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What Is Vision Zero?

 

The Problem

Across the country, whenever someone dies or gets injured in a traffic crash, the lives of those involved, their families, and entire communities are forever changed. Approximately 40,000 individuals are killed every year on our roadways, including over 1,700 people in North Carolina in 2021 alone (NCDOT, 2022; IIHS, 2022). Tragically, that number has been increasing in recent years; meanwhile countries similar to the US, have seen those numbers decline (CDC, 2022).

 

 

Figure 1: U.S. Motor vehicle crash deaths and deaths per 100,000 people, 1975-2020

Source: IIHS, 2022

 

Figure 2: Motor vehicle crash deaths per 100,000 population — 28 high-income countries, 2015 and 2019

Source: CDC, 2022

 

A New Approach

Vision Zero is a traffic safety approach focused on eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries, while improving access to safe, sustainable, and equitable mobility for everyone. Setting zero as the only acceptable target, Vision Zero sends a strong message: deaths on our transportation network are unacceptable and preventable.

We know that road deaths are not really “accidents” because they do not occur randomly. Certain populations are at an increased risk, including people outside of vehicles (e.g., individuals using wheelchairs, walking, and biking), as well as people of color, lower income individuals, children, seniors, and people with disabilities (Vision Zero Network, 2016).

Vision Zero represents a paradigm shift by acknowledging that responsibility for preventing road deaths is a shared one—meaning designers of the transportation system (i.e. planners, engineers, public health professionals, law enforcement and elected officials) must work collaboratively to ensure a safe system by addressing the root causes and inequities in traffic deaths.

 

Ensuring a Safe System

Vision Zero is grounded in the Safe System approach. The Safe System approach is based on the ethical principle that no loss of life is acceptable while acknowledging that humans make mistakes and that human bodies have a limited ability to tolerate crash impacts. In a Safe System, those mistakes should never lead to death. Applying the Safe Systems approach means taking proactive steps to implement effective strategies that prevent the most dangerous crashes (e.g., use of roundabouts to prevent angle crashes or interlock devices to prevent impaired driving) as well as ensuring that when crashes occur, they are not severe (e.g., lowering speed limits and quick emergency response). Therefore, road design and management should encourage safe speeds, use all tools available to reduce injury severity for all road users, and provide safe options for people to get where they need to go.
 
The Federal Highway Association, has proposed six key, organizing principles of the Safe System approach (United States Department of Transportation, 2022):
 

Deaths and serious injuries are unacceptable: While no crashes are desirable, the Safe System approach prioritizes crashes that result in death and serious injuries, since no one should experience either when using the transportation system.

Humans make mistakes: People will inevitably make mistakes that can lead to crashes, but the transportation system can be designed and operated to accommodate human mistakes and injury tolerances and avoid death and serious injuries.

Humans are vulnerable: People have limits for tolerating crash forces before death and serious injury occurs; therefore, it is critical to design and operate a transportation system that is human-centric and accommodates human vulnerabilities.

Responsibility is shared: All stakeholders (transportation system users and managers, vehicle manufacturers, etc.) must ensure that crashes don’t lead to fatal or serious injuries.

Safety is proactive: Proactive tools should be used to identify and mitigate latent risks in the transportation system, rather than waiting for crashes to occur and reacting afterwards.

Redundancy is crucial: Reducing risks requires that all parts of the transportation system are strengthened, so that if one part fails, the other parts still protect people.

 

A Growing Movement

In order to confront this persistent public health crisis, large cities in the US began adopting Vision Zero, as early as 2014. Since then, Vision Zero has grown, with smaller municipalities, states, and regional entities signing on. More recently, the National Roadway Safety Strategy and Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) grant program have demonstrated the commitment to Vision Zero and a Safe System approach at the national level. The National Roadway Safety Strategy lays out a plan for reducing serious injuries and deaths on our nation’s highways, roads, and streets, involving leadership from diverse sectors and agencies. The SS4A funds planning and implementation projects for regional, local, and Tribal initiatives to prevent roadway deaths and serious injuries, using a Safe System approach.
 

Map of US states of municipalities with adopted Vision Zero plans (as of 2022). States in blue have 1+ Vision Zero plans adopted by municipalities or regional entities (e.g., Metropolitan Planning Organizations) within the state. For an up-to-date map and links to each plan, visit https://www.roadsafety.unc.edu/profdev/vz-plans-map/

 
 
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Citations

IIHS, 2022https://www.iihs.org/topics/fatality-statistics/detail/yearly-snapshot

CDC, 2022https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/71/wr/mm7126a1.htm

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In 2022, there were 1,575 crashes, 59 fatalities, and 825 injuries in North Carolina resulting from drugged driving (NCDOT).

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