On Our Roadways, Speed Kills

Sunday is Day of Remembrance for traffic victims.

Leah Shahum is the director of the Vision Zero Network.

It seems hard to believe: Each day in this country, about 100 people die in traffic crashes. That’s the equivalent of a medium-sized, regional commercial plane going down every day. The impact of that number -- which increased to 35,092 traffic deaths last year – is hard f​or most of us to comprehend.

But this Sunday, November 20th, on International World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, communities across the nation are organizing to focus attention on this staggering loss of life and to organize for the prevention of such tragedies in the future.

From Los Angeles to San Antonio to Boston and many places in between, those who have lost loved ones will be joined by Mayors, Chiefs of P​olice and other community leaders in vigils, rallies, and memorial walks. They will come together to remember those lost and to call on policymakers to step up their urgency in prioritizing safety over speed on our roadways.

These communities are part of a growing movement in the U.S. to reach Vision Zero — the goal of zero traffic deaths and severe injuries. More than 20 U.S. cities have already made official local Vision Zero commitments. And the U.S. Department of Transportation, in partnership with the National Safety Council and others, recently laid out its plan to eliminate traffic fatalities nationwide in its Road to Zero effort.

Communities Call for Safety Over Speed


Vision Zero supporters are urging decision makers to implement policies and actions that prioritize safety over speed, pointing out that nearly one-third of traffic deaths in the U.S. involve excessive speed.

The Vision Zero Network, in partnership with the National Coalition for Safer Roads, released a new, interactive national Speed Fatality Map highlighting the 59,374 speed-related fatalities that occurred in the U.S. between 2010-2015. The map allows viewers to find out how many speed fatalities occurred in a particular community, all the way down to the actual street location.

Managing speed is one of the most effective ways to prevent severe injuries and death in traffic crashes. A report released a few months ago by the Centers for Disease Control shows that the U.S. lags far behind our international peers when it comes to ensuring safe mobility.

Excessive speed has a significant impact on the severity of traffic crashes and injuries. For instance, the chances of a person walking surviving a collision with an automobile decrease sharply as speeds approach and exceed 30 mph. For this reason, more communities are pursuing physical, legal, and cultural strategies to reduce maximums to 25 mph or less in areas where people on foot and on bikes frequently share space with people in cars. Within just the past month, both Boston and Seattle have lowered their speed limits as part of their commitments to Vision Zero.

The top strategies for managing speed fall into three categories:​

  • Designing and retrofitting roadways to calm traffic and encourage safe behavior that prioritizes the preservation of human life. Changing the way streets work isn’t easy, but it’s the most effective way to improve road safety and usability. Political leadership, community support, and design know-how are all essential to reshaping the roadways to be more forgiving, easier to navigate, and safer for all.
  • Lowering speed limits to levels where the consequence of crashes is less likely to be fatal
  • Using automated safety camera technology to discourage dangerous speeds. Washington DC, NYC and Chicago and other cities all have promising records of saving lives with safety cameras, or automated speed enforcement.

Local World Day of Remembrance events across the nation are using creativity and engaging communities to reach the goal of Vision Zero: zero traffic deaths or severe injuries. Some planned activities include the following:

  • In Los Angeles, (which ranks highest in traffic deaths over the past five years and has adopted a Vision Zero goal to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2025), advocates and City leaders are organizing a Day of Remembrance Road Concert. The project will invite people to share works of art — including installations, spontaneous readings and music — in public spaces; the art will reflect on solutions to problems such as texting and driving and how transportation systems reflect the nation’s race and class inequities.
  • In San Antonio, (a Vision Zero city that ranks fifth in traffic fatalities nationally), families of victims will participate in a vigil and memorial walk. It will conclude with the unveiling of a new memorial sculpture where people will share personal mementoes remembering lost loved ones.
  • In Boston, another Vision Zero City that recently lowered its default speed limit, community members will rally on the steps of the Massachusetts State House after a memorial bike ride, walk, and vigil.
  • North Carolina has committed to Vision Zero and will commemorate World Day of Remembrance with an art exhibit displaying a pair of shoes for each life lost in traffic crashes in the state.

Additional​ World Day of Remembrance events are planned in New York, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Austin, Jacksonville and other cities.

World Day of Remembrance activities can be shared and followed using the following social media hashtags: #WDR2016, #CrashNotAccident and #SpeedKills.

Using these links, you can learn more about the World Day of Remembrance; the new Speed Fatality Map; and the ongoing work of the nonoprofit Vision Zero Network.

Each year, I put together Injury Facts, the most complete volume of injury and fatality data in the United States, and that includes our annual update to the “Odds of Dying” section. Doing that this year reminded me of the fundamental intent of this section: We don’t publish those pages to amuse readers with the rarity of a few deaths, but to alert them to the commonality of most other deaths.

It’s important to help people stay alert to the real threats. This is something that NSC has been doing, in one form or another, for years. Injury Facts and Odds of Dying have been around for 90 years, while the NSC Safety Checkup​ was unveiled just this year. In both instances, the Council works to share with people the actual risks they face and how they can reduce those risks.

For instance, the lifetime odds of dying in a car crash are one in 113, of dying from a fall one in 133, and of dying from accidental poisoning one in 103. By contrast, your chances of dying from an airplane crash, a bee sting or a lightning strike are, respectively, one in 9,737, one in 64,706, and one in 174,426. So why are so many people scared to fly, while so many other people are willing to drive and text at the same time?

The reality is, people get comfortable over time with some risks. Driving is something many of us do every day, and we’ve grown at ease with it, despite the fact that 38,000 people a year die on our roadways. Bee hives or electrical storms, meanwhile, are far less common and therefore provoke greater stress, despite the fact that bee stings and lightning combined kill fewer people in a year than the nation’s roads kill in a day. By sharing this contrast in Injury Facts, we want people to focus on the things more likely to happen to themselves and their loved ones and do what they can to prevent those incidents.

We do come across new information, of course. This year’s Injury Facts report showed us that contracted employees represent 17% of all workplace fatalities, but at construction sites, contractors comprise 52% of fatalities. We attribute that to the large number of contractors in the construction industry as well as the likelihood of them being less familiar with their job site, not being fully trained on safety procedures and being uncertain as to who was the primarily safety officer for their position. We are hopeful that sharing news of this new trend will result in changes at construction sites around the country.

But this trend and its impact is minimal when compared to the year-in, year-out effects of distracted driving, opioid abuse and falls; that’s why we work so hard at NSC to help people discern between the “scary but rare” and the “daily and deadly.” Doing something every day doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous, and if you keep that in mind, you and your loved ones will be a little bit safer.

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