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Vision Zero Faces Challenges in Eliminating Traffic Fatalities in Charlotte

Bumps in the road

In response to a troubling increase in traffic fatalities over the past decade, the city of Charlotte developed the Vision Zero program in 2018 as part of Charlotte Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) 2019-2030 Transportation Action Plan, with a goal to bring down the number of crashes and traffic-related deaths and injuries on Charlotte streets.

Patterned after a safety program started in Sweden in 1997 that focused on how people naturally behave to help eliminate or minimize those mistakes from becoming more serious, Vision Zero set a goal to reduce the number of fatal car crashes in our city to zero by 2030. In the time since, the number of traffic-related deaths has only risen, and at a faster rate than should be expected due to population growth.

Between 2012-2016, 238 people were killed on Charlotte’s streets, an average of about 48 people each year, an alarming increase from the average of 39 traffic fatalities in the previous five years. Then in 2017, 71 crashes resulted in 74 deaths on Charlotte streets. It was the third consecutive yearly increase in traffic fatalities, and that’s without including the 27 pedestrians killed that year.

The city responded in 2018 by developing Vision Zero, which was adopted by Charlotte City Council in 2019. While much of the first two years of the program has consisted of research and analysis, CDOT has begun implementing safety measures on city streets over the last two years. Still, traffic deaths have continued to increase.

The city saw 81 traffic-related fatalities in 2020, and as of October this year, the most up-to-date information CDOT could provide us, there were 61. These rising totals have raised questions about whether the Vision Zero solutions will be enough or if help will be needed from state legislators to enact stronger measures such as camera enforcement.

Challenges for Vision Zero

The main cause for most car crashes and traffic fatalities in Charlotte is the most obvious one: speed. Of 81 lives lost to traffic fatalities in Charlotte in 2020, 43 were due to crashes that involved speeding.

Maj. Dave Johnson of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department told Charlotte City Council on Oct. 7 that the department is doing its part by implementing “saturation patrols” and checkpoints along the city’s most problematic corridors, known as the High Injury Network. However, reporting from WFAE found that CMPD has made far fewer traffic stops for speeding over the past decade as traffic deaths have more than doubled.

On a Dec. 7 episode of WFAE’s radio show Charlotte Talks, Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said speeding and unsafe driving have been the top concern she’s heard from constituents throughout her tenure on city council.

“We have changed the culture of driving in this city,” Eiselt told host Mike Collins. “I remember a time when you would drive through the city and see a police car on the corner waiting for speeders and you just don’t see that anymore.”

She cited the police department’s shortage of officers and focus on violent crime as potential reasons for the lack of enforcement, and advocated for automated enforcement, something she has consistently pushed council to explore further during her tenure.

CMPD had not responded to requests for comment for this article at the time of publication.

Solving traffic safety involves more than slowing down; inattention also plays a role in many crashes, according to CMPD reports. According to CDOT’s traffic safety and Vision Zero manager Angela Berry, inattention doesn’t necessarily mean someone is driving and texting or fiddling with their radio, it can also refer to drivers whose minds are elsewhere, thinking about what they’re going to cook for dinner or getting their kids to whatever activities they need to get to.

“It takes a very focused effort to keep your thoughts on what’s going on around you. How far are you following the car in front of you? Are you speeding?” Berry said. “Especially if the flow of traffic is speeding, it’s very easy if you’re not paying attention to not realize you’re speeding too because you’re just keeping up with traffic.”

In Charlotte, more than 6,147 crashes involved distracted drivers in 2020. This also plays into why the Vision Zero team calls them crashes instead of accidents. It’s a purposeful use of phrasing, Berry said.

“Traffic crashes are fixable problems. They are not accidents,” she said. “My perspective is the word accident implies no causality, and there’s always a cause behind a crash, whether it’s glancing at a text from their wife, impaired driving, or [they] took a curve too fast and weren’t wearing their seatbelt.”

About 40% of people killed in crashes each year on average aren’t wearing their seat belts, though the number was closer to 35% in Charlotte in 2020. It’s one of multiple factors Berry puts in the “poor choices” category, along with driving while impaired and texting while driving.

There are also more complex obstacles inherent in Charlotte’s infrastructure that pose challenges for the Vision Zero team.

“There are 50-plus years of auto-centric development here in Charlotte where we built roads to get you from A to B in a direct line as quickly as possible,” she said.

traffic in Charlotte, Vision Zero, bike lanes
The Parkwood bike lanes opened in October. (Photo by David Flower)

Part of Vision Zero’s job will be informing decisions around new street designs and road improvements, a job that will take decades to truly make an impact. This includes pushing for more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure such as the bike lanes that opened on Parkwood Avenue in October, which took years to come to fruition. 

“While we would love to be able to undo 50 years of auto-centric construction with the wave of a wand, it will take time and commitment from us and our residents to make the needed infrastructure and perspective changes so we may all travel safely,” Berry said.

What’s been done so far

While much of the public discussion around Vision Zero has been about installing speed and red-light cameras, state law requiring permission from the state legislature to do so has pushed that idea to the bottom of the priority list. Berry’s team is focusing on more short-term solutions.

In its first three years, the program has adopted a number of procedures aimed at making the streets safer for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. The process to implement these procedures began with identifying areas in Charlotte with a historically higher incidence of fatal and serious injury crashes.

It’s called the High Injury Network (HIN), a working document of a map that staff is constantly updating so as to identify improvements that could be made to address fatal and serious-injury crashes happening along those corridors in real time. This includes analysis of speed limits, street lighting and signage, among many other potential variants.

Since implementing Vision Zero, the city has improved lighting on 93 segments of the HIN, transitioning from high-pressure sodium lamps to LED lamps, which provide better visibility, consume less energy, and alert CDOT to outages so they can be replaced more quickly.

CDOT has also lowered speed limits to 25 mph on 181 local streets for traffic-calming purposes, and regularly analyzes the need to lower speed limits on other streets upon request, three to five of which come in every day, Berry said.

traffic safety in Charlotte, Vision Zero, pedestrian safety
A pedestrian hybrid beacon on North Graham Street. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The Driver Feedback Sign Program is another piece of Vision Zero that’s been rolled out in its beginning stages. Placed below speed limit signs, a driver feedback sign flashes a driver’s speed back at them and orders them to slow down if they’re going too fast. There are currently 15 of the signs located around the city, rotating placements every six weeks, and the city is looking to double that number to 30 in the near future.

Additional new technology includes pedestrian hybrid beacons, which allow pedestrians to control a stop light on high-volume streets such as South Boulevard; and rectangular rapid flashing beacons (RRFB), which help people cross high-volume streets by alerting drivers to their presence using strobe lights. As of October, RRFBs had been installed in five locations around the city, including at Central Piedmont Community College’s Uptown campus.

Would red-light cameras help?

During public discussions at Charlotte City Council meetings, much of the talk has centered on automated traffic enforcement, using technology such as speed cameras and red-light cameras. Charlotte operated the SafeSpeed program from 2003-06, which utilized speed cameras, though the legislation allowing them to do so required that a CMPD officer also be present to log speeds with a radar gun.

The legislation also named 14 specific locations in Charlotte where CMPD could implement the program, not allowing for any other options, and based those locations on their proximity to schools, not crash data. The legislation expired in 2007 and the program was terminated.

Red-light cameras are used more widely in North Carolina and around the country. The cameras are deployed at intersections with stop lights, where they detect vehicles that pass the white stop bar after a light has turned red, triggering high-speed cameras that take photos of the violating car, then mail citations to the owner of the violating vehicle.

Charlotte discontinued its previous red-light camera program in 2006 after the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that 90% of civil penalty proceeds must go to the local school board, making it too costly for the city with little return.

The data on red-light cameras show mixed success, with most studies finding they do cut down on angle crashes — which tend to be more severe — but often lead to more rear-end collisions, as cars attempt to stop short when they see a camera.

The largest study on red-light cameras in this country to date, carried out by the Chicago Tribune in 2014, collected data from 90 intersections with red-light cameras installed. After three years, the study found an unremarkable difference in crashes at those intersections — one that was within the study’s margin of error.

traffic in Charlotte, Vision Zero
Charlotte discontinued its red-light camera program in after 2006. (AdobeStock)

A 2005 analysis by the Federal Highway Administration evaluated 132 intersections with red-light cameras in seven cities throughout the country. That study found a 16% decrease in right-angle injury crashes but a 24% increase in rear-end injury crashes. Because rear-end crashes are usually not as dangerous as angled crashes (getting “T-boned,” for example), officials considered the cameras beneficial to public safety.

In Charlotte, data taken from four locations where the red-light cameras were previously installed covered three years before the cameras, three years during their use and three years after. It showed that, while there was an uptick in rear-end collisions at the intersection while the cameras were there, the intersections saw an overall decrease in collisions during and after the program was in operation.

One solution to the uptick in rear-end crashes caused by red-light cameras involves lengthening the interval time of a yellow light, commonly known as the “dilemma zone” during which drivers must decide between stopping or continuing through an intersection. The HSRC study states that “a dilemma zone exists when a reasonable and prudent driver can neither stop the vehicle in time nor enter the intersection before the onset of a red light.”

Multiple studies have suggested that increasing the time span of yellow lights by 1.5 to 3 seconds would dramatically reduce rear-end collisions. Berry said CDOT uses national and state-adopted formulas to calculate yellow and red light times based on the physical geometry of the intersection and the travel speeds. Yellow lights in Charlotte are typically between four and six seconds.

Hitting a red light

In a Dillon Rule state like North Carolina, where state legislators must delegate authority to municipalities like Charlotte, there would have to be approval from the North Carolina General Assembly for these programs to be activated in Charlotte. There is currently legislation on the table that would allow for the use of red-light cameras, though none that mentions speed cameras.

At a Charlotte City Council meeting on Dec. 6, District 1 representative Larken Egleston addressed the use of red-light cameras, stating the Vision Zero team is continuing to study the impacts, while prioritizing more short-term solutions, as the N.C. General Assembly may not be playing ball until 2023 at the earliest.

“[Vision Zero] has gotten reports back on those, but they also want to look at things that don’t require potential legislative partnership,” Egleston said. “Those things we want to keep on the table, but we understand that there is a need to get buy-in or rule changes in Raleigh, so those are not quick, short-term solutions.”

Speaking on Charlotte Talks on the following morning, however, Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said she wished council would be more active in working with state legislators to pursue those changes.

If the red-light cameras and speed cameras were to be active again, cost is a factor. There is no funding established to pay for the program, and the current legislation going through the N.C. General Assembly only allows 10% of the funds collected to be used to fund the program, as was mandated during the previous implementation of the cameras.

While her team is always analyzing the many options to strengthen public safety, Berry said there are no current plans to make red-light cameras a part of the Vision Zero program, though if city council directs her to do so, she will look into it.

In the meantime, she and her team will continue implementing solutions more feasible for the city in the short-term. While much of the first years of Vision Zero were spent doing research and analysis, since the team began taking action in 2020, the need for solutions has only become more apparent.

“The numbers from last year and this year are not just a Charlotte challenge, but in fact a nationwide challenge,” Berry said. “I do remain optimistic that we must always strive for zero. That being said, it is a complex ball of string to untangle to get us to zero. It will take all of us at every level of the community to engage in this effort.”

Yet Berry is determined to see that magic number of zero. She understands that it’s a lofty goal, and maybe an unrealistic one, but it is an important one to her.

“If you don’t say zero, what do you say? Do you say Vision Five or Vision Ten? What if one of those five or 10 people is someone in your family or a friend? We have to set the bar high and shoot for zero. Vision Zero isn’t about overall crash reduction. It’s an overall injury-reduction strategy. I want to take people out of the trauma unit at the hospital.”

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