, the progress made in Sweden’s original plan give them hope that through smart street planning and increased enforcement, their cities can also stymie the recent jump in traffic deaths.

More details about Vision Zero and its implementation in Austin can be found at the links below: