In January 2019, Sarah Risser was in the passenger seat as her son, Henry Zietlow, drove them from Minnesota to Michigan for a ski trip. They were on a Wisconsin highway when an oncoming pickup towing too much weight veered into their lane.
Sarah survived the collision. Henry did not. He was 18 years old.
It’s a horrific story, but Risser knows it’s also a common one. Traffic fatalities have been on the rise the past 16 years. In 2021, nearly 43,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. — a 10.5% increase from 2020.
Yet in some parts of the country, efforts born from both tragedy and political will have seen the numbers move in a different direction. And in Hoboken, N.J., there hasn’t been a single traffic death in four years.
Hoboken is a city of about 60,000 people that sits within eyesight of Manhattan just across the Hudson River. Its achievement in stopping deaths on the road comes down to simple measures, according to city officials.
Hoboken director of transportation and parking, Ryan Sharp, said the city had deployed a number of initiatives to make certain intersections and roads safer — things he called quick implementation, high impact solutions.
“Things like trying to improve sightlines at corners by doing what we call daylighting,” he said. “So that can be installing something as simple as what we call a vertical delineator post or a flexible bollard. These posts get installed within 25 feet of crosswalks, and they physically restrict cars from parking right up against a crosswalk.”
These daylighting solutions eliminate blind spots for cars at intersections so they can see any cyclists, pedestrians, or other cars as they approach and drive through or turn.
“One thing that you won’t see is something called a leading pedestrian interval,” Sharp said. “And basically, what that means is we’ve programmed our traffic signals to give pedestrians a few-second head start when they get into the crosswalk during their pedestrian phase without having to worry about turning vehicles.”
That allows for crossing pedestrians to take up space in the crosswalk before any eager drivers try to make a turn.
But while the practical solutions may be simple, the implementation can be much more complicated. Hoboken has several factors working in its favor that allow things like daylighting and a leading pedestrian interval to be effective.
The 2020 census measured 60,419 people in the city’s roughly two square miles, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the country. A denser city means higher walkability, people drive less, and speed limits are lower.
Political will also plays a part. A director of transportation and parking can aim to install daylighting solutions, but it won’t happen unless the government is willing to allocate the funds.
Many leaders have publicly committed to a Vision Zero pledge, which is based on the Swedish concept of road safety aimed at eliminating all traffic fatalities. Leah Shahum is executive director and founder of the nonprofit Vision Zero Network and says every city in America, even Hoboken, could be doing better.
“We need to make sure elected people, elected folks understand Vision Zero is not a slogan,” she said. “It’s not a tagline. It’s not even just a program, you know, it’s not something you put on top of things. It is literally a paradigm shift in how we’re doing business when it comes to transportation.”
For a city to be included in the Vision Zero Network, Shahum said there was specific criteria.
“The city has commitment from its top elected leader, like the mayor or city manager, to set a goal of zero traffic deaths or severe injuries by a date, for instance,” she said. “We make them have a date, that they have a plan, that the plan has timelines, actions, deliverables, that there’s an equity component within there for racial and income equity.”
Following up on that plan on a large enough scale is something few cities do, she said. And how accountability towards Vision Zero is measured varies. Cities like Denver, New York City, and San Francisco have done report cards. Then there are local organizations like Livable Streets in Boston, Washington Area Bicyclist Association in Washington, D.C., and WalkDenver in Denver that advocate for safer streets in their own cities.
Shahum said it was these local, grassroots efforts that were doing the work to make change.
That’s why Sarah Risser has been working with Families for Safe Streets in her home of Saint Paul, Minn. There isn’t a local chapter in Minnesota, or any of the Midwest states, so she does most of her activism solo, including holding vigils for victims of collisions, and getting people to submit comments to the local government for a car assessment program.
It’s hard work, and Risser said after the loss of her son, “I didn’t really do anything for a few months, even the better part of the first year.” But the grief and frustration of Henry’s death eventually led her to Families for Safe Streets and a network of cross-country support and advocacy.
“I felt so strongly that I didn’t want my son to have lost his life for nothing. And it really felt that, and it still does to this day. It kind of feels like he lost his life for nothing,” she said. “And I’m hoping that we can start seeing smart progress and making smart gains. And then I feel that I have contributed to a healthier world and a safer world on behalf of my son.”