By Daniel Trotta
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The "Boulevard of Death" is getting a makeover, part of a New
York City initiative that made 2015 the safest year on record for traffic accidents even as the number of roadway deaths nationwide shows a steep increase.
Engineers are redesigning a stretch of Queens Boulevard, which earned its notorious nickname due to the 185 people killed on the road over 25 years. Cars, bicycles and pedestrians are being routed into more clearly marked lanes with wider buffer zones between them, more stop signs and smarter parking rules.
Adopting a Swedish program known as Vision Zero, New York City officials are trying to eliminate traffic deaths through more than 100 initiatives that include curbing speed limits, boosting enforcement with speed cameras and high profile ticketing campaigns, as well as driver outreach and education.
Although 18 U.S. cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Washington already have put in place some form of Vision Zero, states and the federal government have lagged in their coordination and implementation of the latest safety measures, which is frustrating to international experts.
"It surprises many people who are involved in road safety that the richest, most successful nation on earth allows many of its citizens to die because they don't take advantage of basic engineering," said Michael Woodford, chairman of the Safer Roads Foundation, which aims to reduce road casualties globally.
Woodford, who was ousted as head of Japanese optical equipment maker Olympus after blowing the whistle on a major fraud case, said he has spent millions of dollars of his own money on the initiative.
He contrasted the immense U.S. sensitivity over airline safety with the relative inattention to the roadside carnage.
"It's got to become a political issue," Woodford said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio made New York the first U.S. city to adopt Vision Zero when he launched it shortly after taking office on Jan. 1, 2014.
By 2015, annual traffic fatalities in New York City had fallen to a record low of 231, a 22 percent drop from 2013 and the lowest since record-keeping began in 1910, the mayor's office said. Pedestrian deaths, which are high in New York City given how may people walk as part of their public transport commute, fell 27 percent over the same two years to a historic low of 134.
Because so many cities are new to Vision Zero, they lack the before-and-after data that New York has, said Leah Shahum, director of the national Vision Zero Network.
Although some drivers inevitably complain about slower traffic and more tickets, there was a "transformative shift in prioritizing safe mobility" under way across the country, Shahum said.
"No one is against zero traffic deaths. That said, the reality is that behaviors can be hard to change. There will likely be more pushback," Shahum said.
'BELTS, BOOZE AND SPEED'
Vision Zero starts from the premise that all accidents are preventable. Traffic engineers and driver safety experts know how to reduce casualties, which are largely related to poor road design, speeding, alcohol and the lack of seat belts.
Still, tens of thousands of people die on U.S. roads every year. The toll fell from 44,599 in 1990 to 32,675 in 2014, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In the agency's latest report, covering the first nine months of 2015, traffic deaths nationwide rose 9.3 percent versus the same period of 2014.
Experts warn against reading too much into any short-term fluctuation in those national statistics, saying traffic deaths are affected by gas prices, employment and other factors independent of safety standards. But they stress that the main causes can all be addressed through public policy.
"We've seen a huge amount of success in the past few decades, but when you look at belts, booze and speed those are some persistent problems," said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research with the American Automobile Association (AAA).
In the New York City borough of Queens, officials focused on a 1.5-mile (2.4 km) stretch of Queens Boulevard where 47 people were killed or seriously injured between 2010 and 2014.
Such campaigns are more difficult in rural areas, where narrow highways typically lack a median, are poorly lit at night, and attitudes are more lax about using seat belts or driving while intoxicated, Nelson said.
Road engineering for safety has reduced fatalities in New York City by 34 percent, the city said, twice the rate of improvement at other locations, but it also requires money. The first phase of the Queens Boulevard redesign cost $1.4 million and the price tag for citywide safety related changes planned this year is $115 million.
"Our interstate infrastructure is crumbling. We can't afford to even fill potholes and repair bridges, which is why Vision Zero is so important because we have scarce resources and we need to invest wisely," Nelson said.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Diane Craft)