People cross Annapolis Road in Bladensburg, Maryland.  Image by the author.

Prince George’s County launched its Vision Zero safety campaign at the end of July, joining many other jurisdictions in the region who have passed the transportation safety program. Vision Zero aims to eliminate all transportation-related fatalities and serious injuries for people walking, bicycling, using transit, driving, or using any mode.

The program is much-needed in Prince George’s, which saw 99 traffic deaths last year, many of them people on foot or bike. Now Prince George’s joins Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland; Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties in Virginia, and the District of Columbia, which have all adopted Vision Zero. While Prince George’s County hasn’t yet established a date to achieve Vision Zero, it has initiated a working group to develop a Vision Zero strategic plan, including timelines.

It’s important that Prince George’s leadership and the Department of Public Works & Transportation support the program and recognize zero deaths as a legitimate goal. To work towards this vision, the county has established a framework called the “Six E’s.” It expands upon similar programs, such as Safe Routes to School, to comprehensively address transportation safety. The Six E’s requires coordinating and implementing education, emergency response, engineering, enforcement, evaluation, and equity approaches.

Prince George's County aims to achieve Vision Zero through a "Six E's" approach.

Vision Zero is hard to do

Simply put, Vision Zero is difficult to achieve. One reason it’s difficult is because it requires changes that aren’t big-picture umbrella policies, but rather necessitates very specific steps that may require a substantial shifts in philosophy and professional practice. These changes are often detailed and nuanced, and can’t always be made quickly.

The next step for the county is to identify what policies, practices, and regulations that need to be realigned to achieve Vision Zero. Prince George’s Six E’s framework is useful for identifying these, especially engineering, enforcement, and equity. Let’s take a look at those three.

1. Engineering: Over time, the transportation network has evolved into a system aimed at facilitating automobile traffic. There are many reasons for this outcome, including generational changes in attitudes, car-centric approaches to land use, federal financing for highways, and successful marketing equating cars with freedom and independence.

The result is a transportation system that prioritizes automobile movement over safety, and the movement of people using other modes. This creates complicated safety dynamics when motor vehicles and more vulnerable road users such as people on bicycles or scooters are expected to interact.

Motor vehicle primacy is reinforced in roadway design and in professional practice. Most roads are built with a structural flexibility and forgiveness toward driver error, while expecting perfect behavior from people on foot or bike.

For instance, many roads are built with a “design speed” that usually exceeds the posted limit and accommodates motorists who drive too fast. Many roads have a “clear zone” for cars to safely stop if they go off the road, and the road signs and street poles that are built alongside the road and sidewalk are designed to “break away” when impacted to reduce motorist injuries. The latter two are valuable safety measures, but additional consideration needs to be made for people walking, riding bicycles, or using transit.

People walking, bicycling, and driving use University Boulevard. Image by the author.

Roadway designs have been developed over time, and many are standardized across jurisdictions. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is a nationally-recognized guide that defines how all traffic control devices should be used. However, much of this guidance centers on cars. Take the MUTCD’s guidance for installing a traffic signal, for example.

Before a signal can be considered, at least one of nine criteria needs to be met, and of these nine criteria, six are designed to address and facilitate motor vehicle traffic. (If a criteria is met, that doesn’t necessitate a new signal, it just means that it can be considered.) It is wholly appropriate for traffic signals to be used to improve the flow of motor vehicle traffic, and these criteria (known as “warrants”) are a useful tool to guide those signals.

However, while adding traffic signals to an intersection is a recommended approach to improve safety for people walking, these warrant studies are often obstacles to installing a signal solely to protect pedestrians. A new set of standards or requirements for signalizing an intersection to maximize safety for people walking could help achieve Vision Zero.

2. Enforcement: Transportation enforcement, i.e. making sure everyone follows traffic laws, has evolved alongside the transportation system, and it also tends to prioritize motorists over other road users.

For instance, if a collision were to occur at an intersection, the police report would note if the pedestrian was within a marked crosswalk, suggesting that they are at fault if they were not in a marked crosswalk. However, not all intersections have marked crosswalks. The Maryland MUTCD includes “unmarked crosswalks,” which are legal crossings for pedestrians who do not have the painted markings. No matter what, motorists are required to stop for people on foot. This can make enforcement difficult if the presence of a crosswalk is needed for a collision report.

After a collision between a person driving a car and someone walking, the report also notes if the pedestrian was wearing dark colors, further suggesting they may be at fault. The report doesn’t ask if the motorist was using their headlights or paying attention.

It can be very difficult to establish new regulations for motor vehicles. In Maryland, speed cameras, which have been shown to reduce illegal speeding, have strict restrictions on where they can be placed. They are only allowed near school or work zones, and can only enforce speeds during certain periods of the day.

Amending speed camera legislation to permit more consistent use across the state would likely increase safety and help achieve Vision Zero. This is a real opportunity for Maryland legislators to affect positive change.

Equity: Prince George’s County does well to explicitly identify equity as a component of Vision Zero, and to emphasize the need for safety resources in low-wealth neighborhoods and communities. The challenge for achieving equity is implementing policies, programs, and regulations that don’t treat each mode equally, but rather tailor laws and practices around each one to maximize safety for everyone on the road.

For instance, distracted driving and distracted walking are often discussed in tandem and treated equally. However, the potential safety impacts between the two are vastly different. A person walking distractedly can cause a fatal collision in which they themselves are killed, while a person driving distractedly can cause a fatal collision in which they kill someone else.

To achieve equity, there needs to recognition that everyone is not only responsible for their own safety, but is also responsible for not putting others in danger. More efforts to reduce distracted driving are needed, because there is much more opportunity to put others in danger when operating a car than while walking or bicycling.

No one said it would be easy, but it is worthwhile

Achieving Vision Zero is going to take time, resources, and effort from elected officials, roadway agencies, public safety agencies, health groups, community groups, and the public, among others at both state and local levels. It will also take an introspective assessment of our current policies, practices, and perspectives to identify what policies and procedures must be changed.

With the Six E’s approach, Prince George’s County is off to a good start. Hopefully it continues this momentum to make our streets safer for all.

Bryan Barnett-Woods is a transportation planner in Prince George’s County with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. In addition to bicycling and rowing, Bryan likes nothing more than a good walk in the city. He lives in Cheverly with his wife and young son. The opinions expressed in this post represent Bryan’s opinions only and do not represent the opinions of his employer.