Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — As Dave Iltis viewed the site where Winifred "Winnie" Wolfgramm, an 11-year-old girl and Bonneville Elementary School student, was struck and killed by a pickup truck near Salt Lake City's East Bench neighborhood in late November, he felt motivated to write a passionate editorial calling on the city to join the Vision Zero Network.
"I was heartbroken going up to the site where that young girl was killed," said Iltis, editor and publisher of Cycling Utah and Cycling West.
Salt Lake City leaders ultimately caught wind of the editorial, and they agreed. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced Wednesday morning that the city is taking its first steps to be the first Utah city to join the network, which seeks to curb traffic-related deaths. There are a few dozen U.S. cities currently in the network.
"Vision Zero is an ambitious and a national strategy to reduce — actually to eliminate — all traffic-related fatalities and severe injuries while increasing the safety and health, and increasing equitable mobility for all," she said. "How can we not set a goal of zero? We have to."
Issues on Salt Lake City streets
Part of Iltis' frustration is that, as an avid cyclist, he's seen dangerous traffic trends firsthand, whether it's speeding or failing to give cyclists or pedestrians the right of way in crosswalks. Winnie Wolfgramm was one of 26 people who died in Salt Lake City traffic accidents last year, according to city officials.
"People are not cautious around bicyclists and pedestrians," Iltis said. "Over the past few years, people have been more active (outdoors) so we may see some more of those things. And think over the past few years, people have been driving faster."
Salt Lake City formed a new safety task force in May 2022 after a string of auto-pedestrian deaths in the city and across the Wasatch Front. With Wednesday's announcement, Salt Lake City will begin crafting a new strategic plan while members of the task force will look at policy changes that can improve safety, which are the steps needed before the city is officially included in the network, Mendenhall explained.
The mayor added that the city now has a goal of reaching zero traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2035.
"We can't just rely on what have been best practices when we have 26 deaths on our streets," she said. "It's not good enough."
It's not clear yet what policy changes will be. Salt Lake City officials decreased the speed limit to 20 mph on all city-managed streets last year, months after the safety task force was formed.
The city is already looking to invest in more traffic calming measures on its busiest streets, both Mendenhall and Salt Lake City Councilman Dan Dugan said Wednesday. Traffic calming projects can include speed humps, speed tables, raised intersections and even narrower roads that all act as ways to reduce vehicle speeds and make it harder for drivers to speed, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
We need to have a system that's forgiving, so that those small mistakes may ruin someone's day but not their life.
–Salt Lake City transportation director Jon Larsen
Other measures could be eliminating right-hand turns during red lights, delayed signaling at crosswalks or even all-stop crosswalks, especially in the downtown area, Dugan added.
"All of these things are on the table," he said.
There are various programs out there that also seek ways to curb traffic deaths. These include public service announcements that try to dissuade impaired or distracted driving and also tips for pedestrians to be safer around vehicles.
However, what sets Vision Zero apart is that it acknowledges that mistakes happen, Salt Lake City transportation director Jon Larsen explains. Most programs and projects, he says, require everyone to "be perfect users of the system at all times."
"We realize that's not realistic and that's going to fail," he said. "We need to have a system that's forgiving, so that those small mistakes may ruin someone's day but not their life."
An issue beyond Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City certainly isn't alone in rising traffic deaths. The city's traffic deaths only account for about 8% of all traffic deaths in the state last year, according to Utah Department of Public Safety and Utah Department of Transportation data released last week.
UDOT spokesman John Gleason called the 2022 figure "not acceptable," adding that UDOT is starting to shift its focus from moving vehicles across the state to moving people as safely as possible via multiple forms of transportation.
But because it's not just a Salt Lake City issue, Mendenhall said she would like other Utah cities will join the Vision Zero Network, too. This would allow for more coordination between communities on ways to limit deaths across the state.
"This is a yes/and opportunity," she said. "This makes sense for cities across the state of Utah, so I hope this will be an invitation and opportunity for us to not only work together but learn from each other."
As for Iltis, who quietly watched in the background as Mendenhall announced Salt Lake City's intent to join the network, his mind returned to the tragic day that inspired his editorial ahead of Wednesday's announcement.
He's optimistic that the program will ultimately make Salt Lake City's streets safer in the long run, so that incidents like that never happen again.
"I think that the Vision Zero program will ... reduce fatalities, reduce traffic injuries, reduce serious injuries and to slow people down to make the road safer for everyone," he said. "I hope that this young girl's memory will live on in the Vision Zero program."