Vision Zero Network Strives to Eliminate Traffic Fatalities, Injuries Through Public Policy Initiatives

Excerpt of conference presentation by Veronica Vanterpool, deputy director with the Vision Zero Network, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus

“The Vision Zero Network is a collaborative campaign helping communities reach their goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities and severe injuries – while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.” The Vision Zero concept originated in Sweden and is now spreading around the world, including to some of the largest cities in the U.S. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was the first U.S. mayor to launch Vision Zero citywide.

While the United States has made significant strides in reducing fatalities and serious injuries over the last decade, there’s been a recent increase in roadway deaths. In 2016, more than 37,000 people lost their lives on the nation’s roads, an average of 102 people each day. That’s an increase of 7,000 more fatalities than was seen 2010. The word “accident” is not used by Vision Zero advocates, who believe accidents are tragedies that can and should be prevented through setting policies that prioritize safety.

At a conference at the University of New Haven in Connecticut on June 7, several speakers talked about their Vision Zero goals and challenges. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus attended the conference and recorded several of the speakers’ presentations, including that of Veronica Vanterpool, deputy director of the U.S.-based Vision Zero Network.

VERONICA VANTERPOOL: Vision Zero is really an urgent message. Many of us are familiar with “Complete Streets,” we’re familiar with “Walkable” and “Livable Communities” as terms. But what’s different about it is the urgency behind it. One hundred people a day are dying in traffic crashes, and it’s important for us to note this urgency behind this traffic fatality crisis that we experience every single day.

Many of you, in your respective roles, are working to mitigate this through policy, through engineering, perhaps through enforcement, certainly through education and through evaluation. And I sort of just ticked off the Five E’s for those of you who are familiar with the E’s.

So, I just want to spend a few moments talking about what Vision Zero is. In the state of Connecticut, there isn’t yet a Vision Zero city. We have about 43 communities across the U.S. that have committed to Vision Zero, not one yet here in Connecticut. But Connecticut has laid the foundation in so many other ways for this very same work. A lot of the principles, a lot of the strategies, a lot of the tactics that we’re going to be discussing is work that you do in Complete Streets, work that you do for Economic Development and Transit-Oriented Development. Again, Vision Zero is about the urgency of this crisis.

So, I want to start by just giving some contrasts between what our traditional approach to transportation is and what the Vision Zero approach to transportation is. There’s a fundamental difference, because underlying Vision Zero is a safe systems approach. And when we talk about this shift from traditional to a Vision Zero approach, we want to acknowledge that these deaths are preventable. So, there’s an underlying premise that we should not be accepting any deaths by any road user in our transportation network. And in our design of our transportation network, our road network, we should accept the fallibility of humans, and acknowledge that mistakes really shouldn’t cost someone’s life. And the responsibility for their safety rests, certainly, with the individual, but in fact it really does rest within the full system at large, and that speaks to system designers as well.

So this speaks a little to the underlying premise of Vision Zero. Many of you might know that Vision Zero is actually a Swedish approach. 1997 is when it was adopted, and it was actually adopted for its rural roads, and that’s an interesting distinction because in the U.S. Vision Zero tends to be denoted as an urban approach, and it isn’t. But it just so happens that right now a lot of the big major metropolises have committed to Vision Zero: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. Everyone has a right to safe mobility on our roadways. It’s an ethical right. That’s what underlies Vision Zero; there’s an ethical premise here. We’re not accustomed to talking about an ethical premise when we’re talking about transportation, and certainly when we’re talking about road design and engineering.

We’re accustomed to talking about levels of service; we’re not accustomed to building ethics into the way that we design things. At the very top, the responsibility lies with the system designers – those of you who are trained and have the expertise to design the roadway. That does not preclude the road user’s responsibility to use the roadway and follow the rules appropriately. It is my responsibility as a pedestrian to be alert and aware and follow the rules of the road. But, should I make a mistake, if I fail to comply and it results in my severe injury or my death, we are asking the system designers to re-look at the system and see how can we prevent that? And the cycle continues. So it’s not just a static system; we are constantly responding to the dynamic conditions of our roadway.

I’ve touched on some of these already. These are basically the underlying fundamentals of a safe systems approach: crashes are preventable. We need to design for fallibility. We need to make changes for the whole network and we need to ensure that we’re preventing fatalities and severe injuries. Vision Zero is not about saying we can eliminate all crashes. It’s saying we can eliminate fatalities and severe injuries. We have the tools, we know the strategies.

Vision Zero, according to the Vision Zero Network, my organization, we have nine core elements, and they’re grouped into leadership and commitment: We all understand the value of champions, safe roadways and safe speeds – many of us work on this through our engineering and through our education. And Vision Zero really is about a data-driven and transparent approach that then we can hold our elected leaders and agency commissioners accountable.

So, just a little bit about the Vision Zero Network. We’re a non-profit project. We work with communities across the U.S. In many ways we’re a bit of a technical advisor, but our role is to create a peer exchange among cities and city staff and advocates that are interested in working toward Vision Zero. So we facilitate webinars and phone calls and conversations between city staff in Chicago, Denver and Portland to make sure they’re learning from each other.

For more information on Vision Zero Network, visionzeronetwork.org.

Subscribe to our Weekly Summary