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City proposes campaign to reduce traffic deaths

Monday, February 8, 2016 by Jack Craver

If there’s anybody in Austin who doesn’t think that traffic deaths are a major problem, their views were conspicuously absent from a hearing on road fatalities held by City Council’s Mobility Committee last week.

Indeed, members of the committee, city staffers and advocates all emphasized the work the city needs to do to reduce car-related deaths, which reached 102 in 2015, up from 62 the previous year.

“I think we can all agree that last year was a horrific record,” said Heyden Walker, an activist with Vision Zero ATX, a group that works on reducing road deaths.

City staff also presented the Vision Zero Action Report, which documents the extent of the problem and proposes a number of solutions, including raising awareness about distracted and impaired driving through a public media campaign as well as identifying “hot spots” for traffic deaths.

According to the report, although more than 93 percent of commuters in the city travel by car, more than half of those who were killed on the road over the past five years weren’t in cars at the time of death. Specifically, 2 percent were on bicycles, 20 percent were on motorcycles and 29 percent were pedestrians. (In 2015, just over half of deaths were in cars.)

Granted, considering that 45 percent of the deaths took place between midnight and 6 a.m. and an equal number involved an impaired driver, it does not appear that most road deaths involve commuters.

One data point that caught the attention of committee members was the 34 percent of deaths that involved a driver who lacked a valid driver’s license or whose license was suspended.

Michael Levy, who sits on the Public Safety Commission and testified before the committee, argued that the 64-page staff report didn’t include specific-enough policy proposals. He suggested, for instance, that police should more aggressively penalize unlicensed drivers and impound the cars of motorists stopped in such cases.

Arthur Fortune, commander of highway enforcement for the Austin Police Department, conceded that those who are pulled over without a license are often allowed to drive away, saying that it was the result of a change in policy over the past 15 years. While driving with a suspended license used to be a Class D misdemeanor that automatically resulted in an arrest – and an impounded car – Fortune said the department had begun to favor citations over arrests because the state’s “convoluted” point system had led to an increase in the number of drivers whose licenses were suspended due to minor infractions in recent years.

“(B)ecause it doesn’t say it’s required, most officers probably do end up giving a citation,” he said in response to a question from Council Member Sheri Gallo, who said the city should consider changing the policy if so many unlicensed drivers are involved in fatal crashes.

Council Member Don Zimmerman steered the conversation about driver’s licenses to immigration, asking Fortune whether a large number of unlicensed drivers who were stopped were undocumented immigrants. When Fortune said that the department did not track the citizenship status of those pulled over, Zimmerman suggested that anyone sounding the alarm about road safety might be reluctant to fully investigate the source of the problem because of their support for the rights of undocumented immigrants.

“Maybe that’s part of my favorite part of city politics, is how agendas conflict,” Zimmerman said. “We want to be a sanctuary city in some policy terms, but then that leads to people driving without licenses.”

Map taken from the Vision Zero draft plan, which is embedded below

[embeddoc url=”http://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Imagine_Austin/VisionZero/DRAFTAction_Plan_Layout1.14.16.pdf”]

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