We’re not going to make it to zero road deaths and serious accidents by 2024

WABA held its second annual Vision Zero Summit this past spring. It was encouraging to see so much energy from the advocates in the room, but it was discouraging to see how slowly things are progressing on the government side since that's where the help is most needed. The summit and the two cyclist deaths over the last two weeks provide a chance to check in on how Vision Zero is doing.

In short, we aren't going to make it. This should be no surprise since it was never a realistic goal, but DC isn't making a good faith effort to achieve it either. This goes for the other Vision Zero communities in the area as well. If we really want to make the roads significantly safer, we're going to have to do more. We're going to have to make some very hard choices, and it will be a lot harder than putting together an action plan.

The Vision Zero goal was dead on arrival

Sweden was the first place to set a goal of zero road deaths. That was back in 1997, and at the time it set the goal of zero road deaths by 2020, or in 23 years, and to cut them in half by 2007. Years later they realized they weren't going to make those targets, and revised the goals to 50% by 2020 and to 0 deaths by 2050. In other words, Sweden — the inventors of Vision Zero — thinks hitting zero deaths is a half-century long project.

Mayor Muriel Bowser announced in 2015 that DC was going to hit zero deaths and serious injuries by 2024. In nine years. (It feels a little like seven-minute abs.) We set a goal to hit zero deaths and serious injuries in half the time that Sweden had already been working on it. That isn't a real goal. It's like my son's goal of being a jedi.

Bethesda's pop-up bike lane demonstrated safer infrastructure for cyclists. Image by thisisbossi licensed under Creative Commons.

I don't know if it was just politics, or naïveté or over-optimism, but we failed right out of the gate. Nine years? It takes more than nine years to get most projects from an idea to shovels in the ground. The minute the goal came out of the Mayor's mouth, you could put a tag on its toe.

Other areas are similarly ambitious. Montgomery County has a Vision Zero goal, set last November, of 2030. Alexandria's goal, set in December, is 2028. They aren't going to make it either.

The fact is that since Bowser set DC's goal we've made no progress as the measure of traffic deaths go, and it's impossible to believe at this point — and it was in 2015 really — that we're going to hit that goal. Equally disturbing is the realization that impending failure doesn't appear to be creating any sense of urgency. I realize that DC and other governments miss their goals all the time, but it doesn't seem that anyone is worried about getting egg on their face about this.

Bowser’s office declined to provide comment from the mayor, instead referring a reporter to DDOT.

OK, maybe they're a little worried.

Zimbabwe said the numbers don’t reflect the progress that has been made. In 2011, the District had 32 traffic deaths. The latest numbers reflect a leveling off when measured against the city’s population growth, he said.

“We are not backsliding,” Zimbabwe said. “We are seeing ourselves laying the groundwork for the next things that will get us down to zero, and it is not going to happen overnight. There’s nobody out there with a ‘mission accomplished’ banner saying we are there yet. We take it very, very seriously.”

I don't doubt they take it seriously. I doubt they take it seriously enough to meet the goal — which requires taking it VERY VERY seriously.

At the Vision Zero summit, when I asked a panel of local political leaders what we can do to get to zero, they basically said that yes, we need to do something but we lack the political will right now, like they were as powerless as those of us in the audience. Sigh.

What would a realistic goal have been?

DC's roads are already pretty safe. With a fatality rate of 2.4 per every 100,000 residents (2014), we're safer than every state in the US, and every country in the world (including Sweden) but one — likely due to our low car ownership rate and high transit use (<— writers call this "foreshadowing").

We could have set a goal to be the safest American city over 500,000 (New York City, for example, is already at 0.8 per every 100,000 <— more foreshadowing).

The shoes represent the people who were killed on North Carolina roads in 2016. World Day of Rememberance 2017 by NC Vision Zero licensed under Creative Commons.

We could have followed Sweden's lead. We could have aimed to cut road deaths in half by 2035 and to zero by 2060. Or matched up with the US goal of 2050 (which means that we think the US can close the gap with Sweden in 32 years. Color me skeptical). Those are realistic goals — or at least not insane. We can still aim for those.

But to make a legitimate go at it even those goals, let alone the 2024 one, requires a post-Pearl Harbor style all-in commitment from the Bowser Administration; and so far, that is not what we've gotten. The DC government is making an effort to reduce deaths — I know because I'm part of it — but the effort is woefully inadequate for the goal set or for even a half-century effort.

Zero is very small number

Here's something else about the Vision Zero goal. It's probably unobtainable.

Let's be honest, hitting zero deaths is going to require a lot more than redesigning a few intersections. It's going to require some radical changes. Some of which are, at the very least, politically terrifying and likely impossible. But DC, more than any other place — with its largely urban layout, unique city-county-state government and a mostly functional transit system — is capable of making some radical changes that would be impossible in LA, New York, or Sweden.

I'm on the Major Crash Task Force where we review major crashes and provide input for the mayor and the city based on what we learn. And one thing I've learned from this (other than that I'm a crier) is that in most of these crashes, there wasn't just one thing that went wrong. There were usually two, three, or more things that went wrong.

In my day job we spend a lot of time identifying, and planning for, things that could go wrong. However, the minute you say "what if this breaks AND that fails" people will stop you and say "that's a two-fault scenario, we don't worry about those."

When I worked in manned spaceflight, the line was at three-faults because human life was involved, but that made the task of preparing for every contingency an order of magnitude harder and more expensive. Accounting for, and protecting against, all the things that can go wrong may not be possible.

Ghost bikes in DC by Daniel Lobo licensed under Creative Commons.

Many of these fatal crashes in DC involved impaired drivers, many of whom were driving too fast. (Driving too fast is common when people have been drinking, because their decision-making is hampered). There are also some cases that involve speeding without alcohol.

There are a lot of misjudgments — road users of all kinds crossing a road or intersection when they don't have the right-of-way being the most common. In some of these cases, poor lighting, poor visibility, or road design contributed to the crash.

If we could put an end to those kinds of crashes — and that's a big if — we'd be most of the way there, but not all. Even if you make an amazing effort to remove the major risks, you still get the bizarre outliers and weird one-person fatal bike crashes. Even in six sigma, the goal is to succeed 99.99966% of the time. That still leaves a lot of opportunity for failure.

So maybe we should reconsider what we mean by "zero." Zero is still the aspiration, even as we accept that it's likely impossible. We can believe both of those things at once. But if we want a goal that we can achieve, why not fewer than 0.5 deaths per 100,000 residents?

That would still make DC far safer than any other similar place. 0.4999 rounds off to zero, and once we hit it — if we hit it — we'll be in a better place to identify the theoretical bottom.

Read part two of this article about what DC needs to do to reduce road deaths and injuries tomorrow.

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