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“Why do we allow these deaths to occur?” – A Q&A with Peter Jacobsen


“1 in 55 Americans will die in a car crash*. My job is to say it out loud. Why do we allow these deaths to occur?”
— Peter Jacobsen, P.E., public health consultant and researcher

As I mentioned yesterday, public health consultant and research Peter Jacobsen, P.E., will be in Portland Friday to spread the word about the “Vision Zero” traffic safety philosophy.

(You might recall Jacobsen as the researcher behind the widely regarded and influential “Safety in Numbers” concept. Learn more about that in a recent column on Grist.com by Portland’s very own Elly Blue.)

In a nutshell, the Vision Zero concept is about a total re-thinking of the way we approach street design and traffic engineering polices and practices. To learn more about it, I interviewed Jacobsen over the phone yesterday.

BikePortland: Why are you so motivated to spread the word about Vision Zero?

Peter Jacobsen: 15-20 years ago, traffic-calming was a funny sounding term and not many people knew what it meant. I think Vision Zero is at that same point. The Swedes look at is as, how many people should die?

Look at how we react to people dying in plane crashes. Look at those miners in Chile. Mining used to be dangerous, but now people are concerned about it. There’s outrage that people are dying at work and we don’t accept that… In all these other facets of life we don’t accept death, yet with traffic we do. 1 in 55 Americans will die in a car crash*.

My job is to say it out loud. Why do we allow these deaths to occur?

Peter Jacobsen

BP: Last month, the USDOT released data on a record decline in traffic deaths with a press conference touting their efforts. Do you think they should be striking a different tone?

PJ: The U.S. has the most dangerous traffic in the industrialized world. We’re way down the list with countries like Poland and Slovenia. We have three times the death rate of The Netherlands. In the 1970s, all the industrialized countries had similar traffic death rates. Since then, the U.S. has cut traffic deaths by 57%. Great job right? Well, Canada has cut theirs by 65%, France by 79%, Germany has had an 81% decrease, The Netherlands has cut theirs by 90%. The U.S. has not kept up.

The car industry is not going to tell you cars aren’t safe and the regulatory bodies are going to tell you they’re doing a great job. It’s the nature of the beast. They’re going to walk in step with industry as much as possible so they don’t lose their support.

“We can redesign our roads. It’s ethically wrong the way we design are roads. It’s not going to take a lot of money and we can do it.”

BP: How would you have presented new data on traffic deaths?

PJ: What needs to be said is; look at all these people who are dying. It’s not neccessary. We can redesign our roads. It’s ethically wrong the way we design are roads. It’s not going to take a lot of money and we can do it.

BP: What are some of the key principles of the Vision Zero approach?

PJ: Let’s not focus on all crashes, let’s focus only on the most serious ones — those that lead to loss of life or very serious injuries. I have issues with the Ralph Nader approach… This whole idea that crash-worthiness [of cars] is the issue and that you can survive a crash if you’re big enough. That’s what led us to the whole SUV craze… It’s the I’m-bigger-than-you school of traffic safety, whereas in reality, SUVs have a very high death rate.

Vision Zero focuses on health rather than just crashes. Take side impacts for example. In a side impact, there’s a lot less metal, so let’s design the system so you don’t have side impacts. Get rid of traffic signals and use four-way stops; or better yet, use a roundabout so speeds are down and if there is a collision it’s at an oblique angle.

Reducing speeds is also key. Speeds need to be below 20 mph. When we talk about school zones and home zones, there’s a threshold here [wherein injuries are much less severe at lower speeds]. It’s black and white in my book.

BP: Are there implications/impacts for bicycling with Vision Zero? In other words, what’s this got to do with bikes?

PJ: It would mean better facilities for bicyclists, lower motor vehicle speeds, especially on residential neighborhoods (for kids). It would also encourage more bicycling as its result is less dangerous motor vehicle use. And with less motor vehicle traffic we’ll have more folks willing to bicycle. A virtuous circle.

BP: What do you hope people gain after hearing your talk Friday?

PJ: My audiences are young engineers and planners, the people who are going to be designing the roads of the next 30 years. I’d like to get them to design for the vision of no fatalities, it would have a huge health benefit. Engineers don’t think of themselves as health professionals, but they are. As they make decisions about how to build our public space, how we build our roads, the overall health of citizens should be there criteria.


I asked Jacobsen if he could recommend a source for further reading on the Vision Zero philosophy. He recommended a paper titled, Vision Zero – An ethical approach to safety and mobility published by Claes Tingvall and Narelle Haworth at Monash University Accident Research Centre.

Jacobsen speaks tomorrow (Friday, 10/15) at Portland State University (more details here).

*Several people questioned Jacobsen’s “1 in 55” claim. I heard from PSU researcher Jennifer Dill who pointed out where he got the numbers… (I think the confusion comes from the fact that he’s referring to one in 55 Americans that died from all causes, not total number of Americans).

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