Seattle’s goal of eliminating traffic deaths is frustratingly out of reach, as fatalities and serious injuries remain stubbornly high so far this year, according to 2022’s first “Vision Zero” presentation to the Seattle City Council on Tuesday.
In each of the first five months of the year, the number of deaths and serious injuries exceeded the previous three-year average. Eleven people died so far, similar to the 12 who died by this time last year and exceeding the seven who died after the first six months of 2020. At 30 deaths, 2021 was the deadliest year in Seattle since 2006, proving the city to be no exception to the nationwide spike in traffic deaths.
If this year’s pace holds, the city would see 27 deaths.
Seattle announced its goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2030 in 2015. In the years since, 175 people have been killed on the city’s roads and 1,200 people have been seriously injured.
“We’re here to acknowledge that, while we’ve made progress in some areas, there’s much more work to do together,” said Allison Schwartz, Vision Zero coordinator for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “Every time this happens, families and friends are devastated. An irreplaceable void is left in their circles.”
Of the 11 who died so far this year, four were walking, two were biking and five people were either a driver or passenger inside a car. The toll of Seattle’s traffic issues falls disproportionately on bikers and walkers. In the last five years, people outside of a car were involved in just 7% of all crashes but made up 61% of deaths.
Those dangers land heaviest on parts of the city deemed less advantaged — meaning they have higher rates of poverty, less education, more foreign-born individuals and more people of color. Analysis by city staff shows Black people disproportionately die in traffic crashes and that 27% of 2021’s fatalities were people experiencing homelessness over the previous five years.
Since 2019, nearly half of all deaths and serious crashes occurred in Council District 2, which includes South Seattle and is home to some of the city’s least safe roads — including Rainier Avenue South, Martin Luther King Jr. Way and streets in the Sodo industrial neighborhood.
“Our streets are not safe for children or elders or people with vision impairments, really just not safe for anyone who’s not in a car,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents District 2. “That’s not just heartbreaking and tragic, it’s unacceptable because it’s all preventable,” she added, calling for a “fundamental shift” in the city’s approach to road safety.
Seattle’s deadliest streets are its arterials, such as Lake City Way, Aurora Avenue North and Rainier Avenue South. Since 2015, 93% of pedestrian deaths have occurred on an arterial, with 80% happening on streets with more than one lane in each direction.
SDOT identified a few high priority streets for safety improvements, including Aurora Avenue, MLK Jr. Way, 23rd Avenue and areas in the Sodo and Georgetown neighborhoods.
Reversing the destructive patterns of recent years will require a “paradigm shift,” SDOT staff said. Priorities include making shorter pedestrian crossings, converting more lanes to transit or bike use, broadening corners in intersections to slow vehicle turns and possibly prohibiting turning right on red. The city already converted around 1,000 traffic signals to give pedestrians a head start when crossing.
“We’re really trying to move from individual blame and correcting individual behavior to a focus on system design that accounts for human imperfection and recognizes the responsibility of people like us who make decisions on how we design and operate our system,” said Schwartz.
Seattle’s capital budget includes about $7.5 million for Vision Zero improvements in 2022, plus some funding from outside grants. Chair of the transportation committee, Councilmember Alex Pedersen, said the city should spend more in the places that need it the most.
“The mayor’s upcoming budget proposal must continue to increase our investments in South Seattle and other underinvested areas so that our transportation infrastructure is made safer,” he said.