We’re in the middle of a national conversation about policing, and there are a lot of calls to defund or abolish the traditional police model altogether. This raises some important questions, especially around how we can maintain public safety. Luckily, there are many examples from around the world that we can look to. If properly implemented, we could have greater safety and security than ever before.
I want to look at a few different examples that focus on specific issues of public safety. For this article, I’m going to be talking about a traffic safety program called Vision Zero that originated in Sweden in the mid 1990s. Vision Zero has the, quite frankly, insane goal of achieving zero traffic fatalities. When I first heard this, I chuckled to myself at how absurd the idea is. Then I saw some of the results.
The main idea behind Vision Zero is that road safety is based not just on the users (i.e. the people driving the cars) but also on the designers. How roads are designed and what the rules are for driving have tremendous impacts on our safety. Vision Zero seeks to improve safety by focusing on the design of the traffic system itself.
It’s a big job to start redesigning entire traffic systems. It involves wiping out driving lanes and parking spaces, and adding more room for biking and walking. It involves improving public transportation, designating space in downtown areas as entirely car-free, lowering speed limits, and increasing tolls. Essentially, what some cities tried to do was to make driving harder and more costly, and thereby decrease the total amount of automobile traffic on roadways.
This is a program that would have a big impact on your day-to-day life, so it’s important to know why it’s being done in the first place. In other words, what’s the problem?
The problem is that, in any given year, between 30,000 to 40,000 people are killed in traffic accidents in the United States. (This is similar to the number of people who are killed by firearms.) Like a lot of big numbers, it’s easy to lose sight of how devastating this is. Tens of thousands of families permanently scarred by the loss of a loved one. We shoulder this cost because we think it’s necessary in order to keep society moving. But what if it wasn’t necessary?
That means that Helsinki had a traffic fatality rate of about 5 fatalities per million people. Oslo’s fatality rate was about 1.5 per million.
Charlotte, North Carolina has a population of roughly 857,000, and in 2019 they recorded 73 traffic fatalities, or a rate of about 85 per million.
85 compared to 1.5.
Imagine if Charlotte had only had three traffic fatalities in 2019. Imagine 70 more people alive today.
In the city where I live, which has a population of about 300,000, there have been 16 traffic fatalities in 2021 alone. We’re not even halfway through the year, and we have a traffic fatality rate of 53 per million.
We think about the role of police and we think about their part in keeping us safe. When people talk about getting rid of the police (or even just reducing the number of them), we worry that it means we will be less safe. But that’s a mistake.
We can have safer cities without increasing armed law enforcement. We can make structural changes that will improve our quality of life. By reducing traffic, you also reduce the need for traffic enforcement. So you can achieve a safer outcome with fewer police resources. There are a lot of other resources that are required — redesigning traffic systems ain’t easy or cheap — but it still means that there can be increased safety with a reduction in policing.
Obviously some caveats here. The United States isn’t Europe. We don’t have anywhere near the public transportation infrastructure that they do, and our road layouts have been designed for decades and decades to focus on individual automobile usage. These are significant roadblocks that make the problem more difficult to solve. But they don’t make it impossible. We can improve public transportation, and we can redesign roads. (Sidenote: this is good for reducing carbon emissions too!)
When I first heard about Vision Zero, I thought it was outlandish. And the reason I thought that was because I had become so accustomed to the state of things that I couldn’t imagine how they could change. I was very, very wrong.
If you’re from the US then, like me, you’ve lived your life under essentially the same system of policing. There have been some cosmetic changes, but most of those have been to enhance the system of policing that already existed. We really haven’t known anything else. So when somebody says they want to change all of that, it can be really hard to see how that would work.
We need to start thinking about public safety in a different way, and how cities can provide that safety without the use of armed agents. Vision Zero is a program that has proven results, but it requires a strong commitment from any city that wants to implement it. This is where just about every public safety initiative dies. Cities don’t provide a sustained effort at systemic change, and the status quo persists.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The systems that we live with every day can be redesigned to keep us safer. Policing is not synonymous with public safety, and it’s very important to keep that in mind when you hear people talking about defunding or abolishing the police.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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