In 2000, Washington was the first U.S. state — or jurisdiction of any kind — to adopt a Vision Zero policy.
The state’s bold decision came after the Director of the Traffic Safety Commission, John Moffat, saw a presentation about Sweden’s Vision Zero, the original policy pioneered back in 1997. Vision Zero calls for infrastructure improvements, like narrower streets, better lighting, separated bike lanes, and protected intersections so that inevitable human error that happens when driving does not result in death or severe injury.
Washington state’s policy, called Target Zero, is somewhat different than Sweden’s Vision Zero, which focuses exclusively on protecting people walking and biking. Target Zero also includes eliminating fatalities of people in cars.
For its first decade, Target Zero proved effective, lowering pedestrian deaths from 77 in 2003 steadily downward to 50 in 2013, according to the state’s Pedestrian Safety Advisory Council’s 2018 Annual Report. But 2014 was a tough year, as pedestrian deaths began to surge both in the state and nationally.
Unable to swim against the tide, Washington state began a four-year climb from 2013 to 2017, which saw 109 deaths of people walking. During that time-span, pedestrian deaths went from 11.4 percent of Washington state’s total fatalities to 20 percent.
Deaths of people biking have also increased, from 20 in 2014-15 to 31 in 2016-17, according to the Cooper Jones Bicyclist Safety Advisory Council. Although pedestrian and bicycle fatalities leveled off in 2018, it remains to be seen whether the state will start to move toward the Vision Zero goal once again.
How Washington succeeded
Target Zero’s initial success is explained in several ways. The most important tool is using engineering to slow down cars, according to Scott Waller, the program manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. While traffic enforcement, including cameras, can help, the most effective means to reduce fatalities is to narrow lanes to slow down traffic and install traffic circles and bulb-outs.
A person driving a car at 35 miles per hour is likely to kill a person the car strikes, while 20 mph may result in only minor injuries. Indeed, a crash at that low speed is far less likely to happen. Even a change from 25 to 20 mph makes a measurable difference in crash likelihood, according to the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Council. Speed kills, and slowing cars is the only way to reduce or eliminate fatalities.
A quarter of U.S. traffic deaths happen at intersections, yet engineering solutions can dramatically lower the danger. Waller stressed the importance of dedicated left turn lanes and arrows. Otherwise, drivers tend to focus on oncoming traffic and may not see the person legally crossing until it’s too late. Timing walk signals to give people walking a head start on drivers is also important so that walkers can be clearly visible by the time cars start moving.
More opportunities to cross streets are important; a super-block constitutes a significant barrier to people on foot and often leads to risky crossings amid traffic. For wider roads, a refuge island halfway across will give physical protection to those too slow to cross fully in one light cycle (More than once, I’ve seen people using wheelchairs and canes caught in a rush of traffic on a poorly designed boulevard).
In Washington State, the many miles of roads without sidewalks constitute a special hazard. Waller stresses physical separation, such as raised sidewalks, as the “number one best remedy” for vulnerable people attempting to navigate a car-filled environment.
For people riding bicycles, the best protection similarly comes from physically separated lanes, especially on high-speed roads. Intersections are also critical—bike boxes can be designed to let left-turning bikes get physically ahead of cars, rather than jostling with the uncertainty of who’s free to turn. At busy intersections, a separate bicycle turn arrow will ensure everyone’s safety.
Education is also crucial. Waller recommended extremely targeted media campaigns that “talk to the interests and passions of” specific groups. The Pedestrian Safety Advisory Council further advocates “educating drivers to expect to see people walking.”
The council also recommends changing the language in public documents, such as police reports, to suggest human agency and human vulnerability, for instance using “people who walk” instead of “pedestrians” and “driver” or “person driving” instead of “car” or “vehicle.”
In the long run, the idea is to “build a cultural change,” Waller said. After all, Vision Zero is unlikely to succeed without wide community support and understanding.
Walking against the tide
Waller sees a few reasons for the increase in deaths and serious injuries over the last five years. A key piece of the puzzle is driver impairment. This means both the traditional alcohol and other drugs, but also smartphones, which are “equivalent to the same lack of focus that happens when someone is using substances,” Waller said.
Substance abuse has also changed, as more crashes involve a combination of alcohol and marijuana, which “is extraordinarily lethal,” Waller exclaimed. Washington state’s legalization of marijuana preceded an increase in traffic deaths, leading to a flurry of media speculation. “I don’t know if having the law in place enabled that to occur, but we know that there’s been a fairly significant change in the makeup of our DUI fatalities,” Waller said. Indeed, deaths of people walking increased 16.4 percent in states that had legalized marijuana in the first half of 2017, compared to a 5.8 percent decrease elsewhere
The success of public transit in Washington State means that more people are walking, at least to catch the bus or train. Thirty-eight percent of Washington residents now walk or bike for at least some of their transportation, a significant increase over the past few years, according to the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Council.
This is excellent news for both the environment and public health, but may be causing an increase in traffic deaths. Planners need to be aware that a sustainable, multimodal transportation system requires strong attention to detail, such as safe access to bus stops.
Low-income neighborhoods await better data
Traffic fatalities and serious injuries are worst in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which often lack adequate sidewalks, street crossings, and other safety features. Unfortunately, these neighborhoods are often where better facilities are most needed since a large number of residents walk or wait in exposed areas for buses.
Like in most of the United States, Washington State places people of color and low-income people at risk. There are “significantly fewer pedestrian trails available to residents of 10 census tracts with high poverty rates,” according to the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Council. Those who choose the cheapest way to get to work within a few miles, bicycling, fare no better. Fifty-seven percent of neighborhoods with 1 percent of residents living below the poverty level have bicycle paths or lanes, while that number plummets to 9 percent in neighborhoods with 10 percent poverty, according to the Bicyclist Safety Advisory Council.
The problem dates back to decisions made decades ago. The Pedestrian Safety Advisory Council notes “historic inequity in investments in lower-income neighborhoods.” Inadequate infrastructure, once built, leaves a long term legacy. It requires significant political will and investment to change that.
State agencies are well aware of equity problems, yet tackling them is hard. “It’s kind of a deficit for us,” said Waller. Data about low-income neighborhoods is scant. “We don’t have a terrific inventory” that shows “this census tract has this kind of economic conditions, has this kind of infrastructure.”
Still, while scrambling to make up for lost time, the state government has taken some steps, awarding points for construction funds to help low-income neighborhoods.
A bicyclist himself, Waller is vividly aware of just how vulnerable people are to 2,000-pound vehicles hurtling down streets. Despite seemingly intractable obstacles, eliminating traffic deaths is well worth achieving, for people’s health, for a cleaner environment, for equity, and for a more sustainable country and the planet.
“A lot of people kid us,” Waller said, “that zero is unattainable.” Yet, he asks, “how many of your friends or relatives, family members, would you like to have die?”
We tolerate traffic deaths because, to many of us, reducing them is an abstract goal, while getting to work on time is a pressing reality. Aware of the human toll, Waller continues to strive for zero fatalities by 2030: “Even if it’s an idealistic goal, it’s the right goal.”