Engineering Ethics Blog: Vision Zero: Realistic Goal or Illusion?

About a week
ago, I was involved in a very minor collision that slightly dented my car’s
rear bumper cover.  When I took the car
to a body shop to get an estimate for the repair, I picked up a magazine
published by the American Automobile Association and read about something
called Vision Zero. 

Vision Zero
is a program aimed at reducing auto-related fatalities to the point
that nobody dies (involuntarily, anyway) in a car accident anymore.  It originated with legislation passed in
Sweden in 1997, and has since spread to countries throughout the world.  While I am not aware of much U. S. federal
legislation pertaining to it, a number of U. S. cities have bought into it,
including Austin, Texas, just up the road from me.

There have
been auto safety programs ever since there were automobiles, but this one is
different.  For one thing, according to
the Wikipedia article on it, it consciously rejects the cost-benefit thinking
that lies behind so much engineering-ethics analysis.  As a practical matter, we as a society appear
to have made the compromise that we want the benefits that cars bring to our
lives, and we are willing to pay the price of the 40,000 or so U. S. traffic
deaths that happen every year.

Vision Zero
rejects this line of thought, and says no amount of driving and the good things
it brings are worth one human life.  It
asks what we can do to make driving so safe that you’d have to work really hard
to kill yourself or another person with a car. 
And it turns out, there’s a lot that hasn’t been done yet.

The Vision
Zero approach concentrates on roadways and associated infrastructure, and what
can be done to make sure that any accidents that happen don’t result in
fatalities.  One simple example is
intersections.  On streets where traffic
is busy enough to warrant a two-way stop sign, you can have a fatal collision
if somebody on the side road runs the stop sign and a car on the main road is
going fast enough to result in a fatal accident.  One Vision Zero solution to this is to
replace stop-sign-equipped intersections with rotaries (traffic circles).  Anyone who’s paying the slightest bit of
attention to their driving will see a rotary coming up and slow down before
going around it at a speed that might result in a collision, but one that would
be little more than a fender-bender, not a fatal crash. 

The same
philosophy can be applied to highways. 
Vision Zero proposes building medians on any road where two-way traffic
goes fast enough that a head-on collision is likely to be fatal, namely a speed
of about 43 miles per hour (70 km/hr).  In
the relatively small and centrally-governed country of Sweden, maybe this is a
feasible goal.  But in Texas, which is
half again as large, making all rural roads divided highways would cost many
billions of dollars and take years to do, if not decades.  Of course, you could just pass a law limiting
the rural speed limit to 45 mph, but Texans are not Swedes, and that law might
not be observed any better than the one rumored to be still on the Texas books that
prohibits you from carrying barbed-wire cutters in your back pocket. 

A goal that complements Vision Zero has been adopted by Volvo, the automaker that is still
largely based in Sweden but now owned by a Chinese company.  In 2016, Volvo announced its intention to reduce
auto fatalities in its new vehicles to zero by 2020.  That’s only two years away now, but as of
2016, there were already nine different car models (one of which was a Volvo) in which no fatalities were
recorded in the U. S. in the period 2009 to 2012.  Some of these may have been low-volume
super-luxury cars that owners treat more like jewels than like transportation,
but the fact remains that a zero-fatality vehicle is a real possibility.

Add to the
mix the prospect of autonomous vehicles and all the safety-enhancing systems
that go with those, and we may have a realistic chance of seeing the day come
when dying in a car wreck might be as rare an occurrence as being killed by
lightning, which happens to about 50 U. S. residents a year.  I suppose there will always be the occasional
suicide or attacker who chooses to use a car as a weapon.  But even these folks may find it hard to
defeat the future safety features that will come with autonomous vehicles, even
if you choose to drive it by yourself. 
The decision of whether to make such features optional or hard-wired is
one that car makers will have to ponder. 
There will be die-hards who will never adapt to autonomous cars, and
there will be others such as disabled people who will be more than happy to let
the car do all the driving.  And all of
this will have an unknown effect on sales, but by and large I suspect most
people will acquiesce in the safety features as long as they don’t keep you from doing what you want to do in normal travel situations.

As for
Vision Zero, the only thing that keeps it from happening tomorrow is limited
resources.  As I pointed out, making the
road infrastructure so that it’s very hard to die in a car wreck costs a great
deal of money.  That is why adoption of
Vision Zero in the U. S. is spotty, with places like Austin going in for it but
other cities hanging back.  With the
complicated mix of local, state, and federal funding for roadways in this
country, it may be a long time before we see Vision Zero applied with anywhere close to the uniformity that places like Sweden can achieve.  But miracles can happen, and maybe we will
get tired enough of reading about senseless and preventable automotive deaths
to unite behind a movement that, although I have never seen this phrase applied
to it, is really pro-life.

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