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Updated: Austin eliminating traffic deaths by 2025 a remote possibility, city audit finds

Thursday, September 26, 2019 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

The city of Austin is unlikely to reach its goal of zero traffic deaths or serious injuries by 2025, according to a new report from the city auditor’s office.

“While a goal of zero traffic deaths and serious injuries is an appropriate vision for Austin, (Transportation Department) staff acknowledged that it is unlikely the city will achieve that goal,” auditors wrote, in a report released Wednesday.

Auditors considered how the Transportation Department has improved traffic safety by redesigning streets and educating the public. While the report acknowledges some traffic safety measures are out of the city’s control – for example, Austin does not have jurisdiction over many highways, such as Interstate 35 – auditors questioned several decisions made by city staff.

“This audit is … raising questions about whether we are spending the money that we have dedicated to Vision Zero in the most effective way,” District 10 Council Member Alison Alter said at a meeting Thursday morning.

Transportation staff chose 28 intersections to redesign using money from the 2016 bond. They intended to focus on dangerous intersections, using data from the Austin Police Department. But in their review of crash data, auditors questioned how dangerous these intersections really were.

“Our review of documentation related to improvements at these intersections indicated there were few fatal or serious injury crashes between 2012 and 2016,” the auditors wrote.

City staff argued Thursday that they were considering intersections where crashes were more frequent and not as severe.

Traffic deaths in Austin have remained steady since 2016, the same year City Council members approved a Vision Zero plan with the goal of zero traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025. The idea is based on a model in Sweden, which argues that traffic safety requires a cultural shift, moving the blame from the driver, cyclist or pedestrian to the engineers who designed the roads. The idea is that crashes are going to happen, but that death should not be the end result.

Cities across the country, including Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia, all have Vision Zero plans.

“Vision Zero is a tricky concept because obviously it’s a vision,” said Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar. Another transportation staff member called the goal “aspirational but acceptable.”

Mayor Steve Adler pushed back during Thursday’s meeting.

“I don’t think that it’s unattainable,” he said, referring to the goal of zero traffic deaths on Austin streets. “I think as technology changes and as education changes and practice changes I still hope that we get there.”

So far in 2019, the number of fatalities on Austin’s roads has jumped by nearly 20 percent over last year.

In their report, auditors recommended that ATD pair up with other agencies to improve its crash data, ensuring it spend redesign money on intersections where severe crashes frequently occur. The report also recommended that staff develop a more focused marketing campaign against dangerous driving.

This post has been updated.

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This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT.

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