Will we ever see a year with zero traffic fatalities? What’s a good goal for your city? What’s a good goal for your family?
These are the kinds of questions that city leaders and individual citizens are grappling with as we work to embrace Vision Zero policies and behavior. It’s a laudable goal, but change can be difficult. A recent article in Fast Company on the subject couldn’t have been more timely: just four days prior, Portland was rocked once again by a tragic and preventable traffic death: fifteen-year-old Fallon Smart was killed while crossing the street, just a few steps ahead of her family. In this case, it’s easy to lay blame at the feet of a reckless driver, who has indeed been charged with manslaughter. But Vision Zero argues that traffic fatalities are failures of design that should take into account humans’ propensity for error. Rather than accepting such violence as the sad price we pay for modern conveniences, Vision Zero avers that life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within society.
Citizens and activists gather at a Safer Streets press conference held after a spate of traffic deaths on Portland streets.
Vision Zero began in Sweden in the late 1990s, but hasn’t taken hold in the U.S. until recently. Since 2012, at least 18 U.S. cities have adopted Vision Zero in their transportation policy (Portland did so last summer). Certainly this is noble stance to take, but as the article points out, what it means in terms of actual changes is unclear. Are people really willing to put safety ahead of convenience? Where does funding for new infrastructure come from? How do we move from vision to reality?
These are complex questions. I don’t have the answer. But it seems to me that Vision Zero requires both a technical shift and a cultural one. We can’t just sit back while traffic engineers do the lengthy work needed to re-design our streets. The rest of us will need to change attitudes about how we share the road. It’s not enough to just shake our heads and hug our own children more tightly. We need to start talking to each other about our collective responsibility for road safety.
One way we can start to do that is to look closely at each crash—not only to internalize the weight of the event, but to try to understand circumstances that can lead in a split second to tragedy. But when reading about a crash in the media, it’s often unclear about what actually happened. The usual street level snapshot paired with a police statement don’t paint enough of a picture. And because most of us are at different times drivers and pedestrians, we need to understand what can happen from all angles. Here are some examples of how simple diagrams can begin to tell the story of what happened:
In this case, a man was hit while crossing the street to catch a bus.
Here, a woman riding a bicycle was killed by a driver turning left across her path.
A terrain view shows how the woman on the bicycle was able to pick up significant speed coming down the hill.
Fat Pencil Studio has developed this way to quickly visualize crashes in order to both bear witness to violence, and examine the particular circumstances surrounding it. We start by selecting the clearest satellite image from various sources, make minor modifications for clarity, then add 3d elements to represent the people and vehicles involved. Symbols show the crash trajectories and point of impact. That’s it. The purpose of these images isn’t to assign blame or to take the place of forensic reconstruction, but to succinctly and clearly convey the known details of each unique story. To start a conversation about how each tragedy might have been prevented.