Top mayoral aide calls traffic crashes a ‘public health crisis’
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Every day, traffic crashes on Chicago streets seriously injure five people, and every three days, somebody dies. It’s a “persistent plague” that has created a “true public health crisis,” a top mayoral aide said Monday.
“Just last week, a 5-year-old boy was killed crossing the street, in the crosswalk, with the light by a turning vehicle that didn’t yield the right of way as the law requires,” Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said in a luncheon address to the City Club of Chicago.
“It’s happening out there every week to people of all ages all over the city. This is unacceptable to me and to Mayor Emanuel. And it should be unacceptable to everyone in this room. . . . The tools exist to stop these senseless tragedies. . . . No one should die on our roads. Roads are for getting to work, to school to family. They are not for dying.”
Scheinfeld made the public argument that will set the stage for “Vision Zero,” a three-year plan with the ambitious goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries that affect 2,000 people in Chicago each year.
The plan will involve “at least a dozen” city departments and agencies working together to create what Scheinfeld called “real change” in how Chicago streets are designed and used.
The plan will rely heavily on signs, surveillance cameras and “data-driven” enforcement to convince Chicago motorists to stop ignoring the city’s traffic laws.
The plan is expected to focus heavily on Chicago neighborhoods most affected by severe traffic crashes.
They include: the Loop, the Near North and Near West Sides, Austin, Belmont-Cragin, East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale, Humboldt Park, West Town, West Englewood, Englewood, Washington Park and Grand Boulevard.
“The only goal we should be aiming to achieve is zero. Zero deaths and zero serious injuries. We all have the right to walk, bike, take transit and drive on streets that are safe for everyone, regardless of who we are or where we live,” Scheinfeld said Monday.
“The action plan uses data to identify the city’s greatest opportunities to create change on our streets and identifies the city resources that we can commit to increase safety,” she said. “The release of the action plan is our starting point for moving the needle on traffic crashes and creating real change by 2020.”
Scheinfeld was asked whether Chicago’s version of a Vision Zero plan that began in Sweden would include more “Yield to Pedestrian” signs in crosswalks.
“That’s been a really successful effort in terms of bringing awareness to drivers of the state law that is the law at every intersection that drivers must yield to pedestrians. That means stopping all the way. Not just slowing down and grazing them,” Scheinfeld, drawing a few uncomfortable snickers.
“But I’ll say for those of you who see them knocked down — and we do have to replace them quite often — remember, that’s why they’re there. It’s a testament to the continuing need that . . . pepole need to be more careful where they’re driving.”
Scheinfeld bemoaned the fact that Chicagoans have been “numbed to think” that fatalities and serious injuries on local streets are “inevitable or normal.”
She challenged her audience to stop using the term “accident” to describe traffic crashes because those crashes are not an accident. They are “preventable.”
“Have you or a loved one, a friend or work colleague been injured by a traffic crash as a pedestrian, bicyclist or in a car or bus?” she asked her audience.
“Everyone in this room can play a part. A real part. Not lip service. . . . Think about your personal actions. When you drive, put down that phone. Don’t speed. Did you stop for that pedestrian trying to cross the unsignalized intersections when you were driving this weekend? When is the last time you checked your speedometer?”
Last week, City Hall agreed to give motorists caught on camera blowing through red lights more time to get through what officials call the “dilemma zone” of hesitation and indecision.
Last year, the city issued 586,415 red-light tickets — and about 29 percent of those went to motorists who entered the intersection between one-tenths and three-tenths of a second after the light had turned red.
By tripling the “grace period” to three-tenths of a second — as suggested by the Northwestern University Traffic Center — the city is likely to issue 29 percent fewer tickets, Scheinfeld said.
That could cost the city $17 million in annual revenue from red-light camera tickets.
At Northwestern’s suggestion, Scheinfeld said, the city has also agreed to begin the process to move red-light cameras from six existing intersections and place them at five new locations where the study shows red-light cameras would have a greater impact on safety.
The timing of those decisions was not an accident. It was a prelude to “Vision Zero.”