Council Approves Plan to Reduce Traffic Deaths. It Worked in Sweden, But Will It Work Here?

May 20, 2016

The Austin City Council has approved a plan aimed at eliminating deaths and serious injuries on the city’s roads by the year 2025.

The plan, called Vision Zero, is based on a philosophy developed in Sweden in the 1990s. The idea is to treat traffic crashes like smoking – basically, as a public health problem that can be prevented. Last year, Austin had 102 traffic deaths – its highest number ever. There have been more than 20 deaths so far this year.


In the years since Sweden established Vision Zero, the country has cut its traffic death rate in half.  Not exactly zero, but progress. Lauren Cresswell with the community group Vision Zero ATX says actually getting to zero isn’t the whole point.

“Setting the vision and the goal at zero simply symbolizes a mindset, and that mindset is that no death on our street or our roadway is acceptable,” Cresswell said at a city council meeting Thursday.

There are essentially three pillars to the Vision Zero plan: education, enforcement and engineering. Education includes things like campaigns against distracted or drunk driving; enforcement means more police enforcing existing traffic laws; and engineering includes changing road design to make them safer or reduce speeds.

KUT took an in-depth look at Austin's record-setting year of traffic fatalities in our reporting series The Road to Zero. Visit the series and hear some of the stories at roadtozero.kut.org.
Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT

In the Swedish plan, engineering is the main focus. But not everyone agrees engineering is the answer for Austin. Dan Calistrat is a member of the city’s Urban Transportation Commission. He pointed out to council members last night that many deaths are the result of criminal activity, like drinking and driving.

“The notion that requiring 10 years to redesign all our streets with a higher safety factor is cheaper than buying a few more policemen, judges and jails to stop and deter criminal activity borders on ridiculous,” Calistrat argued.

The council approved the plan on a 7 to 1 vote, with three council members absent or abstaining. But there are still details to be worked out. The price tag for the Vision Zero plan’s dozens of recommendations runs into the millions, and no funding has yet been identified.

Miller Nuttle, a member of the Vision Zero task force, urged the council to think of Thursday’s vote as a first step.

“I was on the phone with some Vision Zero advocates from New York City, who have a pretty tremendous Vision Zero plan, but the fight they’re fighting right now is to get funding to actualize the values in that plan, on the street, in the form of sidewalks and better crosswalks and bike lanes and trails,” he said.

Last week, KUT took a deep look at Austin’s traffic death problem and the Vision Zero plan in our Road to Zero series. You can find those stories at roadtozero.kut.org.