Vision Zero is a program that aims to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries. It was first implemented in Sweden in the 1990s, and in the past five years, at least 40 communities in the U.S. have joined the program, according to Leah Shahum, executive director of the Vision Zero Network.
While Vision Zero programs focus on all traffic fatalities, fleet managers can make a difference by improving driver training, changing the vehicles purchased, and modifying vehicles to ensure that they are safer. Here are some strategies public agencies have implemented.
New York City’s Fleet Safety Improvements
New York City is vocal about its Vision Zero policy, enacting strict policies, creating training programs and videos for drivers, adding safety technology and devices, and keeping a public scorecard of its progress.
“They’ve been probably the most proactive and ambitious in their vision and efforts,” Shahum said. “They’re walking the walk, not just talking the talk, and they’ve seen a decrease of a little more than 30% — nearly a third reduction of traffic deaths in their first four years of Vision Zero.”
According to Keith Kerman, chief fleet officer and Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) deputy commissioner, the city had eight fatal events involving non-emergency response in 2014, its benchmark year. In the next five years, there were 10 in total, or an average of two per year.
While it’s hard for the city to determine which methods have worked best, its numerous initiatives include:
1. Buying and modifying vehicles for safety
With its wide variety of vehicles, New York City is challenged with keeping up with what’s available. “We are trying to transition the design of our city vehicles as comprehensively as possible to the safest models that exist throughout the entire 30,000-vehicle fleet and literally 160 types of vehicles that we operate,” Kerman said. Something like automatic braking, mandated for light-duty non-emergency vehicles, can’t be implemented the same way for police cars and isn’t yet available for heavy trucks, he explained.
For light-duty vehicles, the city is making sure all new vehicle purchases include automatic braking; so far, 1,700 vehicles have them.
“One of the things we know from our analytics is that the biggest single cause of injuries and of claims cost is city vehicles rear-ending private vehicles. We hit you, it’s back and neck injuries and suing, and…rear-ending is the most preventable form of collision and crash,” Kerman said.
In addition, the city is buying, when available, vehicles with backup cameras, backup alarms, power and heated mirrors for weather conditions, and driver alert systems. More than 3,100 vehicles have driver alert systems.
For heavier trucks, fleet staff is installing side guards, which work as a bumper that prevents pedestrians and bicyclists from getting pulled underneath the vehicle during a collision. Currently, 2,700 vehicles have them, with more being installed every day.
The city purchases high-vision trucks when they are available. Also known as cab-forward trucks, they allow for better visibility of pedestrians and bicyclists. “When you talk about trucks in urban areas, the normal heighted driver may not be able to see for up to 25 feet in a conventional truck, and the conventional truck is essentially where the engine compartment sticks out ahead of the truck. You’re kind of looking at the hood,” Kerman said.
2. Increasing driver training
DCAS has led the training of more than 60,000 city employees in an all-day training course. The department also produced a safe truck driving video along with the Department of Transportation, which Kerman hopes other fleet operators, public and private, can learn from as well.
Shahum added that a training feature the city included that she found particularly effective was showing interviews with people injured in collisions or who have lost loved ones.
“This is a way to humanize the issue of traffic safety,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re thinking about these losses of lives not just in terms of numbers.”
3. Installing telematics
DCAS implemented real-time tracking on nearly 23,000 vehicles, including just under 11,000 private school buses. Separately, the police department has telematics devices on its approximately 9,000 on-road vehicles.
Telematics allows managers to track data points such as speed, harsh braking, harsh cornering, acceleration, and more factors that influence safety, allowing managers to help
employees with bad driving habits improve. The city’s telematics system includes a safety scorecard that tracks these points and more. Kerman said in the first year, drivers received an 83; today, the city’s score is a 93.
4. Banning cell phone use while driving
The city has also banned hands-free phone operation for drivers. “Most states and most fleets bar texting and bar handheld phone use, but then there’s been this kind of blind spot to hands-free or the implicit idea that hands-free is safe,” Kerman said. “We do not think that hands-free operation makes it safe.”
5. Tracking Results
Kerman said it’s hard to track the results of individual initiatives, as many were implemented at the same time. It’s also hard to track events that were avoided.
“How do you report an averted fatality? The whole idea of a side guard is a child doesn’t go under the tire and die. They just kind of get bumped away from the car and move on. To some extent, we don’t know how many people we’ve saved,” he explained. But the significant reduction in fatalities since 2014 is one indicator that the city’s fleet changes are working. Another is the reduction in crashes per mile, which have decreased or stayed the same almost every year since 2014. Preventable collisions per 100,000 miles involving city vehicles decreased by 21% from 2014 to 2019, while injuries from these collisions went down by 27%.
On Board with Vision Zero? Here’s How to Start
Jane Terry, vice president of government affairs for the National Safety Council, said the best way to start with Vision Zero or any safety strategy is to get others on board. “Get a cross-section of their public sector organizations within the city to work together on Vision Zero, including those agencies that have vehicles. That may be a trash service, or utility service, a police department, and others,” she said.
Kerman recommended three projects that he believes deliver the best return on investment:
- Automatic braking. For New York City, 40-50% of litigation costs are tied to rear ending. Reducing this cost more than covers the cost of the technology.
- Side guards. “Side guards should be a no-brainer, common-sense part of the design of every truck. We don’t call air bags or turn signals or seat belts an initiative…side guards should just be standard,” Kerman said.
- Telematics. “It goes not just to safety, but it goes to the full operating program of your fleet,” Kerman explained. “Telematics may pay for itself, just on the safety side. But there’s also going to be a return on investment coming from your core business, coming from fuel efficiency.”
When you’re talking about safety improvements, remember that it’s not just about fleet costs and savings. New York City pays well over $100 million in claims cost per year. Reducing that cost should pay for technology upgrades, training, and vehicle upgrades, he said.
“Look at your litigation and your crash rates, your glass and body costs, and your Workers’ Comp costs. See what you’re already paying for these events, and make your investments tied to that,” he said. “That might help push implementation that you otherwise thought you couldn’t [get] a return on investment on.”
Shahum suggested that managing speed is one of the most important factors in reducing serious collisions.
“With Vision Zero, we’re not saying we’re going to stop all crashes. Even I’m not that optimistic!” she said. “People make mistakes. Our goal is to help those crashes be less severe, not to result in fatalities or severe injuries. And the biggest piece that comes down to is managing speed.”