Some of the most promising improvements for personal health and safety are not coming from medical breakthroughs, new materials, or high-tech devices. They are coming from the safety strategies developed by engineers and highway safety professionals.
While many improvements have been made in road safety in recent decades, the world’s roads are still dangerous. The United Nations reports that road traffic kills 1.25 million people each year across the globe, making traffic accidents the leading cause of death in people ages 15-29. The National Safety Council reported 42,060 traffic-related fatalities in 2020 alone.
Americans are concerned about traffic safety, and many of our citizens believe that our highways and infrastructure are safer compared with other countries. Up until the 1970s, that was true. At that time, the United States led the world in road safety. However, in recent decades, European nations have achieved such dramatic reductions in road accidents that they are now the world’s leaders in road safety.
According to the National Institute of Health, “…the United States’ crash death rate is more than twice the average of countries such as Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and countries in the European Union.”
Vision Zero: Is it the Hero?
Many of the European countries that have dramatically lowered crash death rates in recent years can attribute these exceptional improvements to their participation in the Vision Zero initiative.
This approach combines a variety of safety initiatives with the goal of achieving zero road fatalities. In the United States, the Safe System is a variation of the same safety approach. No matter which name is used, these programs advise lowered driving speeds to reduce fatal accidents. They also advocate the design of safer crossings, roadways, and sidewalks to minimize danger to pedestrians and cyclists. Both programs promote the construction of safer infrastructure, including roundabouts. And finally, these initiatives encourage the expansion of viable public transportation.
Why Isn’t the Vision Zero Safety Approach Used in the U.S.?
While most safety advocates believe that departments of transportation in the U.S. have sufficient road safety funding to implement these kinds of improvements, Americans have been comparatively slow to adopt Safe System’s recommendations. Most notably, U.S. lawmakers have historically been hesitant to reduce speed limits, even though it is widely accepted that reduced vehicle speed dramatically decreases the severity of traffic accidents.
American cities have also been comparatively slow to improve or expand public transportation, or to encourage more extensive use of their transit systems. While many other countries embrace public transit in all sizes of cities as a vital part of the infrastructure, Americans are less enthusiastic proponents of expanded rail and bus systems, especially outside of major metro areas.
Vision Zero Safety Initiatives are Working in Some U.S. Cities
While the United States has been slow to adopt Vision Zero strategies, some regions in the U.S. have been implementing these types of safety initiatives with impressive results. Minnesota adopted a state-wide Vision Zero/Safe System-style approach in 2003.
The Vision Zero Network, a non-profit safety organization launched a Vision Zero Focus Cities program to encourage collaboration between leaders in Austin, Chicago, Boston, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and D.C. By sharing data and successes, the organization is hoping to implement Vision Zero tactics to reduce or eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries.
What Does the Future of U.S. Road Safety Look Like?
While American safety professionals have access to the same knowledge and resources as our European counterparts, elected officials and public opinion sometimes prevent the implementation of unpopular or misunderstood initiatives. If America wants to regain its position as the leader in traffic safety, stronger communication programs and robust education initiatives may be needed.
While some of the recommendations in Vision Zero and Safe Systems may seem difficult to implement in the United States, national, state, and local traffic and safety divisions have pushed through major safety initiatives in the past. America outperformed the world against many road safety measures for most of the twentieth century, but unless we change our approach to road safety, we may lag behind in the future.