By Mac McLean
Moments of tragedy can motivate people to work toward goals that seem out of reach.
Rob Zako’s call to action came in February 2015, when a pickup truck driver killed three young children and severely injured their mother while they were crossing a highway outside downtown Springfield.
“Lots of people cross the street at that intersection every day,” said Zako, executive director of Better Eugene-Springfield Transit—commonly known as BEST—a nonprofit dedicated to improving Lane County’s transit services.
Zako began aggressively urging local communities to adopt a Vision Zero action plan to reduce pedestrian deaths. With help from AARP Oregon and the Eugene Springfield Safe Routes to School Program, Zako persuaded the Eugene City Council last November to adopt such a plan.
These plans commit local officials to work toward eliminating traffic fatalities and severe traffic injuries through the “Four E’s” of Vision Zero’s comprehensive approach: education, enforcement, engineering and emergency response.
Seventeen cities, including Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, have adopted a Vision Zero action plan, according to the network’s website. More than a dozen others are considering one.
“When cities adopt Vision Zero, they make significant changes in how they do business,” said Bandana Shrestha, AARP Oregon community engagement director and a member of Portland’s Vision Zero Task Force.
Older adults make up a disproportionate share of Oregon’s traffic victims. Between 2004 and 2013, people who were 65 or older made up 13.6 percent of the state’s population and 22 percent of its traffic fatalities. People who were 75 or older made up 6.4 percent of the population and 12.5 percent of its deaths.
The fatal accident that motivated Zako occurred when a driver “unwittingly ran a red light” at the intersection of Main and 54th streets, according to law enforcement officials. His vehicle struck Cortney Hudson-Crawford and her three children—ages 4 to 8—while they were in the middle of a crosswalk. The driver wasn’t drinking, according to news reports, nor did he have a history of reckless driving or other serious traffic infractions.
“Our understanding is that the driver got distracted,” Zako said. The traffic light at that intersection was working properly, he added, and the crosswalk was clearly marked.
Steps toward safety
But that doesn’t mean similar crashes are unavoidable, Zako said. He suggested that communities could run massive public education campaigns that identify the busiest pedestrian intersections and encourage drivers to slow down at those locations.
Localities could also lower speed limits around those intersections and ensure there is sufficient enforcement, he said. Other traffic engineering features such as roadway medians would make drivers feel that they were boxed in and encourage them to be cautious.
And finally, cities could increase the number of available paramedics and ambulances so that if there were a wreck, victims could receive medical care as quickly as possible, he said. That might keep a serious traffic accident from becoming a fatal one.
Under the Vision Zero program, a city must conduct a comprehensive study to identify its most dangerous roads and what resources could be used to improve their safety.
Both Portland and Eugene are now making their way through this part of the process.
Shrestha said AARP Oregon is holding its own “NeighborWalks” in Portland and sponsoring walks in Eugene to get more residents walking and thinking about pedestrian safety and what transportation options are available.
AARP also plans to hold pedestrian audits, in which people look at traffic hot spots and gather information, including how long the traffic and walk lights remain on so people can cross, whether drivers slow down or stop for pedestrians, and the condition of sidewalks and curbs. The information will be shared with the Portland task force.
“We want to educate Oregonians about ways they can be safer,” Shrestha said.
Mac McLean is a writer living in Bend, Ore.