Sunday, January 26th, 2014
One of the proposals from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio that received a lot of positive attention is his so-called “Vision Zero” plan. The goal is to completely eliminate deaths and serious injuries from motor vehicle crashes within ten years. As he acknowledges, this idea was copied from a similar goal set by Chicago.
For too long we’ve basically accepted a gruesome death toll from car crashes as the price of doing business in a modern society. The very word “accident” suggests something we simply can’t do much about. But in the same way that Rudolph Giuliani and others questioned the inevitability of sky high murder rates, a new generation of leaders is questioning the premise behind large numbers of deaths from car crashes, deeming them unacceptable.
The Vision Zero report lays it out:
In New York, one person is killed in a car crash every 30 hours. Every 10 seconds, a New Yorker suffers a traffic related injury, and every two hours a traffic injury results in dismemberment or disfigurement. From 2001 to 2010, more New Yorkers were killed in traffic than were murdered by guns.
The consequences for New York families is tragic: being struck by a car is the most common cause of injury-related death among children 1-14 years old, and the second most common cause among those aged 15 and older.
Enough is enough. There is no level of death or injury that New Yorkers should accept on our public streets.
As a starter set of proposals, de Blasio suggests redesigning 50 intersections per year, expanding 20 MPH speed zones, and stepping up traffic enforcement. All good stuff. You can read more about it and watch a Streetfilm of the announcement over at Atlantic Cities.
But while there’s a lot of goodness here, the idea of having a goal of “zero” needs to be rethought. I can appreciate the logic of saying any death is one too many. But there are some practical problems with it. Firstly, it’s unrealistic. The idea that in New York City you can completely eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries just isn’t going to happen. And by making that the goal, any sense of holding de Blasio accountable for results is forfeited. After all, everyone implicitly gets it’s only a feel-good aspiration. The stated goal allows the project to be judged on its inputs – intersections fixed, for example – rather than its outputs, namely the number of lives saved. What we ought to have the reverse.
I’d like to see some aggressive but realistic specific goals fleshed out. For example, continuous annual reductions in traffic fatalities at a rate 25-50% greater than the trend line. That way there can be accountability for actually achieving measurable and realistic targets.
Secondly, complete elimination of traffic deaths would likely entail trade-offs we don’t want to make. For example, the police on one local precinct just started a jaywalking ticketing blitz. An 84 year old immigrant was not just ticketed but bloodied by aggressive cops:
This is pretty ridiculous. As Nicole Gelinas put it, “Targeting errant pedestrians is something like arresting someone who breaks a window because he’s trying to escape a fire.” Streetsblog suggested a better approach is to apply strict liability in car crashes where the driver is always liable in any pedestrian crash, even if the pedestrian broke the law.
I certainly agree that going after jaywalkers is about the last place you’d want to start your safety campaign. However, at some point you will have squeezed out all the safety improvements you can from street design, traffic enforcement, and liability standards. What then? Clearly if you want to continue making safety improvements, you’d need to enforce the same strict standards on pedestrians and bicyclists.
In a sense, by jumping the gun, NYPD revealed the inevitable end result of any policy that demands a zero risk, zero adverse event profile. Such things always end up going too far. That’s why we have to do the TSA shuffle at airports and the NSA is tapping every phone call in the United States, for example. The truth is, risk is genuinely part of life and we have to be willing to accept at least some of it to live in a functional society.
So while Vision Zero has a lot going for it and is a step in the right direction, I think the notion of “zero” needs to be rethought in favor of aggressive but realistic targets for which officials can be held accountable and which don’t demand ridiculous actions like jaywalking crackdowns. Even if traffic deaths aren’t totally eliminated, they can still be radically reduced. And as the murder rate declines show, even when you don’t get to zero, if you make step change improvements over time you can still drive huge improvements in the livability of the city.