‘We’ve got a real problem’: With 1,000+ dead in NC every year what does it take to reduce traffic fatalities?

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — More than 1,000 people die on North Carolina roads each year. Five years ago, the state launched an initiative aimed at changing that.

The goal of NC Vision Zero is to cut traffic fatalities and serious injuries in half over 15 years, with the ultimate goal of cutting it to zero.

So, where do things stand five years in?

The numbers

There were 1,549 fatal crashes in the state in 2020, according to NC Vision Zero data.

“There’s no question we’ve got a real problem,” said Mark Ezzell, executive director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. “We never thought that accomplishing our vision of zero deaths on North Carolina roadways was gonna be easy and it’s clearly not.”

Five years in, fatalities are up.

The year 2020 had about 200 more traffic fatalities than in 2016, with 1,687 people killed in crashes compared to 1,464 people killed in 2016, according to NC Vision Zero data. Only one of those years, 2017, had a decrease in traffic fatalities, according to the data.

The deaths include drivers, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians.

CBS 17 asked Ezzell why the numbers are continuing to increase.

“We know that last year was an awful year on our roads, and I think COVID has had a great deal to do with this,” Ezzell said. “People have been driving in conditions where emotionally they feel distracted, even though the traffic volumes have been down from what they’ve been in previous years, the fatalities have been up.”

Ezzell said one of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program’s main efforts are funding Vision Zero in local communities and creating a public crash database. He said communities can use the information when designing and planning their roads.

Ezzell said the department has spent $200,000 each of the past two years to fund specific programs, including a DWI court and a Seat Belt Diversion Program in Robeson County. He said there are also law enforcement programs across the state that have Vision Zero efforts.

Searching for Solutions

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Highway Safety Research Center is an NC Vision Zero partner. Seth LaJeunesse, a senior Research Associate at UNC, works with 10 Vision Zero communities. Those are located in Apex, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Greenville, Mooresville, Robeson County, and Wilmington.

“We really do see this as a complex problem,” LaJeunesse said.

He said there’s no one solution, but there is a place to start.

“Speed is sort of the determining factor in the injury outcome of a crash, and that’s what Vision Zero’s about is basically eliminating those serious and fatal crashes,” LaJeunesse said.

According to NC Vision Zero data, speed was involved in 24 percent of fatal crashes in 2020.

Ezzell said the state is examining roundabouts, which can help slow drivers on streets, where pedestrian and cyclist traffic fatalities occur.

He has a different top priority.

“People simply need to wear their seatbelts,” Ezzell said.

Seatbelts are not worn in about 40 percent of fatal crashes, according to Ezzell.

“Mom on a Mission”

Marianne Karth of Raleigh is a “mom on a mission.” As an underride safety advocate, she’s made presentations at NC Vision Zero conferences.

In 2013, Karth and her family were living in Rocky Mount, driving to Texas with her three youngest children to celebrate four family college graduations and a sibling’s wedding.

A truck hit the family on Interstate-20 in Georgia and spun them into the back of a second truck. Karth’s two youngest daughters, AnnaLeah and Mary, were riding in the backseat, which careened under the trailer.

They died from their injuries.

“We have many good memories of them, but they have been cheated of life, and it so was unnecessary,” Karth said.

Now, Karth works to prevent underride accidents from happening to another family, petitioning the U.S. Department of Transportation, pushing Congress to introduce a STOP Underride Bill, and making underride presentations to NC Vision Zero.

She works with engineer Aaron Keifer who designed a safety skirt for trucks. The device is installed along the side of a trailer. Keifer said it prevents cars from going under the truck. It won a safety design award from NC Vision Zero, but is not required under any regulations.

“If you just neglect the underride problem then you’re never gonna get to zero because you’re gonna still have people dying,” said Karth.

The federal infrastructure bill contains rear underride provisions, including requiring new trailers to have rear impact guards. It does not contain requirements or regulations for side underride guards, but does require research on the subject.

Is Vision Zero still achievable?

LaJeunesse said cutting fatalities in half, and the ultimate goal of zero is still achievable, with reducing speed and more municipalities adopting a Vision Zero policy, which he said is the town’s organizing principle for how it designs and maintains roads.

“I think there’s a motivation, an awareness, and also a desire to really start implementing, together in a coordinated way, the things we know work well,” LaJeunesse said.

He said that includes speed management, like lowering speed limits and adding traffic circles, as well as addressing drunk driving with checkpoints that rotate locations.

CBS 17 asked Ezzell what will change in the next 10 years to cut fatalities in half.

“Well one of the things that’s gonna change hopefully is we’ll get out of this mess with COVID because I think that has clearly had a significant impact on our fatalities over the past year-and-a-half.” he said. “The second thing that is gonna be different is you’re gonna see more interaction between safety advocates, engineers, and communities. That’s what we’re trying to model in our Vision Zero Communities.”

Oslo, Norway achieved its Vision Zero goal, with zero pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, and one driver death in 2019. Norwegian newspapers said the city accomplished it in part by lowering speed limits and reducing through traffic.

LaJeunesse points to it as proof Vision Zero is possible.

Karth reminds leaders it’s a goal worth working for, with a sign that says “Save Lives Adopt a Vision Zero Policy.”

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