Can L.A. Really Reduce the Number of Traffic Deaths to Zero?

The aftermath of a traffic collision in GlendaleEXPAND
The aftermath of a traffic collision in Glendale

For years, Hollywood and Highland was among the most dangerous intersections in the city – at least for pedestrians. Over the last seven years, there were an average of 13 annual crashes at the busy intersection, and an average 10 led to injuries.

Then something happened. Between Nov. 15 and April 30, there was only one collision, between two cars. No one was injured. 

So what happened in November? The city installed a pedestrian scramble. You know, this thing:

Can L.A. Really Reduce the Number of Traffic Deaths to Zero?
Los Angeles Department of Transportation

That's where pedestrians all walk at once in any direction, including diagonally. Then cars get to drive. 

"In terms of reducing the potential for conflict, that scramble is really helpful and makes sense when you have high pedestrian volume," says Nat Gale, a project coordinator for L.A. Department of Transportation. The tradeoff, of course, is that cars have to wait at the red light longer. "There are corridors where that would not be acceptable. In this situation, we determined that the tradeoff was worth it."

The new crosswalk is part of L.A.'s VisionZero initiative, which aims to reduce traffic deaths to zero by the year 2025. That's right. Zero. 

VisionZero is a global movement, of sorts, that started in Sweden in 1997. That year, there were seven traffic fatalities per 100,00 people. By 2014, that number had been cut to fewer than three. By comparison, in the United States, there are 11.6 traffic fatalities per 100,000 people. 

In 2012, Los Angeles had 6.27 deaths in vehicle collisions (LADOT bureaucrats have stopped using the phrase "traffic accident," because they think it implies something unavoidable) per 100,000 people —  well under the national average, but more than any other major city in the country:

"People make mistakes," Gale says. "People are always going to look at their phone while driving or crossing the street. People are always going to have too much to drink and still think they can operate a vehicle. VisionZero can't prevent those mistakes, but it can design a system, educate the public and enforce our laws in a way so that when a mistake does happen, the cost of that mistake is not an individual's life."

The way to reduce traffic deaths and injuries is different for every intersection. At Hollywood and Highland, most of the collisions involved pedestrians. That's not unusual — although only about 15 percent of collisions involve a pedestrian or bicycle, they account for about half of all fatalities. And so many of the streets and intersections that LADOT is targeting first will involve streets where a lot of people walk and bike.

But with Hollywood and Highland, the problem was cars hitting pedestrians while trying to turn. With many other streets and intersection, the goal is even more straightforward: getting cars to slow down.

"One of the biggest indicators for whether or not someone survives a collision is how fast the vehicle was going," Gale says. "Speed kills."

Getting cars to slow down can sometimes create traffic. Take the infamous Rowena "road diet," in Silver Lake. After a fatal traffic collision in 2012, the city took out a lane on either side of the thoroughfare, replacing them with bike lanes. The goal was twofold: make biking safer and get cars to slow the hell down. Many (though not all) nearby residents became apoplectic as, during rush hour, traffic backed up for blocks, and commuters started to use side streets as shortcuts.  

Perhaps the most ambitious part of VisionZero is its timeline: 2025 is nine years away. Getting to zero sure sounds like an uphill climb.

"Not only is it realistic, but it’s the right goal," Gale insists. "It’s hard, don’t get me wrong. It’s going to involve culture change, behavior change and money."

How much money? Next year's budget allocates about $3.9 million for projects like the Hollywood and Highland intersection. But Gale says that will be enough for only two or three projects. 

Says Gale: "We’re going to need multimillions of dollars every year to be really effective, to get to zero."


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