Group calls for end to “epidemic” of traffic deaths and injury in Texas

Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than two years ago, Kathy Sokolic’s nephew, Ben was outside his home in Austin’s Mueller neighborhood when a truck hit him.  Now, Ben is 11 years old and requires 24-hour care. 

“It’s quite challenging,” Sokolic explained.

The more she learned about the circumstances of the crash that changed her nephew’s life, the more Sokolic realized that people all over Texas were going through similar hardships.

“It was something that could have possibly been prevented with different types of street design,” she said. 

Is it actually possible to end traffic deaths and injuries in the state of Texas? It’s tough to say for certain, but one group, Vision Zero Texas, thinks it is worth trying. Sokolic is chair of the group’s board.

“It’s really a healthcare epidemic in the state of Texas,” Sokolic said. “In the state of Texas, 10 people die every day from traffic-related violence and with those 10 crashes there’s at least another 5 to 10 people who are significantly incapacitated.”

The statistics she cited came from TxDOT numbers which show that 3,752 people died using some form of the Texas transportation system in 2017. 

Last week, TxDOT shared that since November 7, 2000, Texas has had at least one death on its roads every single day, adding up to a total of more than 66,000 people who have died on the roads since then. 

This upcoming weekend Vision Zero Texas will host a summit to talk about ways to make getting around safer as well as a vigil on November 18 to remember all the victims of traffic in Texas. 

In years past there have been a handful of  Vision Zero Texas vigils, but Sokolic said this year’s will be the biggest one yet because it will take place at the Texas Capitol. 

The vigil won’t be the only time Vision Zero will be at the capitol. This week the group also plans to reveal legislation to make Texas roads safer. 

One law they are proposing aims to lower speed limits in Texas neighborhoods.

Jay Blazek Crossley, the executive director of Farm & City, a nonprofit which also operates Vision Zero Texas, explained that chances for survival are very high for someone hit by a car that’s going 20 miles per hour, but those chances get progressively lower the faster you go above that speed, he said. 

The bill Vision Zero Texas is proposing would change residential speed limits in Texas to 25 mph and give cities more leeway to make certain streets 20 mph if they feel that’s the safest option. Currently, Crossley said there is a “cumbersome bureaucracy” in the law that prevents cities from easily lowering speed limits in neighborhoods down to 25 mph. 

Another law the group is proposing will make hands-free driving a statewide requirement. Austin and about 45 other cities already have a hands-free policy, but it doesn’t carry over when drivers cross the city limits. Crossley said that the current statewide ban on texting while driving is tough to enforce. He also noted that Georgia saw a reduction in traffic deaths after implementing a similar policy.

Yet another law Vision Zero is proposing would go further than the current yield-to-pedestrians policy in Texas by asking drivers to stop for pedestrians. 

“That doesn’t mean if someone jumps out of a tree in front of you, that’s your fault. It means that if there’s a pedestrian in a crosswalk, you stop for them as opposed to yielding for them,” Crossley said, adding that the goal of this proposed law is to make the expectations clearer for Texas drivers when it comes to pedestrians. 

“Texas is much more dangerous than most other densely populated states,” Crossley explained. “If Texas and California both meet their Strategic Highway Safety Plan goals in 2020, it will be twice as dangerous to be in Texas than California.”

Vision Zero Texas has already spent time this month encouraging Travis County to implement a vision zero policy. It says the city of Austin’s decision to do so has resulted in new policies that will cut down on traffic deaths. Vision Zero divided TxDOT numbers by population totals to find that the rate of traffic deaths per 100,000 residents is 5 in the city of Austin and 10 in Travis County. 

“We want our leadership to step up and take a stand and say, ‘What can we do to start preventing these?'” Sokolic said. 

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