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Vision Zero advocates look to Legislature to help reduce traffic deaths

Monday, December 10, 2018 by Jack Craver

In 2015, Austin hit a record high in road deaths: 102. In the two subsequent years, things have improved, with 79 and 76 people perishing in 2016 and 2017, respectively. By the beginning of December, 69 had died this year on Austin’s highways and roads.

The improvement is not nearly good enough, said Laura Dierenfield, director of active transportation for the Austin Transportation Department. At a Dec. 3 presentation to the Public Safety Commission, Dierenfield and others involved with Vision Zero, a city traffic safety initiative, discussed ways that the city can shift transportation behavior to achieve their ultimate goal: zero traffic deaths.

“No death is acceptable,” said Dierenfield.

Reducing traffic deaths involves a number of changes – legal, political, and perhaps above all, cultural.

Hayden Walker Black, a board member of Vision Zero ATX and Walk Austin, a pedestrian advocacy group, recalled the recent national response to the outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce last month. What headlines described as a national threat has led to 43 people getting sick over the past eight weeks. During that same time period, 6,153 died and 30,770 were seriously injured in car crashes.

Black makes a point of using the word “crash” instead of “accident,” to emphasize that the fatalities “are avoidable.”

Hence the vigil at the state Capitol last month to remember the 76 lives lost on Austin’s roads last year. The event, Black said, was aimed at “putting a human face to this public health crisis.”

The necessary policy changes are geared toward slowing down cars, reducing driver distraction and improving infrastructure for pedestrians, bikers and transit users.

To reduce speeds, city advocates are looking for help from the state Legislature, which they hope will agree to lower the statewide “default” speed limit on residential streets from 30 mph to 25 mph. They also want the state to allow cities to post even lower speed limits on streets, to 20 mph. Currently cities can only set the limit that low in special areas, such as near schools, churches or playgrounds.

No bill has been filed yet, but those close to the effort say that Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, and Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, are in the process of drafting legislation.

Vision Zero is pushing for a statewide “hands-free” law, similar to what currently exists in Austin, that requires the use of hands-free devices for in-car calls and bans texting while driving. The initiative also advocates strengthening the law to require drivers to stop for pedestrians, instead of merely “yielding.”

Finally, the group wants to encourage other jurisdictions to begin their own Vision Zero initiatives and establish ambitious goals.

“We believe the Texas Department of Transportation is ready for this,” said Jay Crossley, a Vision Zero ATX board member.

However, laws and enforcement are only part of the solution, said Dierenfield. Street design also plays a big role.

Unfortunately, street design changes that tend to enhance safety are often unpopular, because the public perceives the changes as making them less safe. Commissioner Kim Rossmo complained about increased density and a lack of accompanying off-street parking in his South Lamar neighborhood. The parked cars along both sides of the street, along with a lack of sidewalks, makes it dangerous for pedestrians, he said.

Dierenfield agreed that a lack of sidewalks was a problem, but noted that street parking tends to slow drivers down by narrowing the road.

As Crossley explained earlier, “Having wide lanes and wide streets makes us all feel like we have to drive faster.”

This story has been corrected. Sen. José Rodríguez, not Sen. Eddie Rodriguez, is currently working on the proposed legislation. Photo by the Austin Transportation Department.

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