Is Vision Zero Failing? Cities Grapple With How to Reach Goal of Ending Traffic Fatalities

11 California cities want to end traffic fatalities in the next few years, but that goal seems distant.

PUBLISHED SEP 14, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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Vision Zero aims to implement steps that would make roads safer, and stop traffic death entirely.

Vision Zero aims to implement steps that would make roads safer, and stop traffic death entirely.   Harui Lee / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 4.0 Share-Alike License

The opening months of 2022 saw more carnage on California’s roads, and on the nation’s. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates, 9,560 human beings met their deaths on America’s streets and highways in the first three months of the year. Nearly one out of 10 of those people were killed in California.

The carnage occurs as California pursues a policy of reducing traffic deaths to zero. In 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation authored by Glendale Assemblymember Laura Friedman to create a “Zero Traffic Fatalities Task Force,” which in 2020 issued a 69-page research report detailing steps the state could take to bring down and, ultimately, eliminate traffic deaths.

One Small Step Toward Reducing Traffic Deaths

The following year, the legislature passed, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed, AB43. Authored by Friedman, the law allows local governments to disregard the “85th percentile rule” when setting speed limits on roads in their jurisdictions. The Caltrans standard requires a survey by traffic engineers before any speed limit is set or changed, to determine the speed at which 85 percent of drivers travel along a specific stretch of road. That speed, rounded to the nearest five miles per hour, is set as the limit.

But the 85th percentile rule, in effect, allows speeders to determine speed limits, and allows speed limits to be raised without any accompanying road modifications or infrastructure improvements. Under AB43, local governments can now set lower speed limits if they choose. 

Data has repeatedly shown a direct link between speed limits and road fatalities. According to one study, a 5 mph increase in speed limits leads to an 8 percent rise in traffic deaths on freeways, and a 3 percent rise on other roads. A separate study found that a 10 percent drop in average vehicle speeds results in 34 percent fewer fatalities.

The law has been in effect only since January 2022, meaning that its effect on road deaths cannot yet be measured. But it appears to be at least a small step toward taming the state’s continuing crisis of traffic violence. As of 2019, 11 cities throughout California (of more than 45 nationally) had officially adopted “Vision Zero,” an international program—initiated by Sweden in 1997—to eliminate traffic deaths. But some of those cities appear to be moving in the opposite direction.

What’s going wrong? Why do thousands of people continue to die on California roads every year?

Do Cities Take Traffic Deaths Seriously?

Vision Zero came to San Francisco in 2014, after a year when 34 people died from traffic violence (as Vision Zero advocates call serious and fatal traffic incidents). The goal of the city’s Vision Zero program was, and remains, to bring annual traffic deaths down to zero by 2024. But in 2021, 27 people were killed by traffic violence on San Francisco streets. In the first seven months of 2022, 19 more died, a pace that according to the traffic safety research group Transpo Maps would result in 38 dead by year’s end.

That would make 2022 the city’s deadliest year on the roads since 2007.

What is San Francisco doing about it? At least from the standpoint of traffic enforcement—one of the key elements of the Vision Zero plan—not much. According to a report by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Heather Knight, San Francisco traffic cops have almost given up on enforcing the rules of the road.

Knight cites a data study by Transpo Maps, showing that as of May 23, 2022, San Francisco police had handed out a mere 1,368 citations, an average of about 10 per day, in a city whose residents operate 472,409 vehicles, per Department of Motor Vehicles stats. In 2019, SFPD officers wrote an average of 74 citations per day.

“To assume that all but nine of these 472K+ vehicles are being driven safely and in accordance with the law is ridiculous,” Transpo Maps wrote in its study. To illustrate the point, the study noted that in San Francisco on average, a car strikes something hard enough to need a police report once every four hours, every day of the year.

In 2017, San Francisco identified the 13 percent of all city streets that account for 75 percent of all fatal and severe injuries. Under Vision Zero, those streets are deemed the High Injury Network (HIN). The city’s Municipal Transit Agency earlier identified the five violations that cause most injuries: speeding, running red lights, running stop signs, failing to yield while turning, and entering a crosswalk while a pedestrian is crossing.

The city’s police department pledged that at least 50 percent of all tickets would be given for those five violations, a program known as “Focus on the Five” (FOTF). But per the Transpo Maps data, only 35 percent of tickets were for FOTF violations between January 2018 and May 2022, and only a “tiny fraction” were issued for FOTF violations on the High Injury Network streets.

Los Angeles Vision Zero on Life Support

The state’s largest city, Los Angeles with an incredible 7.9 million vehicles per DMV data, committed to Vision Zero in 2015 thanks to a directive by Mayor Eric Garcetti. The goal—eliminate traffic deaths by 2025. But with just three years to go, that goal looks a long way off.

The year 2022 saw Los Angeles traffic violence claim 312 lives, the deadliest year and the first with more than 300 traffic deaths since 2003. That total included 159 pedestrians and 20 cyclists, accounting for 57 percent of the fatalities. In fact, since Garcetti issued his Vision Zero directive, traffic deaths in his city have increased by more than 58 percent. So is Vision Zero failing—or is it being failed?

That’s what the Los Angeles City Council would like to know. In April 2022, the council ordered the controller’s office to conduct an audit of the Vision Zero program, the first such audit in the seven years since the program became the city’s official policy. The audit is designed to “identify barriers to implementation of Vision Zero projects and programs—such as funding and staff resources, interdepartmental coordination, and political support,” and come up with recommendations to overcome those “barriers.” 

The city’s Vision Zero program set a goal of cutting traffic deaths by 20 percent in its first two years, but did not meet that goal. The city’s “underserved communities” are hardest hit by the plague of traffic violence, according to a Los Angeles Times report, which cites data naming intersections located in several minority and low income communities as the most dangerous in the city.

The city has made some of the infrastructure improvements called for under the Vision Zero policy, such as improving crosswalks and street signs in “thousands” of locations, according to the Times report. But some traffic safety advocates have questioned the city’s commitment to the program. In 2017, the city’s transportation chief Seleta Reynolds said it would take an $80 million commitment to bring deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists down by 20 percent. In 2022, Los Angeles allocated $61 million to the whole Vision Zero program.

Sacramento Struggles With Reducing Traffic Violence

The state’s capital city instituted the Vision Zero program in January of 2017, with 2027 set as the target year for eliminating traffic deaths. If any city needed the program, it was Sacramento, whose traffic death rates are among the highest in the state on a per capita basis. From 2010 to 2014 Sacramento, with a population of just over 536,000, suffered about 26 deaths per year. 

After the Vision Zero program was put in place, the numbers got even worse, with 46 deaths in 2017—the first year of the program—followed by 37 and 31 in the following two years. Looking at pedestrian deaths only, the greater Sacramento area comes in as the 27th deadliest metro area in the United States.

The city identified its five most dangerous traffic corridors—its High Injury Network—in 2017, but it wasn’t until 2021 that the city delivered a plan for bringing down the casualty count in the HIN zones. Sacramento has taken other steps to increase road safety, including the installation of 368 new signs in school zones reducing speed limits there.

But the city’s Vision Zero Task Force, which met five times in 2016 and 2017, has been idle for the past five years, leaving oversight of the program’s initiatives to city departments and officials.

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