Despite the attention-grabbing headlines and TV news reports that make many feel otherwise, life in the U.S. is generally becoming safer. Crime rates are down significantly in most communities. Many deadly diseases have been curbed. Fewer people are smoking. Even air and rail travel is less dangerous than in the past.
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One area that remains stubbornly risky: the nation's roadways, where more than 4,500 pedestrians are killed every year — with 68,000 more injured — by motor vehicles. The 2014 Dangerous by Design report found that Americans are 16 times more likely to be killed crossing the street than by a natural disaster.
"This is the safest time for transportation in history, except for pedestrians and bicyclists," warns U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.
Older Americans are particularly vulnerable, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The pedestrian fatality rate rises significantly at age 45, and by age 75 a person is more than twice as likely as a 16 to 20 year old to die by being hit by a car.
"Many older adults feel imprisoned in their houses and condos because they are afraid — not of robbers but of traffic accidents," says Gil Penalosa, founder of 8 80 Cities, which works around the world to make communities livable for people of all ages.
The saddest fact and greatest opportunity is that all of these deaths are preventable.
The Streets of New York
Even in America's unrivaled pedestrian capital — New York City, where less than 30 percent of trips are made by car — vehicle traffic makes many older people fear for their safety while walking.
"It's scary. Nearly 15 percent of the city's population is made up of seniors, yet we account for 35 percent of the fatalities," notes Jack Kupferman, 60, an attorney and Gray Panthers activist who works on issues affecting older people in the city. "I see that a lot of my friends have more limited mobility as their vision declines or they move slower. This is a public safety issue."
"Transport systems traditionally place responsibility for safety on road users," notes The Vision Zero Initiative, a network of Swedish companies, organizations and government leaders that founded the road safety approach in 1997. "The Vision Zero Initiative puts this responsibility on system design."
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Chief William Bratton agree, which is why they are using the innovative program to eliminate all traffic deaths (pedestrian, bicyclist and motorist) in a city where being struck by a car is now the leading cause of death for children under 14 and the second leading cause of death for older people.
"The fundamental message of Vision Zero is that death and injury on city streets is not acceptable, and that we will no longer regard serious crashes as inevitable," De Blasio wrote in a letter to New Yorkers.
Vision Zero, was enacted in New York City in 2014 with new laws that bolstered enforcement against speeding, dangerous driving and the failure to yield to pedestrians. The laws also lowered speed limits, installed speed cameras, taught street safety in schools and reconstructed several roads for greater safety. The results could be seen immediately.
"In 2014 we had an historic low for pedestrian fatalities," declared Paul Steely White, director of the local walking advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives. "If we can do that here in New York, it can be done anywhere."
Safer Streets Coast-To-Coast
San Francisco, too, is aiming to end all traffic-related deaths over the next 10 years. That city's plan works on five fronts: enforcement, education, engineering, evaluation and policy, says Tim Papandreou, director of strategic planning and policy for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. A major focus is to fix the six percent of streets where 60 percent of all pedestrian and bicycle deaths and serious injuries occur.
"A key issue for older people is having enough time to cross the street — they shouldn't have to run to make it safely," says Tyler Frisbee, policy director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which helped lead the campaign to enact Vision Zero. "The older population is changing. They want to walk and bike and be out more, so we have to change how we design our cities."
The Vision Zero idea is spreading. In April 2015 eight cities with campaigns underway (New York, San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Boston, Seattle, Portland and Washington, D.C.) formed the Vision Zero Network to promote the idea nationally and learn from one another.
Communities from Fort Lauderdale to Pittsburgh to San Mateo, California, are now preparing Vision Zero efforts, says Leah Shahum, director of the new organization. Southern California is emerging as something of a hotbed for the movement, she explains, with Santa Ana, Long Beach, Los Angeles and San Diego all aspiring to cut traffic deaths to zero.
"That's big news in a place so associated with car culture," says Shahum.
A key priority for all Vision Zero cities is protecting the most vulnerable. "Who are the most common victims of traffic violence?" Shahum asks and then answers. "Older people, younger people, people of color and disadvantaged communities. Helping these people will mean safer streets for everyone who drives, walks or bikes."
Startling Success in Sweden
Vision Zero efforts in the U.S. borrow ideas that have been proven to work in the Netherlands, Germany, the U.K. and, especially, Sweden, which enjoys the safest streets in the world. The death rate for Swedish motorists has been cut in half since 2000, and pedestrian fatalities have declined 50 percent since 2009.
The Economist studied Sweden's startling success and identified these actions as critical: lowering speed limits, making crosswalks more visible, narrowing street widths, creating pedestrian streets and erecting barriers to separate cars from walkers and bicyclists.
A basic principle of Swedish road design is that it's more important to ensure everyone's safety than to facilitate drivers' speeds. This differs from the view that prevailed in the U.S. for much of the past century.
"For years the message that bicyclists and pedestrians heard has been: 'You are responsible for your own safety,'" notes Secretary Foxx who, as mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, was struck by a car while bicycling. "Walk at your own risk. Bike at your own risk."
As the nation's transportation secretary, Foxx has set out to make America's streets safe for all in his "Action Plan on Bike and Pedestrian Safety," which proposes many of the same traffic improvements as the Vision Zero activists do.
A Winning Political Issue
Gil Penalosa believes that safer streets can become a winning issue for politicians of all political stripes. "Boomers want to feel safe on the streets, and they vote. People 55 to 65 have the highest rate of voting, then people 65 to 75 followed by people ages 45 to 55. They have the time and the energy and the clarity to work on issues like these, which are good for everyone."
Still, Penalosa worries that many politicians lack a sense of urgency about the problems.
"We need to push them," he declares. "We're talking about people's lives and freedom to move. We can't wait to do this gradually. We can't tell a whole generation of people that we're working on it but it will take a few decades. You won’t be able to age in place. You’ll have to live in fear. But things will be great when your kids get older."
Published October 2015
Jay Walljasper is a writer, speaker and consultant on making our communities great places for everyone and author of The Great Neighborhood Book. He is the urban writer in residence at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and a senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces. Contact him at JayWalljasper.com.