Chapel Hill Town Council wants to eliminate traffic injuries and deaths by 2031. Here’s how.

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Margaret Fields loves to grab her bicycle and enjoys riding around the busy streets of Chapel Hill.

“Oh you feel like a bird,” she said. “Like you’re flying.”

She just wants to make sure she can do it safely.

The town of Chapel Hill shares her dream, and is hoping to reduce all traffic-related injuries and deaths to zero by 2031.

In 2021, the town enacted the Vision Zero resolution, which aims to achieve the goal over a 10-year period through various methods.

Todd Harris, who is Chapel Hill Police Department’s lieutenant of patrol operations, said some of the ways they hope to achieve this goal is by communicating road safety methods to drivers, pedestrians and cyclists around town.

“What we try to do is weigh heavily on the education side of it,” Harris said.

Harris said enforcement of traffic rules between all parties is also key and part of the Vision Zero resolution.

“We do monthly focused patrol efforts for speed,” Harris said. “We also do that for crosswalks initiatives as well where we send officers to certain locations to monitor crosswalks to make sure both drivers and pedestrians are obeying the law.”

Chapel Hill Complete Streets Specialist Ian Baltutis said the town is also analyzing streets reporting high crash data and evaluating whether the streets need to be redesigned.

However, he said results have not yet shown an improvement in traffic safety, and nationally, trends are getting worse.

“If you look at the national crash data, the trends are heading in the wrong direction. Crashes are increasing. Pedestrian deaths, cyclists deaths and injuries are increasing,” Baltutis said. “And that’s been particularly noticeable since 2020.”

In Chapel Hill, from 2016 to 2020, three people died and five suffered severe injuries while walking or biking in Chapel Hill, according to the Vision Zero resolution document.

Since its enactment in 2021, there have been two deaths and eight severe injuries.

Baltutis said the lack of improvement is because of the long process it takes to start Vision Zero projects. He said not enough time has passed for the town to see a difference in road safety.

“Nobody deserves to die,” Baltutis said. “Nobody deserves to die on our road network and the only acceptable number is zero.”

As for Fields, she simply wants to ride without worry.

“For the most part I do feel safe,” she said. “I want to get out and soak up some sunshine and feel the wind in my face.”

Jake Reyes, a journalism major at the University of Florida, contributed this story as part of the 2023 CBC-UNC Diversity Fellowship. Reach him at [email protected].

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