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Nadworny: Zero Tolerance

In 1997, the Swedish Parliament passed a Vision Zero plan, in a serious effort to eliminate road fatalities and injuries. By last year their fatality rate had dropped to 264 - or a rate of 3 people per 100,000 citizens. In the U.S., that rate is nearly 4 times higher.The reason for Sweden’s success is that they don’t just promise Zero Tolerance of traffic deaths; they act on it. They build roads for safety over speed and convenience, and they strictly police violations. In 2012, only one Swedish child was killed on the road, compared with 58 in 1970. In other words, they support their rhetoric with resources.

Zero tolerance means acting, not talking or thinking. It means doing something to reduce the risk that someone can shoot nine people in church in cold blood. It means changing the way we design our streets so that every bike ride doesn't become an exercise in Russian Roulette.

Expressions of sadness and outrage - from President Obama’s speech about the Charleston shootings to an op-ed by the Hinesburg chief of police about the bicycle fatality – aren’t enough. Vermont’s secretary of transportation writes that, like Sweden, Vtrans also has a goal of zero deaths. But goals and desires need to be backed up with action - and laws that have teeth.

If we really had Zero Tolerance for this kind of meaningless loss of life, our society would behave differently. We would pass legislation, fund changes, and enforce violations – as we already do in pursuit of many other goals.

We could fund building safer roads. As the richest most innovative country in the world, we could surely afford it. Some will say that the cost-benefit of improving roads doesn’t make economic sense. But then again, the loss of innocent lives is beyond calculation.

We resist changing our gun laws because of the second amendment – and the desire not to undermine our constitutional rights. But there are ways to protect gun owners who want to defend their families and possessions in their homes, or hunt in our forests, while making everyone else’s life just a little bit safer. And Sweden is just one example we could study for better traffic management.

There are reasonable steps we can take to improve the safety of our streets and public institutions.

Unless, of course, we’re okay with things the way they are. If we aren’t, we need to turn our Zero Tolerances into actionable items in order to avoid more terrible tragedies.

Rich Nadworny is a designer who resides in Burlington and Stockholm.
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