Advocates: Ethical Standards Demand Zero Tolerance for Traffic Deaths

New Yorkers are killed in traffic crashes at a far higher rate than residents of peer cities. Bringing New York's traffic safety into line with Berlin or Paris would save more than 100 lives per year. Image: Transportation Alternatives

Traffic deaths need to be treated as an ethical imperative to save lives, said representatives from Transportation Alternatives, the Drum Major Institute, and the medical community today at the public release of the new report, “Vision Zero” [PDF].

“It is simply unacceptable for people to die in traffic,” said T.A. Executive Director Paul Steely White, who called for the number of fatalities and serious injuries caused by traffic crashes in New York City to be brought to zero by 2030.

New York City has made impressive gains at improving traffic safety over the last decade, and has the safest streets in the United States. Yet compared to international leaders, the city still lags. In New York, 190 people are injured in traffic crashes on city streets every single day. Ten of them suffer life-altering injuries, losing a limb, perhaps, or receiving traumatic brain damage. Every 35 hours, someone is killed.

“These are all preventable injuries and preventable deaths,” said Mt. Sinai pediatrician Michael Chatham Stevens. “As the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] says, this is a winnable battle.”

To save lives and prevent as many serious injuries as possible, the report authors argue, New York City needs to first comprehend and then communicate the moral implications of allowing violent traffic crashes to continue, when available solutions have already been demonstrated and proven. While dramatic reductions in traffic deaths are within reach, the necessary changes require a coordinated response — including engineering, enforcement, and legislative actions — that cannot succeed without widespread public understanding and buy-in. At a time when local electeds are mobilizing against proven safety measures, the Vision Zero report suggests that the moral necessity of stopping preventable deaths and injuries should guide a campaign to capture the public imagination and sustain political commitment.

The report calls for the mayor to make a high-profile speech committing the city to a “vision zero” policy where traffic deaths are no longer tolerated. Right now, said White, life-saving traffic redesigns are routinely weighed against the convenience of an additional parking space. “By adopting Vision Zero,” he said, “we put this on a moral plateau.”

More New Yorkers died in car crashes over the last decade than were murdered with guns.

The Vision Zero approach earned the support of many members of the medical community. “Street safety is a major public health concern,” said Dorian Block of the New York Academy of Medicine. In addition to saving lives directly, said Block, safer streets would help promote physical activity, reduce chronic diseases, and make it easier for New Yorkers to age in place.

Vision Zero would mark a radical acceleration of the city’s street safety goals. While the city is currently committed to halving the number of traffic deaths by 2030, White called for eliminating deaths and serious injuries entirely by that time. Halving the number of traffic deaths should happen in the very near future, said White.

Cutting the number of road deaths in half is an eminently achievable goal, the report shows. Cities like Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo already have achieved traffic fatality rates half of New York City’s. “The cost of inaction is 100 lives a year,” said the Drum Major Institute’s John Petro. “We need to accelerate the schedule.” Paris cut its traffic fatality rate in half in only six years, pointed out Petro.

“We can in fact achieve Vision Zero,” said White. While certain interventions have had dramatic results (20 mph speed zones reduced road deaths and injuries in London by 42 percent, according to the report, while speed detectors reduced fatal crashes by 65 percent where installed in France), the goal of zero serious injuries in traffic crashes has not been achieved elsewhere. After Sweden launched Vision Zero as a national campaign in 1997, traffic deaths fell 34 percent by 2009. The country has pushed back its initial goal of achieving zero deaths, shifting the target date from 2020 to 2050.

After the event, White said that Vision Zero could serve as more of an ethos than an achievable goal. A good model, he said, might be construction site safety or air travel. When people are killed while repairing a road or in an airplane, said White, “heads are rolling, there’s an investigation.” Vision Zero might not eliminate serious traffic injuries, but it can mean that no serious injury is ever again considered acceptable.

“No family should have to endure the pain and sorrow that myself and others have had to suffer,” said David Shepherd, whose fiancee was killed by a speeding hit-and-run driver while walking in the Bronx in 2009. “We need the mayor.”

  • Mark Walker

    “Vision Zero … can mean that no serious injury is ever again considered acceptable.” A goal worth pursuing. But why are at least some of the electeds and appointeds reluctant to pursue it? In a word: convenience. In their calculations, there’s a tradeoff between the convenience of drivers and the safety of peds and cyclists. Their dirty little secret is that they value the convenience of some over the lives and limbs of others. Perhaps a corollary to Vision Zero should be to aggressively mobilize the votes of those whose lives are currently considered expendable. To hear some of our leaders talk, you might think only drivers vote.

  • Anyone who prioritizes parking spaces over human lives needs to be shamed. Publically, repeatedly and mercilessly shamed. It is simply UNCONSCIONABLE that people – public officials and the media in particular – come down against traffic safety infrastructure, as they’ve been doing. We need to learn from various civil rights movements and make it as unacceptable to oppose safety infrastructure as it is to use the “N” word.

    … Also… Hong Kong is better Dublin, Sydney, London, Melbourne and New York? Really??? Does that mean that HK is actually a lot safer than I ever thought or these other cities a lot less safe?

  • Ian Turner

    @m_walker:disqus: The problem is structural. The people whose lives are at stake, while mostly not motorists, still aspire to be a part of the motoring class. Thus, even people who don’t own cars and probably will never own cars still side with motorists’ interests, against their own. Fixing this would require more than a simple “get out the vote” drive.

    Cheers,

    –Ian

  • Tom

    Ian: By non-motorist/non-car owners you really mean the passengers.  You know, the people in the back seat who enjoy the use of a POV without any of the cost.  Certainly they don’t want ever to annoy the driver and will always look forward to their next free ‘ride home’. 
    They do vote.  Now figure the number of car owners in NYC(hint: 2 million plus) and multiply by three(I’m being conservative).  Get my point.  Now figure the total number of bikers who will vote as bikers.

    Drum Major/TA: If you want progress make valid arguments directed to drivers, not around drivers.  They will listen.
    I’ve given this report only a quick read and it just doesn’t work.  “In NYC, there is very little consensus among stakeholders about the urgency of improving street safety.”  You should apologize for that statement alone.   
    Roundabouts?  You want roundabouts?  I’ve driven on roundabouts in Paris, Rome, London, Ireland, D.C. and lots of other places.  Lots of fun but  watch out!  You got one here in Brooklyn: Grand Army Plaza!  What’s the first thing you advocate for it?  Screw it up!  Dismantle it!  So much for a Unifying Vision.
    The report sounds desperate when it uses foreign sources and the World Health Organization to try to convince the drivers in the safest driving city in America(your claim) that they are BAD people.  WHO?  Do those people ever have to drive themselves?
    BTW: have you noticed that the Tea Party people are attacking ‘road improvements’ as foreign plots against America.  Your unneeded foreign references will make this effort a non-starter.
    Now please go peddle your report to Houston, Philly, Chicago, etc.
     

  • Smartdriver

    Tom, the roundabouts in the report are much, much smaller than the giant traffic rotaries like Grand Army Plaza or Columbus Circle. We’re talking about roundabouts at the intersections of two lane or four lane streets instead of traffic signals. For sure, American examples are best, yet you seem to be suggesting that New York City motorists are too moronic to understand a smart road design technology just because it is used in another part of the world.

  • carma

    actually hong kong is safer.  no pedestrian ever jaywalks and they have skybridges to cross long streets.
    plus owning a private vehicle is so expensive and actually unnecessary thanks to great public transit.

  • No mention of one-way streets (to be specific, restoring streets to being bi-directional again) in either this report or the NYCDOT manual it refers to. I am absolutely sure that both DOT and TA know that e.g. the big Manhattan Avenues used to be two-way, right? ( I have only done limited research on this, but I am pretty sure this is what happened).

  • Joe R.

    Tom,

    Roundabouts are exactly what NYC should be using at intersections where arterials meet, perhaps even at some others.  And intersections of arterials with minor roads should have stop signs on the minor road, yields on the arterial.  NYC really shouldn’t be using traffic lights at all ecept where there’s really no room for a roundabout, and traffic is too heavy for stops/yields.  Fact is traffic lights cause more accidents than they stop, cause speeding, cause needless delays when the light goes red with no cross traffic, cause needless pollution, cost lots of money to install/maintain, and require constant enforcement.  Cyclists especially can’t stand them, but they’re no fun for motorists, either.  It’s high time we stopped using an antiquated 20th century control device in favor of methods which have been proven to work elsewhere.  Good street design is self-enforcing as well as inherently safe.

    And NYer will get used to roundabouts just fine.  If they’re not used to them now, it’s only because they hardly encounter them.

  • Joe R.

    Yes, grade separation is really the answer here if possible.  I often hear on this site that pedestrian overpasses/skywalks are anti-pedestrian.  I fail to see how.  What’s the alternative?  Waiting for a gap in traffic to cross?  Or even worse, a signaled intersection where you might have to have a long time for a walk signal, and even then you’re at the mercy of whether or not cars stop on the red?  Pedestrian overpasses (with ramps, so the disabled can use them) are a better idea.  not waiting to cross, and you cross with 100% assurance you won’t get hit by a motor vehicle.  Fact is NYC has limited space.  Rather than trying to divide street level space, and ending up with a result that pretty much stinks for all user, we should give each mode it’s own level.

  • carma

    when i drove outside of NY and experienced roundabouts, i cursed at how stupid they were.  then i realized i was the stupid one, and noticed how efficient it is not waiting at lights, and it simply takes a yield to merge once you are in the cricle.  i would hardly consider columbus circle and grand army plaza a rotary.  these are traffic nightmares constrained by traffic lights.

  • It’s funny how the broader and deeper the livable streets movement grows, the more desperately its evident opponents peddle their self-serving advice that we had best quiet down, don’t dare hold politicians accountable, and bow down before NYC’s precious driving minority–who we’re now told selflessly transport 2 pathetic freeloaders per private automobile. (Funny, they look empty to me.)

    We’ve already had whole political parties–and even supposed environmental movements–hopelessly subject to the automobile, unwilling to point out the slightest downside of driving. You know, the piles of dead bodies from crashes, the resource wars each decade–those trifling things. What makes this particular movement interesting is its willingness to actually face those costs.

    Go ahead and mock how BAD it is that a few hundred New Yorkers are killed by autos each year if you want, but this is not about making a moral judgment on those who drive. There is no conflict at all in owning a car and supporting policies that encourage everyone, including yourself, to drive less. That’s actually kind of honorable. It is the policies themselves that must be judged on their ethics and, very truly at this point, feasibility. We can’t afford to keep building toll-free glory roads that do not safely or efficiently transport the public–and we will not.

  • Concerned Ped

    One simple change that would improve safety a great deal: eliminate the parking spot on the near corner of right and left-hand turns off avenues. Cars in those spots block drivers’ view of people entering the crosswalk on the cross street; eliminating cars from those spots would create a line-of-sight all the way to the sidewalk, where pedestrians enter the street. It’s no coincidence that 75% of pedestrians injured in NYC traffic accidents were in the crosswalk. The current situation is particularly dangerous for children in strollers and people in wheelchairs, because they are low in the line-of-sight and thus obscured by even a low or small car. This change has been used with success in a number of cities. It means losing one parking place every block. If NYers could put up with that “inconvenience,” pedestrians here would be much safer.

  • Concerned Ped

    One simple change that would improve safety a great deal: eliminate the parking spot on the near corner of right and left-hand turns off avenues. Cars in those spots block drivers’ view of people entering the crosswalk on the cross street; eliminating cars from those spots would create a line-of-sight all the way to the sidewalk, where pedestrians enter the street. It’s no coincidence that 75% of pedestrians injured in NYC traffic accidents were in the crosswalk. The current situation is particularly dangerous for children in strollers and people in wheelchairs, because they are low in the line-of-sight and thus obscured by even a low or small car. This change has been used with success in a number of cities. It means losing one parking place every block. If NYers could put up with that “inconvenience,” pedestrians here would be much safer.

  • Melbourne has a higher number than NY. This is interesting!

  • Yes, the avenues used to be two-ways. Restoring two-way service would be good, but more for good transit than for good pedestrian safety. Both my experience with First and Second and the manuals I’ve read on the subject say that one-way streets are safer for pedestrians all else being equal (and all else may not be equal, because one-way streets make it easier for cars to drive fast). But they really suck for good bus service, especially at the high end when it’s branded as light rail on tires or a surface subway on tires.

    Now, in conjunction with buses, the avenues could be very safe with two-way operation. Build physically separated median bus lanes on First and/or Second, with two or three car and parking lanes on each side. The bus lanes won’t see a large number of vehicles per hour by car standards – about 20 buses per hour per direction is the highest I can conceive of, so they can provide some refuge. Under a two-lane option, the physical separation can be a few feet of raised curb, providing good refuge. (Three lanes already requires taking a few feet of sidewalk, so the separations should be as small as possible, which is about 4-6″.)

  • Iamnotreal

    *farts*

  • @05aff3c0a7c94529dc138ce87543764a:disqus , yes, there are advantages to looking in one direction when crossing a street mid-block. While I disagree with the use of traffic islands at signaled intersections – the “shorelines” need to be brought closer together and the time lengthened – there is a good reason to have them mid-block, so people can cross easier (“illegally”). Or just split up the long blocks!

    The main hobgoblin I am trying to tell people about is also how wide one-ways (e.g. the Avenues in Manhattan) guarantee that people will always be bike salmon (ride against bike traffic). TA rightly tells people to respect the law, but this law is un-natural (as of course salmon headed upstream is natural). 

  • They don’t jaywalk in Hong Kong?? What happens to Chinese people when they come here, then??!!!

  • Ian Turner

    Tom,

    The average occupancy of cars in New York is 1.25. In other words, the vast majority of vehicles have no passengers at all. Even people who own cars in New York are likely to commute by public transit. What was your point again?

    –Ian

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