Our 16-year-old daughter is learning to drive and part of me is terrified. I recognize that driving is a rite of passage in much of the US and I remember how thrilled I was to get my license. I am not so worried about her causing an accident, as she is working hard to become a responsible driver. My main concern has to do with problematic driver behavior and the marked increase in traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries.
Traffic safety statistics, particularly crashes involving fatalities and serious injuries, are headed in the wrong direction in the CRCOG region and elsewhere around the state. This is a deeply troubling trend as our communities emerge from the global pandemic. We regularly discuss this issue at meetings with the CT Department of Transportation (CTDOT) and with our Transportation Committee. As indicated in the chart below, traffic related deaths in our state have steadily increased since 2019. These sobering numbers show a 54% increase from 2019 to 2022, and a 27% increase from 2021 to 2022.
These statistics do not only involve drivers. As shown below, in the CRCOG region alone pedestrian fatalities have increased by over 20% and motorcycle fatalities by 10%.
As measured by UConn’s CT Transportation Safety Research Center, from 2018-2021 crashes involving serious injuries statewide increased from 1,362 to 1,507 or 10.6% before falling back slightly to 1,474 in 2022. For the CRCOG region alone, crashes involving serious injury increased from 347 to 379, or by 9.2%, from 2018-2022.
What is causing this disturbing trend and loss in human life? Our experts see speeding, the increase in larger and heavier passenger vehicles, and distracted, drunk, or drugged driving as contributing factors. Furthermore, our current infrastructure does not adequately accommodate all transportation modes, which puts bicyclists and pedestrians more at risk.
Many experts and commentators have moved from characterizing traffic related accidents to crashes, as the word accident denotes little to no fault on the part of driver or responsible party. Similarly, the term traffic violence has become more commonplace, particularly to describe crashes caused by reckless or negligent driving behavior.
Complete Streets and Vision Zero as tools to improve safety.
What can we do to make driving safer, for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike? CRCOG and our fellow councils of governments (COGs) around the state have been focused on this issue for years, and traffic safety is a key focus of our corridor studies and other projects.
Over the past two decades we have increasingly promoted complete streets, defined by Smart Growth America as “an approach to planning, designing, building, operating, and maintaining streets that enables safe access for all people who need to use them, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders of all ages and abilities” (https://smartgrowthamerica.org/what-are-complete-streets/). The National Complete Streets Coalition was established by Smart Growth America in 2004 and municipalities, counties, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and COGs around the nation increasingly include a Complete Streets approach for new development, redevelopment, and other road reconstruction projects.
It is important to note that there is not one design element or manual for Complete Streets. A complete street may include sidewalks, bike lanes, bus lanes, accessible public transportation stops, frequent and safe crosswalks, roundabouts, and more (https://smartgrowthamerica.org/what-are-complete-streets/). Municipalities across our region have embraced Complete Streets, with many positive benefits.
Vision Zero is a strategy related to Complete Streets and is a more recent focus for CRCOG and other transportation planning agencies. The Vision Zero Network defines the concept as “a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all” (https://visionzeronetwork.org/about/what-is-vision-zero/). Vison Zero was first implemented in Sweden in the 1990’s, then spread to other areas of Europe, and is now receiving attention in the US.
Vision Zero is in many ways a change in paradigm and thinking. Vision Zero starts from the premise that all traffic related deaths and serious injuries are “preventable” and that some level of human failure is inevitable. With Vision Zero , designers incorporate a systems-based approach to prevent fatal and severe crashes (https://visionzeronetwork.org/about/what-is-vision-zero/).
Vision Zero’s systems-based approach relies on designing for human mistakes and limitations, with a significant focus on managing speeds for safety to make crashes less frequent and less harmful for drivers and vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. In my view, this is a powerful evolution in transportation planning as we work to make our roads safer.
CRCOG’s role to advance Complete Streets and Vision Zero.
CRCOG staff have actively participated in the work of Connecticut’s Vision Zero Council. The Council was established by the state legislature in 2021, and functions as an interagency work group tasked with “developing statewide policy to eliminate transportation-related fatalities and severe injuries” involving all road users (https://portal.ct.gov/DOT/VisionZeroCouncil/WhatIsTheVisionZeroCouncil). Through the CTDOT Commissioner’s Office, the Council did submit proposed legislation (RB No. 5917) to the General Assembly this year. The bill is multi-faceted, prohibiting open alcoholic beverage containers in the passenger area of motor vehicles, requiring protective headgear for motorcycle drivers and passengers, and authorizing automated traffic enforcement safety devices, among other recommendations.
CRCOG has recently been awarded a significant grant under the federal government’s Safe Streets for All program (SS4A) and will use those funds to update our Regional Transportation Safety Plan. The safety plan will become the basis for future projects to significantly improve road safety, with an emphasis on the use of the US Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) proven safety countermeasures such as roundabouts, road diets, protected bike lanes, and pedestrian refuge islands.
The Town of West Hartford, one of CRCOG’s member municipalities, has recently established its own Vision Zero Task Force. CRCOG will support the Town in this endeavor, which has the potential to serve as a model for our other communities. By promoting a Vision Zero approach that can operate in tandem with Complete Streets and incorporates the “Safe System Approach as outlined in the National Roadway Safety Strategy, our goal is to change the paradigm for road design to dramatically improve safety across our region. It will take many of us working together to reverse the disturbing trends from recent years and to make our streets and roads safe for pedestrians, cyclists, young drivers like my daughter, and all users of our roadways. We have the tools and more federal infrastructure funding than we have seen in decades. Let’s embrace this challenge, for the benefit of all our residents and our communities.