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California suffers more than 3,000 deaths on the road every year. It doesn’t have to.
A new California law will lower local speed limits and—advocates hope—reduce traffic fatalities.
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The pandemic year of 2020 saw a bloodbath on California’s roads, a grisly trend that emerged throughout the country. In the early spring of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold throughout the United States and California led the way in keeping people at home to slow spread of the disease, the state’s longtime traffic problems eased immediately. In Southern California alone, traffic volume plunged 80 percent from January to April. As late as December, traffic on California’s roads was down 14.4 percent from the same month a year earlier.
The same could not be said for deaths on the roads. The state recorded 3,723 traffic deaths in 2020, a 5 percent increase from 2019, even though far fewer people were driving. Nationwide, 42,060 people died in traffic crashes. That was an eight percent increase from 2019, and a 24 percent jump in the rate of death by automobile, the largest single-year hike in 96 years.
In September of 2021, the California legislature passed a bill that takes a step toward lowering those alarming numbers, and on Oct. 8, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 43 into law, giving local governments new authority to reduce speed limits on many roads.
Something about the pandemic turned Californians into crazy drivers, or perhaps more accurately, even more crazy than usual. The California Highway Patrol reported that, between March 19 and April 19 of 2020, its officers ticketed 2,493 drivers for speeding at over 100 miles per hour. That was an extraordinary 87 percent increase over the same period the year before, even though there were far fewer people on the roads.
The spike in traffic deaths during the pandemic focused attention on a public health crisis that has plagued the state, and the country, for decades. Though prior to 2020 road fatalities in California were on the decline, down 5.1 percent, the state still saw 3,798 human lives lost on its roads in 2018, and 3,606 in 2019, according to the state’s Office of Traffic Safety. In 2013, the most recent year prior to 2018 for which the OTS makes statistics available, an even 3,000 people lost their lives on the roads, which was an increase from 2,966 in 2012.
The loss of life is of course the greatest cost, but not the only cost. Combined with crashes that cause non-fatal injuries, traffic violence costs the state $53.5 billion annually on average, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
For more than a century, since automobiles began to take over the roads, American society has essentially just written off this mass death, not to mention the economic loss, as the cost of doing business. From 1913, when automotive crashes caused 4,200 deaths, to the 1972 high of 52,278, to today with traffic deaths continuing to regularly hit the high 30,000s, there have been significant advances in automotive safety technology, but no systematic United States policy or effort to end the public health crisis that is death on the road.
So perhaps it is unsurprising that the Vision Zero initiative started in Sweden, in 1997, when the country’s parliament approved a policy goal of eliminating auto deaths and serious injuries—completely.
“Vision Zero is an ethical stance stating that it is not acceptable for human mistakes to have fatal consequences,” according to the Government Offices of Sweden website. “It can be viewed as a paradigm shift, where the ultimate responsibility for road safety is shifted from the individual road-user to those who design the transport system.”
One of Vision Zero’s core principles is that human beings inevitably make mistakes, and though drivers must follow the rules of the road, failing to do so perfectly should not result in death or crippling injury.
“The focus is on the roads, the vehicles and the stakeholders who use the road transport system, rather than on the behavior of the individual road-user,” the Swedish government site explains.
The United States Vision Zero Network, a national nonprofit that offers support for cities putting Vision Zero programs into place, disputes the view of traffic deaths as “separate ‘accidents’ that happen independently and disconnected from each other.”
Instead, the network says on its website, the “vast majority” of road fatalities share common traits which make them both predictable and preventable. “Traffic deaths and injuries are, largely, the results of the systems we’ve put in place,” the group says. “Recognizing and addressing those systems are essential to advancing safe mobility for all.”
The policy has proven effective in the country of its origin. In 1997, Sweden had seven traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents, already a low number. But since then, according to the Swedish government, that rate has been more than cut in half despite the number of cars on the road rising steadily.
It took almost two decades, but in 2015 San Jose became the first California city, and only the fourth U.S. city overall, to put a Vision Zero plan into place, a plan which starts with data. The Santa Clara County metropolis gathers extensive traffic crash statistics, which it makes available to the public, revealing where accidents occur most and least frequently in the city. “This will give us better information about where and why traffic crashes are happening,” the city’s Vision Zero site says.
In Santa Cruz County, the Watsonville City Council voted to implement Vision Zero in January of 2018, and three months later released its Vision Zero Action Plan, stating its “strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries to ensure safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.”
Watsonville ranks first in a survey of 105 California cities for injuries and deaths of pedestrians under age 15, and fourth-worst for all pedestrians, according to data published by the city’s Vision Zero program.
Two years after Watsonville put the program in place, the Monterey County city of Salinas formally adopted Vision Zero as city policy. The city of Monterey also now has a Vision Zero policy in place. In total, 14 California cities, including the state capital of Sacramento as well as the state’s largest city, Los Angeles, now have a Vision Zero policy of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries.
The new bill, AB43, signed by Newsom in October and authored by Glendale Assemblymember Laura Friedman along with 12 other Democratic legislators, addresses just one aspect of the Vision Zero approach—reducing speeds on the road. The new law allows local governments the leeway to lower speed limits on roads, including state highways, in business and residential areas and other stretches identified as “safety corridors” without following the “85th percentile rule” mandated by state law—a rule that has often caused governments to raise speed limits on roads throughout the state.
Under the “85th percentile” standard set by CalTrans (the state Department of Transportation), before any speed limit is set or altered, traffic engineers must survey a road to determine the speed at which 85 percent of cars there travel. That speed, rounded to the nearest five mph, is set as the speed limit. CalTrans calls the 85th percentile rule “the single most influential indicator of what is safe and reasonable” when it comes to determining safe driving speeds.
The rule dates back to a 1959 law which was supposed to prevent local governments from setting sneaky “speed traps,” where speed limits are arbitrarily lowered for short distances and as a way to trick drivers into slipping up and falling in the the clutches of a waiting police officer all too eager to slap them with a ticket—a lucrative source of revenue for cities.
Instead, as a Los Angeles Times editorial pointed out in 2020, the 85th percentile rule has largely resulted in speed limits going up.
“The mandate means that if cities want to enforce the speed limit on a street where drivers routinely put the pedal to the metal, they often have to raise it to a level where most of that behavior would be legal,” the Times editorial board wrote—noting that, for example, while Zelzah Avenue in the San Fernando Valley is rated as one of the city’s most dangerous streets for pedestrians and bicyclists, the speed limit there increased not just once but twice, jumping from 35 to 45 mph, between 2009 and 2018.
The AB43 law allows city governments to drop speed limits by five miles per hour, and to set limits of 20 to 25 mph in business districts, a measure designed specifically to reduce traffic fatalities among pedestrians. While it may seem counterintuitive that slowing down already slow speed limits on local roads could save lives, data indicates otherwise.
According to figures compiled by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), with data taken from the year 2019 in Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and Imperial counties, 77 percent of all collisions occurred in urban areas, not on state or interstate highways. Fatalities were concentrated on local roads where the speed limit generally ranges from 20 to 45 mile per hour, with 65 percent occurring there, and only 15 percent on freeways. Another 20 percent occurred on arterial roads, that is, highways and other high-speed roads that connect to urban areas, according to the SCAG data.
Why is AB 43 a big deal? Because, as the saying goes, speed kills. Data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has shown that while traffic deaths are caused by a variety of factors, speed is perhaps the most important.
According to a report by the California State Transportation Authority’s Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force—which was created in 2018 by an earlier Friedman bill, AB 2363—26 percent of the 37,133 traffic deaths nationwide in 2017 involved at least one vehicle exceeding the speed limit, or traveling at speeds deemed unsafe for the driving conditions at the time. And the NHTSA estimates that overall, excessive speed is a contributing factor in about one of every three road fatalities.
When a car traveling at 20 mph or slower hits a pedestrian, the chance that person will die as a result is five percent, according to an NHTSA study. When the car is moving at 30 mph, the chance that the pedestrian will die jumps by a factor of eight, to 40 percent. Add another 10 mph, to 40, and the stricken pedestrian has an 80 percent chance of dying—and when a car is doing 50 mph, the chances that a pedestrian who gets hit will die becomes, effectively, a 100 percent certainty.
Pedestrian deaths have been on a disturbing upswing over the past decade, due largely to policies such as the 85th percentile rule and others which give driver speed and traffic flow higher priority than preventing fatal crashes. Between 2010 and 2019, according to the Insurance Information Institute, traffic fatalities of all types rose 9 percent—but pedestrian deaths shot up 44 percent. Where pedestrians accounted for 13 percent of all traffic deaths in 2010, they were up to 17 percent by 2019.
Most of those pedestrian deaths, 81 percent in 2018 according to the institute, occurred in urban areas, which throws a spotlight on the fact that solving the ongoing crisis of traffic deaths is an issue of racial and ethnic justice, as well as simply one of preserving the basic human right to live. Native Americans and black people have the highest rates of traffic death, according to the Governor’s Highways Safety Association data from 2015-2019—145.6 per 100,000 in the Native American population, and 68.5 per 100,000 for the black population. The rate for all groups in the United States is 58.1 traffic deaths per 100,000 people.
White people die at a slightly lower rate than the national average, at 55.2/100K. But the ethnic group least at risk of death on the road, according to the highway safety association data, is Asian-Americans, who suffered only 15.3 fatalities per 100,000 people.
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