Vision Zero: comparing Australia and the United States

Much of the discussion of “Vision Zero” – a transportation safety way of thinking being discussed in Albuquerque and across the United States – has focused on its European origins. Sweden, where Vision Zero began, is most often discussed, as are the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. But that leaves us vulnerable to the “but Europe is so different!” complaint.

The reality is that many US engineers, planners, and policymakers look at some of the interventions coming out of the safest countries in world, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, and are often unwilling to make similar changes, even when there is an expected safety benefit. It is all too easy to make the argument that, for instance, Denver is not Copenhagen or Amsterdam, and thus, their approaches would never work here. Australia, however, is more similar to the US in terms of transportation, land use, and culture than most European countries. Australia also has a much better road safety record than the US, particularly in recent years. The question this paper sought to answer: why is this the case?

That is from an interesting new paper by Wesley Marshall at the University of Colorado that provides a useful look in the opposite direction at a country that is “more like us” (sadly it is behind a paywall):

Despite similarities to the US in terms of transportation, land use, and culture, Australia kills 5.3 people per 100,000 population on the roads each year, as compared to the US rate of 12.4. Similar trends hold when accounting for distance driven and the number of registered cars.

It was not always like that:

Road Fatalities per 100,000 Population: US vs. Australia (1970–2016)

How did Australia accomplish this remarkable shift? I know y’all hate roundabouts, and some of us have been skeptical that enforcement can really make a difference, but….

Design-related differences include a much greater reliance on roundabouts and narrower street cross-sections as well as guidelines that encourage self-enforcing roads. Policy-related differences include stronger and more extensive enforcement programs, restrictive licensing programs, and higher driving costs.

I am a skeptic of “political will” arguments (Google “green lantern” and “political will”), but Marshall says that’s what it takes, so who am I to argue?

Australia also seems to possess a greater degree of political will and institutional support. This includes the broader reach of their Vision Zero-like policies that, if truly enacted, would represent a fundamental paradigm shift in our approach to how we plan and design transportation systems. Although neither the US nor Australia has quite made that shift, Australia continues to move in the right direction – and is doing so at a much faster pace than the US.

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