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The Vision Zero Initiative

Let’s start with a bleak bit of statistic: in San Diego alone, there were 68 pedestrian fatalities in 2012 (http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/me/docs/SDME_Annual_Report_2012.pdf), and, although San Francisco remains one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in the US, almost 900 pedestrians are hit by vehicles in this city every year (http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/In-S-F-pedestrian-deaths-shine-light-on-street-5146884.php). While pedestrian fatalities decreased 3.9 percent between 2011 and 2012 in California (source: California Office of Traffic Safety: http://www.ots.ca.gov/OTS_and_Traffic_Safety/Score_Card.asp), this certainly leaves room for improvement and the problem of pedestrian safety remains topical.

The recent death of 9-year-old Cooper Stock in New York brought concerns over pedestrian safety once again into the foreground. According to current legislation, both he and the driver of the car that would kill him were right to act as they did at the moment when the collision happened, since both the car and the pedestrian had the light (http://news.yahoo.com/cooper-s-story--a-preventable-traffic-tragedy-200552242.html). However, the fact that there have been other collisions in the same area (one at the exact same spot) seems to suggest that there is an underlying problem in street design and traffic regulation here that encourages speeding and decreases pedestrian visibility.  

One possible model for improving pedestrian safety comes from Sweden, and is called the Vision Zero Initiative. Their philosophy and guiding principles are deceptively simple and commonsense: “No loss of life is acceptable” and “In every situation a person might fail - the road system should not” (http://www.visionzeroinitiative.com/ ).

Rather than deal in driver responsibility and prosecution, this model tackles the issue from a different vantage point. The question they ask is whether the current system and infrastructure can be modified and adapted to ensure both safety and mobility for all participants in traffic?

As they rightly claim, all high-risk systems, like power plants and airplanes, are designed to handle human error, to predict and prevent accidents and incidents that may and do happen, say when  people do not follow the rules or fail to stay focused. Yet such preventative modelling appears not to play as central a role as it should in modern day traffic.

The idea would be to allow for error and human factor in the very system, so as to be proactive and preempt incidents and fatalities.

This approach then brings to the fore a complex philosophical question of responsibility, and answering it to the benefit of everyone may require some fundamental changes in our mindset. Vision Zero is a concept which questions the idea that safety somehow hampers freedom, mobility and progress. The traffic we have now seems to favor efficiency over safety. But does it have to be an either-or matter?

The Swedish model insists that we, as citizens, need to expect and demand both mobility and safety from those designing the system. It does not place blame on the driver, as the focus is elsewhere. The idea here is that the citizen cannot bear more responsibility for an incident than the responsible person working for and designing the system itself.

So, while this entire approach is based on the conviction that humans are fallible, instead of punishing this fallibility, it understands that we will continue to make mistakes and that punishment is mere after-the-fact reaction that doesn’t necessarily make the situation better. 

Of course, drivers are not deemed above the rules and regulations of participating in traffic; however, the main responsibility is seen to rest on traffic system design and management, addressing the underlying causes rather than just the effects (http://www.visionzeroinitiative.com/).

So does this system work at all, and is it translatable to the US context?

Read about this in our next article called, Does Vision Zero Actually Work - and How?

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