Declaring that even a single traffic death is too many, Mayor Jean Stothert and local safety advocates set a new goal for Omaha: Eliminate all traffic deaths in the city.
The city’s next move is hiring a Vision Zero coordinator, which the city said is funded in the 2020 city budget.
The coordinator will be part of the traffic engineering division within the Public Works Department, with a salary set at $50,037 for now, according to the Mayor’s Office. A task force that studied the issue is looking to that person to develop an action plan, set an implementation timeline, coordinate among city departments and work with local organizations.
Stothert on Monday announced that Omaha is joining the international movement called Vision Zero, which is aimed at cutting traffic deaths to zero. Sweden started the effort — now pushing across the United States — that considers every traffic death preventable.
Stothert, to show the toll in the city, compared Omaha’s number of homicides to its traffic fatalities.
In 2019, Omaha has seen 11 homicides — and 19 traffic fatalities.
Last year, the city had 22 homicide victims — and 37 traffic fatalities.
Those are just deaths within the Omaha city limits.
The prevention push comes as the metro area has experienced a number of kids being hit and killed on metro area roads: 10-year-old Abby Whitford in Papillion, 11-year-old Jaycoby Estrada in Blair and, on Sunday, 9-year-old Caleb Roman in Bellevue. Stothert acknowledged the deaths in other communities and those of four Gretna teenagers in a June crash.
Tom Everson, executive director of the organization Keep Kids Alive Drive 25 and chairman of the Vision Zero task force, said Omaha’s move gives local advocates a focus and will formalize their efforts.
“We’re taking this on as a city,” Everson said. “It’s something that is really going to take the engagement of a whole community in order to reduce the number of deaths.”
The actual steps ahead for the City of Omaha and local safety organizations are still largely to be decided.
Officials suggested increasing traffic enforcement by police, including on the most dangerous streets. The task force also recommended prioritizing sidewalk improvements in trouble spots and along transit routes, cutting speed limits as street projects come up for consideration and coordinating public awareness campaigns among safety groups.
The task force, which has been meeting monthly since March 2018, also suggested lobbying the Legislature to make driving without a seat belt and using a cellphone while driving primary offenses that police can use to pull over drivers.
Asked about how to get drivers to put down their cellphones, buckle up and slow down, Stothert said she thinks that’s the biggest challenge: “It’s a behavior change.”
Everson said the changes necessary to lower traffic fatalities won’t happen overnight. He said it will be important for the new coordinator to engage local agencies, businesses, organizations and school districts to become partners.
“It’s going to take that kind of effort,” Everson said. “It’s not simply going to be one department or one person or even a group of people in a department that are going to make this happen. We’re going to make this happen.”