Pedestrian safety has been in the news both locally and nationally in recent weeks. First, in his September 12 column in U.S. 1 Richard K. Rein offered some advice for Princeton University’s freshman class on safe street crossings. He followed up in the October edition of U.S. 1’s sister paper, the Princeton Echo, with an in-depth look at plans to make Nassau Street a safer place for walkers and the serious and even fatal collisions that brought the issue to the fore.
And the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released recommendations based on a special investigative report about pedestrian safety that it began in 2016. Among them: changes in car design including adaptive headlights and collision avoidance systems; expanded support of state and local safety projects; and developing and implementing a plan for state and local governments to collect and use pedestrian safety and highway accident data.
But the report also underscores the immediate need for change: when the NTSB study started there were an average of 15 pedestrian deaths per day. By the time it ended that number had risen to 16 per day.
At the local level some safety advocates have recognized the urgency of the situation and are taking up the cause. Below, Jerry Foster of the West Windsor Bicycle & Pedestrian Alliance outlines Vision Zero, a safety plan that has been effective in other countries that activists are trying to bring to New Jersey.
What Is Vision Zero?
It’s not just another blame-the-victim (and enforcement) safety campaign! Vision Zero is a comprehensive re-thinking of road safety that brings everyone to the table to systematically prevent crashes and reduce crash severity — just like airline and railroad crashes.
How much of a difference can Vision Zero make? Vision Zero can save over 20,000 lives per year, If implemented nationally. In the 1970s the Netherlands had a similar traffic fatality rate to the U.S., but they started to actively address the problem, as did many other European countries. By 2013 their fatality rate per million population was 34, compared to 103 for the U.S.
Aren’t our roads already engineered for safety? Actually, our roads are primarily designed to achieve a target speed that is selected depending on what kind of road it is — freeway, arterial, collector, or local. Then capacity (volume) goals are addressed, and last whatever safety measures can be implemented within the context of the target speed and capacity are added. Unfortunately, for arterials especially, high target speeds work against safety, and sometimes against capacity as well.
About three-fourths of all New Jersey traffic fatalities from 2006 to 2016 were on roads with speed limits of 40 mph or higher.
For example, Route 1 is an urban arterial designed for 55 to 65 mph, with the number of travel and turning lanes appropriate to the historical volume, and suffers from a high number of fatalities annually as a result — 163 fatalities from 2006 to 2016.
How does speed work against capacity? Most people think faster traffic means more capacity, but that’s only true up to about 40 mph, over which motorists leave more space between cars, so capacity suffers as speeds increase over 40 mph.
In our Route 1 example, if the road were designed for 45 mph instead of 65 mph (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials engineering standards for urban arterials are 25 to 45 mph), safety would improve due to preventing crashes because of motorists’ increased reaction time, crashes would be less severe at lower speeds, and capacity would improve due to motorists traveling closer together.
Doesn’t congestion already slow down traffic? Exactly — congestion improves safety by slowing traffic, preventing fatalities and reducing crash severity. New Jersey has the nation’s highest population density, most congestion, and one of the lowest annual fatality rates — at 69 per million population, midway between the Netherlands (34) and the U.S. average (103).
Can we improve safety and capacity together? Yes. One way is if there is enough road width to add a lane by narrowing the width of existing lanes. For example, if Route 1 were five lanes in each direction, and each lane was 12 feet, reducing each lane to 10 feet would yield enough space to add another 10-foot lane each way, improving both safety and capacity. Standard lane width is 10 to 12 feet, which supports heavy vehicles like trucks and buses, and reducing lane width within the standard range has no capacity or safety downsides, and may improve safety due to the slight reduction in speed (about 1 to 2 mph slower per foot narrowed from 12 to 10). Alternatively, reducing lane width may yield enough space to add bicycle lanes or sidewalks, which increases safety and non-motorized capacity.
How much of New Jersey’s fatalities are bicyclists and pedestrians? Compared to national averages, New Jersey in 2017 had a low motorist fatality share (69 percent), an average bicyclist fatality share (3 percent), but a high pedestrian fatality share (28 percent), about double the national average.
What can be done to prevent bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities? Safe bicycling and walking facilities are lacking on many New Jersey roads, especially on high speed roads. The NJ Department of Transportation adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2009, and since then eight counties and 141 municipalities have also adopted Complete Streets policies, which require bicycling and walking facilities to be included whenever roads are improved.
Can’t more enforcement reduce accidents? Equitable enforcement plays its part to prevent crashes, which in many countries and states includes automated speed cameras. Vision Zero prefers the term “crash” to “accident,” since the goal is to create a culture of road safety based on personal responsibility and mutual respect for all road users. We’ve been trained to believe that “accidents just happen,” implying there is nothing that can be done to prevent them, but this is a myth of the existing culture of evading responsibility.
How does Vision Zero build a culture of safety? Vision Zero assumes that all crashes can be prevented, using a public health approach that treats unsafe road behavior like an epidemic, with possibilities for intervention at all levels of social relations and the built environment. For example, one of the biggest public health achievements ever was educating people to understand the benefits of washing your hands after using the bathroom, but that outcome was reinforced when bathrooms were designed so the sink was between the toilet and the door, making the healthy behavior convenient.