Vision Zero is a global campaign to eliminate deaths and severe injuries among motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists. It is underpinned by two central conceits: First, the people who use the transportation system will make mistakes. Second, those mistakes should not result in injury or death.
Officials in countries and cities that have adopted Vision Zero are rethinking the way their streets and sidewalks are designed and the role each user plays in avoiding collisions. Changes could include reduced speed limits, dedicated bike lanes, physical barriers, or reconfigured intersections, all backed by a public awareness campaign.
“It’s not about assigning fault or blame to anyone. It’s about acknowledging that the system is a physics equation. A conflict between 4,000 lbs. of metal at high speed and a person crossing the street will lead to death,” said Nat Gale, director of Vision Zero for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT). “It’s a holistic approach. Design a safe system and educate people about the facts. There is a large responsibility on the government’s part to lead those efforts.”
As of March, 27 U.S. communities have qualified as Vision Zero cities. This means they have set a clear goal for eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries, their chief executive has publicly committed to the initiative, and key departments are engaged.
But public-sector fleet managers can help make the streets of their cities safer, even if they have not adopted Vision Zero. Vehicle specification, training, technology, and messaging all play a role.
Spec Vehicles for Safety
It is nearly impossible to have a conversation about pedestrian and cyclist safety without using the term “side guard.” Similar to rear trailer guards, side guards are skirt- or rail-style barriers that are installed on medium- and heavy-duty trucks to prevent side underride crashes.
When a vehicle collides with an equipped truck, the side guard should prevent it from going any further. Without it, the top half of the vehicle could be sheared off, defeating safety systems such as seatbelts and airbags and potentially decapitating its passengers. If a cyclist or pedestrian collides with the side of a moving truck, a side guard should prevent the person from being run over by its rear wheels.
Keith Kerman said New York City has implemented the nation’s largest side guard program. The deputy commissioner and chief fleet officer for NYC Citywide Administrative Services said the equipment has so far been installed on almost 800 of the more than 4,000 eligible heavy vehicles the city owns. They will eventually be installed on every truck and waste management vehicle.
Trucks account for only 3% of the vehicles on the road in New York City, Kerman said, but truck-involved collisions account for 12.3% of pedestrian fatalities and 32% of cyclist fatalities. Those numbers helped spur the development of a comprehensive plan to make city-owned vehicles safer. Backup cameras, driver alerts, and autonomous and semi-autonomous forward collision-avoidance systems are all in play.
Underride guards are not new technology. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has mandated rear guards to some degree since 1952. Side guards are required on all trucks throughout Europe, in Brazil, and in Japan. There is no federal requirement in the U.S. or Canada, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be mandated at the municipal level.
“We can do this right now, right away, and immediately make streets safer,” said Rosanne Ferruggia, Vision Zero coordinator for the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT). About 2,500 of Chicago’s city-owned vehicles are now or soon will be equipped with side guards, as well as convex and crossover mirrors. And the initiative doesn’t end there. Ferruggia and the CDOT’s assistant commissioner, Sean Wiedel, want every company that does business with the city — from waste haulers to material delivery — to install side guards and extraneous mirrors on their trucks.
Wiedel said the cost of installing underride guards and both sets of mirrors to a vehicle is about $2,000 per truck, and prices show signs of falling as suppliers multiply. “Compared to the cost of a human life, the cost is miniscule,” he said.
Sweden is the birthplace of Vision Zero, and the nation boasts the world's lowest rate of traffic fatalities, with only 3 per 100,000 residents.Source: World Resources Institute
Train Drivers for Awareness
No driver wants to be responsible for running over a pedestrian or cyclist. LADOT’s Gale believes safety training focused on the same aspects of traffic safety as Vision Zero can help prevent collisions.
“Fleet operators are a captive audience you have, as a city, to educate on this issue and require safe practices and safe approaches,” he said.
In San Francisco, drivers of large fleet vehicles owned by the city and its contractors must watch “Large Vehicle Urban Driving Safety,” a 17-minute video that introduces the concept of Vision Zero and offers detailed advice for navigating the peninsula’s notoriously hilly streets and crowded intersections.
John Knox White, planning programs manager for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), said the video helps fill in gaps for drivers whose training has focused on freeway driving and perfecting maneuvers in open parking lots.
“Most of the tests for drivers happen where the DMV can find cheap available land with no people,” Knox White said. “How do you drive safely around people? That wasn’t clear.”
Washington, D.C., resident and transportation official Sam Zimbabwe can relate. He said D.C. has a “walkable, small-block structure” but notes that the city’s large arteries are still built for relatively high-speed traffic, and its hub-and-spoke street design creates a number of confusing intersections.
“It’s a grid underneath the diagonals,” he said. “One of our biggest challenges is soft rights on a diagonal. Drivers can take those at high speeds, which is hazardous to pedestrians.”
As chief project delivery officer for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), Zimbabwe serves as his city’s Vision Zero lead. He is working with its Office of Risk Management to develop a multimodal safety training curriculum that is expected to roll out by the end of the year.
In New York City, fleet drivers get a full day of safety training every year. Kerman’s department has also hosted events for contractors and other private fleet owners who are curious about Vision Zero. Non-emergency drivers employed by the city are also forbidden from making calls while driving — even on hands-free phones.
In Chicago, Ferruggia and Wiedel have focused their training curriculum on the five factors Ferruggia said are behind 72% of the city’s collisions: speeding, failure to stop for pedestrians or yield to bikes, distracted driving, running red lights and stop signs, and DUI.
“By focusing on the driving behaviors that cause the most crashes, we can make real progress in stopping these preventable deaths and serious injuries,” she said.
In the private sector, the use of GPS-based telematics systems to monitor the location and speed of fleet vehicles is widespread. Adoption among public-sector fleets has been much slower. The upfront cost and privacy concerns raised by unions are two barriers to telematics expansion. That is unfortunate, because telematics can produce an incredibly useful data set.
Knox White said San Francisco recently completed a fleetwide install of telematics — excluding police vehicles — and his department has committed to producing a quarterly report for the city. He hopes the data will help determine how the system’s presence will influence driving behavior from a Vision Zero standpoint and spur open, honest discussions with operators.
New York’s Kerman said a telematics system is installed in most of the city’s fleet vehicles, and the technology is paying off.
“We have seen some positive trends in the reduction of speeding, hard braking, and hard accelerating. The latter may not be illegal, but they are clearly signs of potentially unsafe behavior,” he said. New York also maintains CRASH, a reporting system that tracks incidents citywide.
“Vision Zero is a data-driven initiative. We use police reports that document when someone gets killed or injured. But we know that’s an incomplete data set,” Gale said, noting that L.A.’s parking enforcement division has installed telematics fleetwide, and that department is using its data to reinforce the city’s traffic safety campaign. “In the Monday roll call, they can say, ‘OK, half you guys hit 70 miles per hour last week. We need to reduce that.’ ”
Trucks account for 3% of the vehicles on New York City's streets, but they are involved in 12.3% of pedestrian fatalities and 32% of cyclist fatalities.Source: NYC Citywide Administrative Services
Promote Safe Driving
City property, including fleet vehicles, can be used to promote safe driving, walking, and cycling. These mobile billboards can serve as constant reminders that the responsibility for safe streets is shared by everyone who uses them.
New York uses bumper stickers, garage posters, and a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van owned by the city’s DOT to broadcast the Vision Zero message. LADOT placed ads on bus benches, distributed “Vision Zero” buttons, and unfurled banners at public events. The reverse side of the windshield stickers for vehicles registered in Washington, D.C., reminds drivers to “Share the Road” whenever they get behind the wheel.
Gale believes messaging aimed at people driving, walking, and biking is important, but it’s reflective of a “downstream” approach to traffic safety. When Vision Zero launched in Sweden in 1997, they looked “upstream” to identify deficiencies in the traffic safety system.
In the U.S., most Vision Zero initiatives have been seeded at the grassroots level. Either way, Gale said, success depends upon centralized leadership.
“To get something like Vision Zero implemented, it has to come from the executive branch. Talk to your mayor or city manager. ‘Have you thought about Vision Zero?’ ”