Traffic fatalities driving safety initiatives

Although much of the conversation about Austin traffic typically revolves around congestion, attention has recently shifted to safety on area roads.

So far this year, there have been 82 traffic fatalities in Austin as of Oct. 13, making 2015 the deadliest year in city history for traffic deaths. The previous record for most traffic fatalities in a single year was 81, set in 1986.

Traffic fatalities driving safety initiatives“Probably at least 50 percent or more of these fatal crashes, whether it involves a pedestrian or a car or a motorcyclist, have some level of impairment,” Austin Police Department Commander Art Fortune said.

APD categorizes a traffic fatality as a death on Austin roads not resulting from suicide or a medical event, such as a heart attack, Fortune said. However, any person who dies because of someone else’s medical event or suicide is counted as a traffic fatality.

Friends, family and advocates gathered Sept. 30 in honor of the lives lost  on Austin roads so far this year. While speaking to vigil attendees, Mayor Steve Adler said Austin has a responsibility to provide safe and diverse transit options to residents throughout the city.

“We as a community must recognize that every death is preventable, and we must make Vision Zero our goal,” Adler said.

Current safety approaches

Austin City Council voted Oct. 1 to incorporate goals from Vision Zero, which seeks to go one year without any Austin traffic fatalities, into the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan. District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, who also chairs the council’s Mobility Committee, said Vision Zero is a goal to strive for.

Kitchen said to her, Vision Zero means no traffic fatalities that could have been prevented by city or public safety programs.

Traffic fatalities driving safety initiatives“We have to understand that there will be times that even with the safest road there’s nothing that could be done about [fatalities], but I don’t think that’s contrary to Vision Zero’s goal,” Kitchen said. 

Kitchen and her Mobility Committee have also worked to better regulate transportation network companies, or TNCs, such as Uber and Lyft. Advocates of such ridesharing services claim the added transportation options help reduce the number of drunken drivers on Austin roads.

Austin’s Transportation Department is also working on right-sizing roadways throughout the city—what some refer to as “road diets”—by reducing the amount of lanes on a road, usually to create a dedicated center turn lane and bike lanes. ATD Director Robert Spillar said the changes help make roads safer for drivers as well as pedestrians who may be crossing where they are not supposed to be doing so. 

Improvements are also being made at the five intersections identified as the most dangerous in Austin. City Council provided funding for the changes in the latest city budget, and improvements began Oct. 1.

APD also leads a variety of programs to combat traffic issues, such as its Don’t Block the Box campaign that enforces against motorists stopped in intersections during peak traffic periods and periodic “no-refusal” weekends. There is also the hands-free law, which went into effect at the beginning of the year. However, Fortune said APD is not capable of monitoring every motorist.

“The biggest thing that would help us is if people were being the most responsible person they could be, whether they’re a pedestrian or bicyclist or a motorcyclist or motor vehicle operator,” Fortune said. “We understand mistakes will be made, but some of these mistakes we’re seeing are just so dangerous.”

Traffic fatalities driving safety initiativesNic Moe, member of the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Council and Vision Zero task force, said the blame needs to stop being placed on victims of traffic incidents and fatalities.

“There’s a huge element of personal responsibility, and a lot of it is on drivers,” Moe said. “Motorists have to understand that … there’s a huge responsibility that we’ve forgotten about as a society when you get behind the wheel of a 1- or 2- or 3-ton vehicle, which is a giant bullet traveling as fast as you want it to go.”

Spillar said pedestrians can also improve their safety by wearing bright colors or even blinking lights similar to those sometimes used by bicyclists.

Future proposed solutions

Improvements to Austin’s transportation system may result from a partnership between the city and Rocky Mountain Institute, or RMI. The organization is embarking on a long-term process to study Austin’s existing traffic issues and work with government entities, businesses, nonprofits and other stakeholders to develop solutions.

Many solutions likely to emerge from the partnership may hinge on advancing technology to inform and assist residents about transit options, RMI Managing Director of Mobility Jerry Weiland said. He also called on Austinites to change their mindset from only using single-passenger vehicles to embracing various forms of shared transit that can make transportation cheaper for users as well as reduce congestion on Austin roads.

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“One of the particular areas we’ll be working in is the consumer behavioral change that’s required,” Weiland said. “People tell us they want different solutions; they want out of this congestion … but they don’t know where to turn.”

Adler said he hopes the community will also consider alternative modes of transportation they can use daily, and he anticipates RMI helping to identify ways to make non-vehicle transit more convenient.

“I think you set up a transit system that’s initially about serving the greatest number of people as possible as opposed to focusing on the coverage area, but then I think you grow into the coverage area,” Adler said.

Adler envisions one day being able to reserve a parking spot before arriving at a destination and other alternative transit options to improve the overall transportation experience in Austin. Weiland said he anticipates development and pilot programs occurring in targeted areas of the city beginning in early 2016, with more commuting alternatives available by the middle of next year.

Adler said he is uninterested in one often-touted solution: adding more lanes for more cars on Austin roads. The additional lanes Austin may need now would not be adequate in 10 years because of the rapid growth of the city, and congestion would resume, he said. However, he said he thinks the number of people traveling in Austin using a car will decrease in the future.

“Part of that’s generational,” he said. “Younger people in our community are less inclined to own a car or be reliant on a car.”