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A vision for zero traffic deaths with better street design and car technology

Vision Zero posters show heat maps where accidents most occur on South L.A. streets. Designs for safety improvements are also displayed.
Vision Zero posters show heat maps where accidents most occur on South L.A. streets. Designs for safety improvements are also displayed.
Meghan McCarty/KPCC

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Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled his budget for the coming fiscal year, Thursday, including $91 million in funding for Vision Zero -- the city's ambitious plan to eliminate all traffic fatalities by 2025.

Los Angeles is one of at least 30 U.S. cities working to eradicate deaths from its roadways. Nationally, the plan is to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2050. The Rand Corporation has a new report out Thursday that details exactly how that could happen, and it's not all about making people better drivers.

Rand researcher Lisa Ecola said what's really needed is a paradigm shift in how we think about traffic safety. Historically, we've always put the onus on the driver to drive safely, but Ecola said that's just not realistic.

We know that people are going to make mistakes whether they're impaired or distracted. Humans make mistakes. It's not something we can engineer away. So the idea behind this paradigm shift is let's design a system to be safer so that the roads are encouraging vehicles and helping their drivers drive safely, so when drivers do make a mistake behind the wheel it doesn't have fatal consequences.

Vehicle Technology

Ecola said that vehicle technology is one of the main advances that can help with this preventative strategy. Electronic stability control, which can help a driver control a vehicle if it's starting to skid, is now in more than half of cars on U.S. roads. Automatic emergency breaking, technology that makes a car capable of braking for a driver if it senses an obstacle, is a newer feature that will hopefully become standard in the future, Ecola said.

Road Design

In urban areas, this it's all about intersections, Ecola said, and reducing speeds. Creating sharper turns that require slower speeds is one option. Roundabouts are another way to make intersections safer. 

In rural areas, the focus is on preventing head-on collisions or crashes where a driver runs off the road, Ecola said, which means using tools like rumble strips, medians, and guard rails.

Changing Public Attitudes

This is a long game, Ecola said. Rand hopes public thinking will change to reflect a greater demand for safe roads. She said the recent fatality on a Southwest Airlines flight was the first death on a commercial flight in almost a decade. The reason it got so much attention in the press was that people have come to expect safety in the air. Rand wants the public to expect that same safety on the road.