Seattle recorded the second highest number of people killed in traffic-related crashes in a decade last year — tied with 2013 — even as the coronavirus pandemic kept many commuters home and traffic volumes at historical lows.
Although the number of serious-injury collisions fell to the lowest in at least a decade, nearly as many people died in 2020 as in 2019, according to preliminary data released by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). Of the 24 people killed, 13 were pedestrians.
The latest numbers show once again Seattle is not making significant progress toward reaching Vision Zero, its stated goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030.
Allison Schwartz, Vision Zero coordinator for SDOT, said “it might be time” for an updated action plan since the city committed to the national Vision Zero program nearly six years ago.
“For decades, streets have been designed for the fast and free movement of vehicles rather than for the safety and comfort for human beings,” she said.
Vision Zero is a long-term goal, Schwartz said, and requires a big shift in engineering.
“While we’ve seen improvements in technologies for vehicle safety, we’ve also seen people walking and biking, and our older residents and homeless neighbors are disproportionately affected by fatal crashes,” she said.
Speeding, distracted and impaired driving, and failure of drivers to yield to pedestrians caused most of the crashes, according to the data.
Bumper-to-bumper traffic can act as an unintended traffic-calming mechanism, Schwartz said. Less traffic congestion may have enabled more people to drive at higher speeds, raising the risk of fatalities.
Cities across the U.S., including New York and Philadelphia, also struggled last year with reducing deaths and serious injuries from traffic collisions despite fewer drivers on the road during the pandemic.
SDOT has taken steps in recent years to improve safety.
In the summer of 2019, the agency installed leading pedestrian intervals (LPIs) that give pedestrians a three-to-seven second head start crossing the street before drivers get the green light to move forward or turn. This pedestrian-first traffic signal is designed to make pedestrians more visible and to encourage drivers to yield the right of way.
As of late January, 316 intersections — roughly 30% of the city’s intersections with traffic signals — have LPIs. SDOT crews will install 60 more this year.
Mayor Jenny Durkan in December 2019 announced that speed limits on all arterials — busy streets with a dividing line — would be lowered to 25 mph as Seattle saw a near-record year for traffic deaths. (2019 and 2016 tied for the most traffic fatalities.)
Of the 465 miles of arterial streets in Seattle, 335 are now marked for 25 mph or slower.
However, some of the most dangerous streets in Seattle, such as Lake City Way and Aurora Avenue North, have remained at higher speeds.
SDOT will work with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to lower speeds on state-owned streets, including Lake City Way and Aurora. Schwartz did not share what the new speed limit would be.
Aurora consistently sees a high number of crashes each year. Nine serious or fatal crashes occurred on the corridor in 2020, prompting street safety advocates and workers in the area to call for a renewed look at safety improvements along the road.
SDOT anticipates receiving a grant from the state this year, pending approval from the Legislature, that would allow the agency to develop up to 30% design for “holistic” changes on the entire corridor, Schwartz said. The $2 million would fund community engagement, right of way planning, traffic analysis and design.
Planning and design, which would involve coordination with several city and regional agencies, would begin in the first half of 2022.
Traffic safety is also a longtime concern along Rainier Avenue South. Last year, there were 15 serious or fatal collisions that occurred along Rainier Avenue South, including at intersections.
SDOT redesigned Rainier Avenue South between Hillman City and Rainier Beach last year by adding red-painted bus lanes, restriping crosswalks, adding left turn lanes with green arrows and reducing the speed limit to 25 mph. The agency plans to begin a redesign south of Rainier Beach and will add a new traffic signal at Rose Street this year.
“It’s not by coincidence that many of our high-injury streets, streets like Rainier Avenue or Lake City Way, cut through Black, Indigenous and communities of color,” Schwartz said. “It is by decisions that have been made over the decades, and now we need to intentionally undo those decisions and those designs, working hand in hand with the communities that have been most harmed.”
SDOT implements its Vision Zero efforts through an equity lens, focusing on neighborhoods that have seen historical underinvestment. The agency is also re-evaluating its enforcement practices to ensure they meet racial equity goals.
In addition to traffic crashes, people have also been injured and killed this past year in crashes involving protesters blocking streets and highways.