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Vision Zero initiative beginning to reduce some types of car crashes

Monday, October 11, 2021 by Willow Higgins

A representative from Austin’s Transportation Department appeared before City Council’s Mobility Committee Tuesday to give an update on Vision Zero, the city’s goal to eliminate traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries. While traffic fatalities have been on the rise over the past few years, serious injuries have been trending downward. Nevertheless, early evidence shows that Vision Zero strategies put in place are starting to work.

There have been 3,221 years of lives lost from premature deaths by car wrecks on Austin streets just between the first of this year and Sept. 25, 2021. Vision Zero, a public safety initiative originating in Sweden in the 1990s, has had great success in reducing lives lost from collisions in cities that have implemented its policies. Austin City Council adopted a Vision Zero plan in October 2015.

“(Vision Zero) means we should not accept the fact that these fatalities and serious injuries are happening on our roadways,” said Lewis Leff, the transportation safety officer who presented to the committee. “We know that the human body is vulnerable. It can only withstand so much from a crash impact. … We are continuing to design our roadways and understand that these are just facts within the transportation safety realm, and we need to take a holistic view around these things.”

The number of fatalities from car crashes is projected to be well over 100 this year, a record high number since the city began the initiative. But the number of serious injuries this year is projected to be near 450, a lower rate than in years past. Austin isn’t alone in these trends – traffic-related injuries and deaths in the city are nearly on par with the state and the rest of the nation.

The Vision Zero team has learned a few things about Austin’s traffic collisions: Speed is the main factor determining the severity of impact; the most dangerous crashes are most likely to occur on the weekend evenings or early in the morning; and many of these trends can be addressed by engineering and policy solutions.

Many of Austin’s Vision Zero initiatives are already underway. In 2020, City Council approved a policy that would lower the speed limits on over 900 miles of Austin streets – speed limit signs have already been changed at over 370 locations. The impacts of these changes have yet to be examined, due to changing traffic patterns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thanks to citywide bonds, Vision Zero has 15 projects in the works, many of which are currently in the design phase. But because the issue of traffic fatalities is so acute, the team has shifted its focus to interim solutions that can be implemented quickly and at a low cost. The city is able to use data management systems to identify areas that repeatedly see specific crash types, then try to prevent them with delineator posts and paint on the roadways. A consultant was also able to help the Transportation Department identify a systemic issue with unprotected left turns in the city. A simple shift in signal timing and implementing protected turns at certain hours has reduced a pattern of severe crashes by 30 percent.

The city is working in partnership with the state transportation agency, which sees crashes on a larger scale on the state roadways it manages. The agencies identified an issue with pedestrian safety in an area of North Austin, where four pedestrian deaths were observed in a year due to a lack of accessible crosswalks. The teams were able to implement an interim treatment that dropped the number of pedestrian fatalities to one over the past 18 months.

The Vision Zero team is also working on an initiative called Vision Zero Stories, in which community members tell the stories of the lives that have been impacted by traffic collisions. 

“This is fathers and sons and daughters and mothers and sisters and brothers,” Leff said. “We probably all know somebody who’s been in a severe car crash. And that, again, doesn’t have to be acceptable.”

In the near term, the Vision Zero team will be working toward increasing traffic enforcement, making effective tweaks to signal timings that reduce crash rates and piloting dynamic speed displays on high-crash roadways that let drivers know when they should slow down. Looking to the future, Vision Zero will begin to scale up engineering safety projects, support legislative changes like automating traffic enforcement and implementing Project Connect bond programs that will provide a safe mass transit system to help reduce the number of cars on dangerous roadways.

Photo by Eliseo Velázquez Rivero, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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