Next year, 40 Vermonters are expected to be die or be seriously injured while stepping out for an evening walk, riding their bike to work, or crossing the street. One of this year’s fatalities occurred just a few weeks ago. when a 74-year-old man died crossing a road in Swanton between two gas stations on 1st Street (Rt 78). It was early in the morning.
The state recently endorsed new “safety” targets based on long-term trend lines for yearly fatalities and injuries. For car drivers, the state expects close to 340 to die or be seriously injured. An additional 40 cyclists and walkers will be badly hurt or killed. A sub-committee of state planners worked thoughtfully to arrive at reasonable estimates, and then set goals slightly below the trend lines. Since deaths and injuries can spike and decline in any given year, the numbers chosen are based on five-year rolling averages.
I participated in this debate first hand as a member of the Transportation Advisory Committee of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. We discussed the numbers, reviewed the trend lines and voted to approve the recommended targets 25-2. For car-drivers, we approved a target of 57 fatalities and 280 serious injuries. And for those who walk and bike, we set a target of 39.5 people killed or injured each year statewide. With targets below the trend line, we were in fact calling for a downward trend, but I was one of the dissenters. I found it impossible to vote for a plan that endorsed so many deaths and injuries.
Does it make sense to endorse a plan that calls for a goal of 40 people dying or being seriously injured simply because they choose to walk, or ride a bike? Or for 280 people to die or be maimed because they are going somewhere in a car? Why have we settled on the idea that traffic deaths are accidents- inevitable and beyond our control? As a society we have decided that plane crashes are unacceptable, and long ago put systems in place to make air travel safe, reducing passenger deaths to close to zero (0.2 deaths per 10 billion passenger-miles between 2000 and 2010).
No one should have to die to use the transportation system, yet somehow we have arrived at one that finds this acceptable, and we approve goals that allow the deaths and injuries to continue.
Instead, we can embrace a more ethical goal of zero pedestrian, cyclist, and traffic deaths. And we can achieve it by embracing a strategy called Vision Zero, based on four tenets:
1. Traffic deaths and injuries are not inevitable.
2. Engineering and design can slow speeds and make streets safe.
3. Vulnerable and marginalized people are prioritized.
4. Those who hit, kill and maim pedestrians and cyclists must be held accountable.
Vision Zero reframes the traditional approaches to road safety, moving responsibility from the individual to the system. Sweden, which pioneered the idea, has one of the lowest rates of road deaths in the world. Its pedestrian deaths have been cut in half. The 20 US cities that have followed suit, have also sharply reduced deaths and injuries. In New York City, traffic deaths and injuries fell by more than 30 percent after embracing Vision Zero.
I asked VTrans officials why we have not endorsed Vision Zero. Bruce Nyquist, the Director of Office of Highway Safety replied that the state instead may join an organization comprised of other state transportation agencies and US planning organizations called Toward Zero Deaths. As its name implies, this group advocates a more incremental approach. Unlike Vision Zero, Toward Zero Deaths has no track record of success and its vision statement and other documents express no clear strategies to get to “Zero Deaths.”
It seems to me that unless you state your goal in the policy, you'll never get there. If you accept "toward" you'll never get it to zero. Someone will always die. Vermont can and should do better. And it starts with a clear goal -- every traffic death is unacceptable.
Richard Watts teaches policy and media studies at the University of Vermont and is a regular bike commuter, transit rider and pedestrian from his home in Hinesburg.