Society worries a lot about murders. They spawn drama, fear and a raft of laws meant to prevent and punish the ultimate crime.
But far more people die in traffic incidents each year — nationally, statewide and here in Omaha — than are slain in homicides.
For example, in 2019, the United States recorded 16,425 cases of murder or non-negligent manslaughter, but 38,800 traffic deaths. Omaha’s 2019 figures: 23 homicides and 36 traffic deaths. (Figures for 2020 are closer because homicide was up everywhere during the pandemic, but traffic fatalities still exceeded murders in Omaha last year.)
The United States, through regulation and automotive engineering, has cut traffic fatalities dramatically from their peak of more than 56,000 in 1972 — though a subset of those deaths, pedestrian fatalities, grew 53% from 2009-2018.
Omaha has joined an international effort called Vision Zero to reduce all of traffic deaths even further.
This is not high-minded folly. Cities have made big, lifesaving differences.
New York City and Seattle, for example, have significantly reduced traffic deaths on streets identified as particularly dangerous. New York cut pedestrian deaths citywide in half in just four years through a combination of enforcement, education and street redesign.
Jeff Sobczyk, a Ralston native hired to be Omaha’s Vision Zero coordinator, said that in Omaha, a stunning 50% of traffic crashes occur on 6% of roadway – a proportion common nationwide.
So as Sobczyk settles into his new job, he’ll be looking for those trouble spots around the city and working toward measures that enhance safety.
That will mean education programs, but also engineering and enforcement steps.
Speed kills, so a big part of this effort is to slow people down. Leaders can ask and educate, and cops can write tickets. But traffic and safety officials are learning to employ a number of traffic calming tactics to slow drivers down and improve visibility.
It can make a big difference to reduce traffic lanes — a one-mile pilot project on Seattle’s Rainer Avenue reduced lanes from four to two, shortened pedestrian crossing distances and provided a dedicated transit lane. Injury accidents were down 30% in the first year.
In Omaha, Sobczyk said, changes to 24th Street on the Creighton University campus employed several techniques that improve safety: A roundabout, bike lane, pedestrian improvements and bus accommodations.
Over time, some streets will have fewer lanes and more back-in angle parking, which Sobczyk says improves drivers’ sight lines. It might take a few minutes longer to get from point A to point B in some spots.
It’s worth it.
Using our public roadways is the single most dangerous thing ordinary Americans do. We do it almost daily and without much thought. If the city can enhance the chances that we all make it home safely, everyone wins.
Speed kills, so a big part of this effort is to slow people down.