Monday, April 30, 2018

Vision Zero: Realistic Goal or Illusion?

About a week ago, I was involved in a very minor collision that slightly dented my car’s rear bumper cover.  When I took the car to a body shop to get an estimate for the repair, I picked up a magazine published by the American Automobile Association and read about something called Vision Zero. 

Vision Zero is a program aimed at reducing auto-related fatalities to the point that nobody dies (involuntarily, anyway) in a car accident anymore.  It originated with legislation passed in Sweden in 1997, and has since spread to countries throughout the world.  While I am not aware of much U. S. federal legislation pertaining to it, a number of U. S. cities have bought into it, including Austin, Texas, just up the road from me.

There have been auto safety programs ever since there were automobiles, but this one is different.  For one thing, according to the Wikipedia article on it, it consciously rejects the cost-benefit thinking that lies behind so much engineering-ethics analysis.  As a practical matter, we as a society appear to have made the compromise that we want the benefits that cars bring to our lives, and we are willing to pay the price of the 40,000 or so U. S. traffic deaths that happen every year.

Vision Zero rejects this line of thought, and says no amount of driving and the good things it brings are worth one human life.  It asks what we can do to make driving so safe that you’d have to work really hard to kill yourself or another person with a car.  And it turns out, there’s a lot that hasn’t been done yet.

The Vision Zero approach concentrates on roadways and associated infrastructure, and what can be done to make sure that any accidents that happen don’t result in fatalities.  One simple example is intersections.  On streets where traffic is busy enough to warrant a two-way stop sign, you can have a fatal collision if somebody on the side road runs the stop sign and a car on the main road is going fast enough to result in a fatal accident.  One Vision Zero solution to this is to replace stop-sign-equipped intersections with rotaries (traffic circles).  Anyone who’s paying the slightest bit of attention to their driving will see a rotary coming up and slow down before going around it at a speed that might result in a collision, but one that would be little more than a fender-bender, not a fatal crash. 

The same philosophy can be applied to highways.  Vision Zero proposes building medians on any road where two-way traffic goes fast enough that a head-on collision is likely to be fatal, namely a speed of about 43 miles per hour (70 km/hr).  In the relatively small and centrally-governed country of Sweden, maybe this is a feasible goal.  But in Texas, which is half again as large, making all rural roads divided highways would cost many billions of dollars and take years to do, if not decades.  Of course, you could just pass a law limiting the rural speed limit to 45 mph, but Texans are not Swedes, and that law might not be observed any better than the one rumored to be still on the Texas books that prohibits you from carrying barbed-wire cutters in your back pocket. 

A goal that complements Vision Zero has been adopted by Volvo, the automaker that is still largely based in Sweden but now owned by a Chinese company.  In 2016, Volvo announced its intention to reduce auto fatalities in its new vehicles to zero by 2020.  That’s only two years away now, but as of 2016, there were already nine different car models (one of which was a Volvo) in which no fatalities were recorded in the U. S. in the period 2009 to 2012.  Some of these may have been low-volume super-luxury cars that owners treat more like jewels than like transportation, but the fact remains that a zero-fatality vehicle is a real possibility.

Add to the mix the prospect of autonomous vehicles and all the safety-enhancing systems that go with those, and we may have a realistic chance of seeing the day come when dying in a car wreck might be as rare an occurrence as being killed by lightning, which happens to about 50 U. S. residents a year.  I suppose there will always be the occasional suicide or attacker who chooses to use a car as a weapon.  But even these folks may find it hard to defeat the future safety features that will come with autonomous vehicles, even if you choose to drive it by yourself.  The decision of whether to make such features optional or hard-wired is one that car makers will have to ponder.  There will be die-hards who will never adapt to autonomous cars, and there will be others such as disabled people who will be more than happy to let the car do all the driving.  And all of this will have an unknown effect on sales, but by and large I suspect most people will acquiesce in the safety features as long as they don’t keep you from doing what you want to do in normal travel situations.

As for Vision Zero, the only thing that keeps it from happening tomorrow is limited resources.  As I pointed out, making the road infrastructure so that it’s very hard to die in a car wreck costs a great deal of money.  That is why adoption of Vision Zero in the U. S. is spotty, with places like Austin going in for it but other cities hanging back.  With the complicated mix of local, state, and federal funding for roadways in this country, it may be a long time before we see Vision Zero applied with anywhere close to the uniformity that places like Sweden can achieve.  But miracles can happen, and maybe we will get tired enough of reading about senseless and preventable automotive deaths to unite behind a movement that, although I have never seen this phrase applied to it, is really pro-life.

Sources:  In addition to the Wikipedia article “Vision Zero,” I referred to a CNN article from 2016 at  I obtained the estimate of 2017 traffic deaths from  Austin’s Vision Zero website can be viewed at  And as mentioned, I first learned about Vision Zero in a print publication of AAA Texas, although I can’t recall the citation information.

1 comment:

  1. This sounded fine until you started talking about the wonders of roundabouts replacing stop signs.

    A roundabout is in essence a miniature freeway, and like a freeway depends on certain physical properties to work correctly. For example, the diameter has to be wide enough that cars entering the circle are visually reassured that there's sufficient room. If this condition isn't met there's a tendency for someone slam on the brakes on entry, and if there's a car close behind them you can end up with a collision.

    Roundabouts are also pedestrian-hostile, especially when introduced into areas where they aren't the norm.

    None of this is idle speculation on my part. A couple of roundabouts were introduced just down the road from here in a location where there simply wasn't enough room. The result was an increase in congestion and accidents, and eventually the city was forced to face reality and remove them.

    And now I think I know where they got the idiotic idea to do this in the first place.

    This whole thing also reminds me of the "double nickel" campaign 40 years back, where a universal 55 mph speed limit was imposed. The claimed benefits were supposedly going to be a 2% reduction in fuel consumption along with a significant decrease in fatalities.

    What we got instead was a at most 1% reduction in fuel use, no clear reduction in fatalities, and what amounted to a tax on poor people as various jurisdictions used the law as an excuse to increase traffic fines.

    As for the zero-fatality car, I'm sorry, but that's just Volvo PR nonsense. You have only to look at the reported Tesla fatalities to see this. For example, do you really think it's possible, let alone practical, to build cars that will survive being driven off a cliff? Or having the car hit a cement post at over 100Mph? Or when the car was hit from the side at high speed by a dump truck?

    Engineering is hard in general, and due to both the highly over-constrained nature of the problems it deals with as well as the high likelihood of unintended consequences traffic engineering is hard even by engineering standards.

    Pie-in-the-sky schemes like this sound great on paper, but are no substitute for looking at things carefully and realistically.