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Watts: Vision Zero

Cyclists and walkers are some of the most reliable signs of spring and early summer.

As the grass turns green and buds on the trees come out, people venture outside again and start moving around. But unfortunately for them, our roads can be dangerous places.

Last month a man died crossing the road in daylight in Swanton, walking across the road between two gas stations - already the 12th fatality on our roads this year. In fact, this year in Vermont we’ll see - on average - about one fatality or serious injury every day. Forty of them will be cyclists and walkers. Forty people will be killed or seriously injured because they crossed the street, went for walk or got on a bike.

Some say this is simply the cost of having a transportation system. Transportation officials set “safety” goals in which some level of loss is a given. Last month they issued safety goals that project 380 deaths and serious injuries during each of the next five years in Vermont.

Others say it doesn’t have to be this way, and they cite a concept called Vision Zero – as in envisioning a system that produces zero deaths on our roads.

Vision Zero reframes the problem by not accepting that traffic deaths have to happen. That’s why the goal is zero.

It also focuses on road design. For too many years we’ve built roads to move cars at high speeds in a manner safe for drivers and passengers, while putting other users, like walkers and cyclists in danger. Wide, unencumbered roads encourage driving fast. Simply painting fog lines and reserving five feet on each side for walkers and cyclists can slow cars down, preserve space for other users, and save lives.

The Vision Zero approach also brings focus to marginalized and vulnerable communities, as well as those with limited car access and those who use public transit.

But perhaps the biggest - and most controversial difference - is that Vision Zero holds individuals accountable. Drivers who injure pedestrians and cyclists will be penalized.

Twenty cities in the US have already adopted the Vision Zero model, and they’re sharply reducing deaths and injuries.

Sweden pioneered the idea. And with it, they’ve cut traffic deaths in half. They now have one of the lowest rates of road deaths in the world.

Isn’t it time that Vermont implemented the principles of Vision Zero?

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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