School hadn’t yet started at Hawthorne Elementary when a truck slammed into two young children walking to class early Jan. 13.
The children, who were struck in a crosswalk that Friday, suffered survivable injuries, police said. They were two of six people hit by car in Salt Lake City over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, just days after Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced a new partnership aimed at preventing traffic violence.
One person hit, a 31-year-old man, died, police said. The driver who struck him left the scene. In a statement Thursday, Mendenhall called the spate of wrecks “heartbreaking.”
“Everyone should feel safe when traveling in our city, whether they are walking, pedaling or driving,” the statement continued. “But the reality we’re facing is that some drivers are not taking responsibility and the level of traffic violence underscores the need for urgent, deliberate action to make our streets safer.”
The traffic-safety partnership Mendenhall had announced just days earlier, on Jan. 11, involved nonprofit campaign “Vision Zero,” with a goal of achieving zero traffic fatalities by 2035.
But the announcement was just that — the city isn’t part of the program yet; in order to join, officials first need to enact a slew of safety prerequisites, which they hope to accomplish by fall.
“All of these incidents of vehicle violence should make it clear our city is in a state of crisis and requires major change from city leaders,” Sweet Streets, a local organization that advocates for safer mobility options, said in a statement this week.
What does reaching ‘Vision Zero’ status mean?
Mendenhall’s statement Thursday echoed sentiments from May 2022, when in the span of one hour, three people were struck and killed across the Wasatch Front, including Libbie Allan, a 23-year-old pregnant woman who died after a driver suspected of impairment hit her and her child in Sugar House.
That crash happened about four blocks from where the two children were injured last Friday near Hawthorne Elementary.
Shortly after those May wrecks, the city established a “Safe Streets” task force, which met twice last year. That task force is currently being reworked into a “Vision Zero” task force, in order to fulfill a prerequisite needed for the city to join the nonprofit campaign, Salt Lake City’s transportation director Jon Larsen said.
This year, the “Vision Zero” task force will meet quarterly, and work with other agencies including the Utah Transit Authority and the Utah Department of Transportation to develop a broader traffic-safety action plan.
“We’re not an official Vision Zero city yet — we just expressed the intent, and so once we [complete the action plan], then we can officially apply for Vision Zero city status,” Larsen said. “Anytime you’re coordinating across jurisdictions, and agencies, it just takes more time and effort.”
In addition to establishing the “Vision Zero” task force — which needs to engage with the community — and creating that action plan, the city also will have to conduct an analysis of dangerous roads before it can officially join the campaign.
Joining that campaign means Salt Lake City will qualify for certain federal grants that require “Vision Zero” status, and officials will be able to access resources and strategies shared across the Vision Zero network — which currently includes Denver, Austin, Seattle and about 40 other communities.
In the meantime, Sweet Streets advocates hope to see sustained funding for “Vision Zero” that includes implementing people-first safety measures this year.
Specifically, they’d like to see the city phase out four-lane streets, such as 2100 South, because of how dangerous they can be, the organization said in a news release.
The city is already taking a people-first approach as it works with UDOT to analyze local intersections with traffic signals, Larsen said. This analysis will consider changes such as limiting left turns through pedestrian crosswalks, for example, or implementing “leading pedestrian intervals,” which give pedestrians about a five-second head start over cars when crossing an intersection.
Larsen also would like to see red-light cameras implemented, which he said would “undoubtedly save lives.” Red-light cameras are currently illegal in Utah because of privacy concerns, but a bill to legalize the devices was introduced in the Legislature this week.
“In the past, anytime you look at the traffic-signal system, the emphasis has always been on optimizing the system for vehicular traffic flow,” Larsen said. “Even if it’s not optimum for traffic flow, if it’s optimum for safety, then we want to do it.”
And Larsen feels that many more initiatives are achievable this year after officials laid the groundwork in 2022, including employing four new staff members dedicated to safety issues and relaunching the livable streets program.
“We appreciate folks who are willing to engage with us and are patient,” Larsen said. “We know that it’s a big mountain to climb. And we’ll keep working on this until we get to the point where people dying and being seriously hurt on our streets as a thing of the past.”