Philbrick: How many people will die on our roads this year?
A lone pedestrian crosses the intersection at Market and San Carlos streets in March 2021. File photo.

Stop for a moment and think of 40 people you know. Think of their names, their faces. Now imagine them gone from your life forever.

Forty people have died this year in San Jose in road collisions. Last year, 42,795 people—the population of a small city—died in collisions across the United States. When we read these numbers, it’s easy to forget they are more than digits on a page. If we stop to take in each number as a life, we can begin to wrap our heads around the true horror and the critical need for Vision Zero.

Vision Zero started in Sweden in 1997 as a vision of a transportation system that recognizes that even one death is too many. The Vision Zero Network nonprofit in the United States assists communities in recognizing the public health crisis happening on our roads and helps them mobilize to take action. But what action? Aren’t the 42,795 deaths and many millions of injuries terrible, but inevitable accidents?

This way of thinking has dominated our car-centered culture for decades. In the U.S., road traffic fatalities increased 3% annually between 2011 and 2021. Data trends in that same decade indicate one critical consistency: there is a correlation between regions with high car dependency and those with highest per capita fatality rates.

Frequently, cities with poor transit infrastructure have some of the highest traffic fatality rates. For example, cities such as Albuquerque, Atlanta, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa have some of the worst rates in the country. While cities with better transit infrastructure and less car dependency, including San Francisco, Seattle and New York, have much lower rates. For comparison, San Francisco experiences about four deaths per 100,000 people a year, while Albuquerque sees almost 14. Thus, continuing the shift toward more sustainable, accessible public transit and away from car-centered culture is key.

For now, the Federal Highway Administration is working to help us shift away from the idea that road collisions that cause serious injuries and fatalities are just a price to pay for modern infrastructure. The highway administration now operates with a vision of zero deaths through the implementation of a Safe System approach founded on the principles that humans make mistakes, but that a safe system can stop mistakes from leading to death.

According to the highway administration, there are six principles forming the basis of the Safe System approach: deaths and serious injuries are unacceptable, humans make mistakes, humans are vulnerable, responsibility is shared, safety is proactive and redundancy is crucial.

What does proactive safety look like? We can begin by identifying contributing factors to road collisions. Last year in San Jose, 8-year-old Jacob Villanueva was struck and killed while using a crosswalk on the way to school. How many deaths, like the death of Jacob, could be prevented if drivers slowed down, paid more attention to their surroundings, fully stopped at crosswalks? How do we protect vulnerable road users, including pedestrians?

Speeding, alcohol- or drug-impaired driving, distracted driving, drowsy driving and not wearing a seatbelt are some of the riskiest behaviors that increase the likelihood of fatal crashes.

In San Jose, 33% of road deaths have been linked to driving over the speed limit, and speeding continues to be a dominant factor of road deaths in California and nationwide. Pausing to think again of these digits as lives, we have to acknowledge that, in 2021, speeding killed 12,330 people across the U.S.

In some places, technology has been called upon to address this deadly human error. U.S. cities like Seattle and New York have implemented automated traffic enforcement cameras, which according to the National Transportation Safety Board can reduce the number of severe and fatal crashes by as much as 51%. Earlier this year, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 645 and is now moving forward to bring speed safety camera pilots to six cities in California.

Distracted driving, especially texting while driving, is another major contributor to fatal collisions. Drivers using cellphones are approximately four times more likely to be involved in a crash because using a phone while driving slows reaction times and makes it difficult to keep in the correct lane and at correct distances. Although many believe hands-free devices are the exception, research has shown they give a false sense of safety and can still contribute to slower reaction time and less awareness. Still, not even half of U.S. states prohibit drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving.

We all know impaired reaction time kills. Every day in the U.S., drunk-driving related crashes kill one person every 39 minutes. These deaths are preventable. Research has shown driving-under-the-influence laws can serve as deterrents for impaired driving. But many other factors influence DUI rates, and a multi-pronged approach of media campaigns, education, intervention and treatment and increased patrols works to save lives.

How many more people will die on our city’s roads this year? What are we doing, right now, to prevent these tragedies? Recognizing that traffic deaths are preventable is the first step. Shifting our mindset to safety first in our communities is critical, as is advocating for individual change and broader policies.

Put down your phone while driving. Call your friend a taxi. Slow down. Save lives.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.

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