There’s a lot more we could be doing to make streets safer. Here are a several examples
Good morning and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Jan. 20.
Yesterday, I outlined some of the reasons traffic deaths are surging in Los Angeles and other communities across California.
Preliminary data show 312 people were killed in crashes on L.A. streets last year. That roughly works out to one person dying in traffic every 28 hours. Half of those victims were people fatally struck by cars while walking. More than 1,500 other road users were seriously injured in crashes last year.
The uptick in traffic violence isn’t unique to L.A.: The death toll is rising on streets across California and the U.S., despite many cities launching programs aimed at minimizing deaths. With so many of those efforts failing to deliver results, what can be done?
Today, I’m highlighting potential solutions that have shown promise in other U.S. cities and other nations.
One caveat before I dive in: There is no singular, easy action that will stop us from killing one another with our cars. It may be tempting to chalk up conditions on our streets solely to driver behavior. I’ve heard variations of it many times over several years of reporting: If people just didn’t drive like maniacs, everything would be better. Not wrong, but also not realistic.
One tried and true fact about humans is that we make mistakes. Every safety improvement we’ve made in more than a century of automobile use is meant to compensate for that fact. Traffic lights, crosswalks, stop signs, raised sidewalks and speed limits are all designed to keep dangerous driving in check. Seat belts, airbags and changes in vehicle frames increased the odds of surviving crashes.
Safety officials typically point to a combination of engineering, education and enforcement — known as the three E’s — as the model for saving lives. But with many communities across the nation experiencing decades-high traffic deaths, there’s been momentum to think beyond that traditional triangle in favor of a “safe system approach.”
Tim Weisberg, a spokesperson for the California Office of Transportation Safety, explained it this way:
“[It’s] a holistic approach to traffic safety that recognizes that we will make mistakes, but they don’t need to result in deadly and tragic consequences. It shouldn’t be a death sentence because of a driver mistake.”
So what does a safe system approach look like? A main component is redesigning streets to be “self-enforcing” — building roadways that encourage slower, more attentive driving. That includes features like:
- Protected left turns separate the time pedestrians have to cross a street from the time drivers turn through crosswalks
- Leading pedestrian intervals give pedestrians a head start at intersections
- Raised crosswalks make pedestrians more visible and signal drivers to slow down to cross through them
- Protected bike lanes provide people on bicycles a separate space to ride, decreasing interactions with drivers
- Daylighting intersections improves visibility by prohibiting car parking near crosswalks and corners
- Curb extensions force drivers to make wider, slower right turns at intersections
- Narrowing vehicle lanes compels drivers to slow down
Unfortunately, for many people, those upgrades come too late — if ever.
Over the last few years, I’ve been reporting on the traffic killing of Alessa Fajardo. She was 4 years old and walking to school in Koreatown with her mother, crossing legally in a crosswalk, when a driver turned left and struck them both. Alessa died from traumatic brain injuries. Her mother, Erica Fajardo, survived.
Over three years later, Erica and her husband, Jaime, are still waiting for the city of L.A. to install signals with protected left-turn arrows at the intersection where Alessa died. L.A.’s Department of Transportation approved the upgrade, but the work remains unfunded.
That speaks to one key challenge, said Madeline Brozen, deputy director at the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies: a disjointed bureaucracy where departments “charged with addressing street safety have to work at the discretion of [local] council members.”
But as many community advocates have expressed, the city’s leaders lack a unified strategy to get safety upgrades built at a meaningful scale. Some councilmembers have killed projects aimed at increasing pedestrian and cyclist safety, citing concerns about slowing down car traffic.
“LADOT hasn’t been able to really aggressively push forward some of their planned projects,” Brozen said.
A couple of small East Coast cities have taken that more aggressive approach in recent years and saved lives as a result.
Hoboken, N.J., recorded four straight years without a single traffic death on city-managed streets. Jersey City just closed out 2022 with zero fatal crashes on its streets.
Those cities are magnitudes smaller than L.A., but Brozen said the key difference is that their leadership enacted “aggressive implementation at scale,” adding safety features that effectively changed driver behavior.
She said it’s also important to shift the messaging on street safety to “recognize that traffic violence is a public health issue.”
“At this point people seem to be getting somewhat desensitized to these annual reports about things getting worse and worse,” Brozen said, pointing to what she and other safety experts call “windshield bias.”
“The majority of people in Los Angeles [and] in the country experience transportation from their cars,” she said. “There’s a much smaller pool of people who are really experiencing [pedestrian] safety concerns on a day-to-day basis.”
She focuses on transportation equity and has been working to empower residents in low-income neighborhoods to advocate for safety improvements on their local streets.
Here’s a few more things we could do to reverse the rising death toll:
We could bring speed limits down. That’s mostly not possible in California because of the way speed-setting rules were written nearly a century ago. Until recently, California cities were mostly being forced to raise speed limits in order to enforce them with radar and laser tools.
The underlying rule was amended through a state bill that took effect last year. Now California cities have the ability to (slightly) reduce speed limits below a traffic engineer’s recommendation, factoring in previous safety concerns and road design.
Should police officers be writing more tickets? Be honest: you’re driving and you see a cop parked, eyeing the road with radar gun in hand. Suddenly your right foot feels much lighter. It might even mosey on over to the brake pedal. You remember how turn signals work.
Of course the risk of a pricey traffic ticket changes our behavior behind the wheel, and if more police officers were out citing dangerous drivers, the assumption is that fewer people would drive dangerously.
But police officers can’t be everywhere, and traffic safety is just one of the duties tasked to them by cities. Plus, biased policing makes traffic stops fraught — especially for Black drivers and pedestrians. There’s a push to rethink the need for armed police to enforce street safety rules.
One alternative being floated: automated speed cameras, which can cite far more dangerous drivers than a traffic cop. New York City began installing speed cameras in hundreds of school zones in 2014. As citations went up, speeding went down. A state bill to create a similar pilot program in a handful of California cities has so far failed to pass.
What could car makers do to make their product safer? Safety officials have made several recommendations in recent years — some designed to make driving safer for us, others to make driving safer from us.
Take drunk driving. Despite a major culture shift in recent decades, alcohol use is a key factor in about 30% of traffic deaths in California each year, according to Wiesberg. But there could be a “real game changer,” he said: making drunk-driving detection systems mandatory in cars.
Last September, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that technology be mandatory in all new vehicles. That means drivers would be prevented from starting or operating their vehicle if the in-car screening registered alcohol in their system.
The agency also wants federal regulators to incentivize automakers and drivers to embrace “intelligent speed adaptation systems” in an effort to prevent speed-related crashes, which account for nearly a third of fatal collisions in California annually (that share is nearly identical at the national level).
That tech would not physically prevent someone from speeding, but it would issue alerts when a driver is exceeding local speed limits to discourage the behavior (as opposed to speed governors, which mechanically prevent drivers from excessive speeding).
That follows the agency’s investigation into a violent, fiery crash in Fresno County on New Year’s Day 2021 that killed nine people, seven of them children. The driver who caused the head-on collision was going nearly 100 mph and had a blood-alcohol level over twice California’s legal limit, according to investigators.
Clearly, adding safeguards that stop people from driving drunk or dangerously fast would mean fewer severe crashes and fewer deaths. What’s unclear is if the NTSB’s recommendation will influence the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates vehicles and the technology in them. The NHTSA has been researching drunk-driving detection technology for more than a decade, but so far hasn’t signaled any move that would require car manufacturers to put that technology to use.
There’s also “Intelligent Speed Assistance,” or ISA, a technology now mandated for new cars in European Union countries. It detects speed limits using cameras or GPS mapping information and can alert the driver when they’re traveling above it. The car could even slow down automatically if the driver doesn’t act fast enough.
We could also restrict car use in urban hubs with lots of foot traffic. Think of places like the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or, more recently, Market Street in San Francisco.
L.A. did a small-scale version of this last year, closing off a section of Griffith Park to private vehicles to make it safer for people walking, biking and riding horses.
Clearly there’s an array of tactics and tools we could be using that we mostly are not. But so far our driver-centered society has been slow to embrace any changes that are perceived as slowing down cars.
Madeline Brozen said that tension is nothing new.
“If we go back to every single [big change] in public health and safety ... you would hear: ‘This was taking away freedom,’” she said. “From installing seat belts to smoking indoors, we’ve heard these complaints time and time again. Then we implement something, the world doesn’t end, and we have a safer society as a result.”
And now, here’s what’s happening across California:
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