Traffic deaths in Los Angeles rose sharply despite a high-profile campaign by Mayor Eric Garcetti and other city leaders to eliminate fatal traffic crashes.
In 2016, the first full year that Garcetti’s Vision Zero policy was in effect in L.A., 260 people were killed in traffic crashes on city streets, an increase of almost 43% over the previous year.
Rising traffic deaths appear to be more than a one-year aberration: So far in 2017, crash fatalities are 22% higher than in the same period last year.
When Garcetti announced L.A.’s Vision Zero, he sought a 20% drop in traffic deaths by the end of 2017. This year’s higher fatality rate and some funding questions underscore the challenges the program still faces.
Vision Zero’s advocates say they have spent more than a year analyzing traffic collision data to pinpoint a series of corridors that have seen the most serious injuries and deaths. Some of those streets are due to receive overhauls aimed at slowing down drivers and reducing fatalities.
Los Angeles’ increase in traffic deaths outpaces national trends. In 2016, 40,200 people died in crashes involving cars, a 6% increase over the previous year, according to the National Safety Council.
But several cities with similar Vision Zero policies saw decreases, including New York City, which saw its third straight year of declining traffic deaths.
Seleta Reynolds, the L.A. Transportation Department’s general manager, cited an increase in driving as one reason for the rising number of fatalities. Car sales and car registrations have risen in Southern California, driven by a strong economy and low gas prices.
Drivers are also facing more distractions in their cars, and in some some neighborhoods, more people are choosing to walk or bike, Reynolds said.
In addition, the Los Angeles Police Department is issuing dramatically fewer speeding tickets today, which could be contributing to the jump in fatal crashes.
Reynolds said she is concerned that more crashes involving pedestrians are resulting in deaths. Through mid-March, pedestrian collisions were up 3% compared with 2015, but fatalities involving pedestrians surged 58% over the same period, according to LAPD data.
Reynolds attributes the higher number of pedestrian deaths to vehicle speeds. When struck by a car moving at 20 mph, a pedestrian has a 10% chance of dying, but the risk of death increases to 80% if the vehicle is moving at 40 mph, according to a federal study of crash data.
Pedestrians make up nearly half of the fatalities in traffic collisions, although they are involved in only 14% of total crashes, according to a city analysis of data from 2009 to 2013.
The city saw about 55,350 traffic collisions in 2016, which represents a 7% increase over 2015 and a 20% uptick from 2014. Those crashes include collisions between drivers, between drivers and pedestrians or bicyclists, and hit-and-run and DUI-related crashes.
“It’s shocking,” said LAPD Lt. David Ferry, who sits on the city’s Vision Zero committee. “It’s a number I can’t tolerate as a police officer."
The LAPD’s speeding enforcement is challenged by a state law that prevents officers from using radar to catch speeders unless a new traffic study has been performed in that area.
The number of speeding tickets issued annually has dropped from 100,000 in 2010 to about 17,000 in 2015, according to police data.
Some traffic officers have also been transferred to other duties because of the city’s rising crime rate, Ferry said.
Advocates say Vision Zero needs more money and resources to overhaul city streets in a way that will reduce driver speeds and collisions. But the policy is competing for funding with other transportation priorities at City Hall, including a backlog of broken streets.
The mayor is “committed to increasing the budget to make our streets safer for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists,” Garcetti spokesman George Kivork said in a statement Friday. He said more details will come when the city budget is released in late April.
This fiscal year, Vision Zero received $3.48 million in city funds. Without “significantly more resources,” reducing traffic deaths by 20% this year is unlikely, Reynolds told a City Council panel in February.
Garcetti signed an executive order creating the Vision Zero program in 2015, asking departments to make safety the first priority when planning and building city streets. The order set the ambitious goal of eliminating traffic deaths on city streets by 2025.
Officials spent more than a year studying collision data to pinpoint the city’s most dangerous corridors, and have released a plan that targets about 450 miles of roads. Those streets represent about 6% of L.A.’s network, but see two-thirds of the pedestrian deaths.
Many are broad thoroughfares, including Venice Boulevard in West L.A., Sepulveda Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley and Temple Street in Historic Filipinotown.
This year, the Transportation Department will focus on 40 of those corridors, making changes that could include left-turn arrows, higher-visibility crosswalks and speed feedback signs. On some streets, officials are planning broader and more costly overhauls, including widening sidewalks or adding medians to eliminate traffic lanes, Reynolds said.
“The best tool to reduce the severity of those crashes is for everybody to slow down,” Reynolds said. “You have to remake how the street functions.”
The city also will fund an educational and media campaign focusing on traffic safety, including advertisements on billboards and bus benches.
One potential source of funding for Vision Zero is revenue from Measure M, the half-cent sales tax that Los Angeles County voters approved in the fall. The measure is expected to generate more than $120 billion over four decades, 17% of which will be returned to the county’s 88 cities for transportation projects.
Los Angeles is expected to receive more than $50 million annually from Measure M. Councilman Mike Bonin last week called for the lion’s share to go toward Vision Zero, adding that not funding the program adequately would be “quite literally a fatal mistake.”
City analysts have recommended spending two-thirds of the annual revenue on fixing the city’s broken streets.