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City task force calls for more traffic enforcement to curb deaths

After weeks of delays, the Vision Zero task force released a draft action plan Friday suggesting that a large increase in traffic enforcement would prevent traffic deaths after a deadly record-breaking year on Austin’s roads.

The report calls for more police officers to conduct traffic patrols and for more prosecutors to take drunken driving cases to trial. It recommends creating an Austin police unit dedicated solely to traffic enforcement at night and increasing the size of the unit targeting intoxicated drivers.

The report’s suggestion that increasing the number of officers dedicated to traffic enforcement isn’t a surprise. More prevalent and stricter traffic enforcement was identified early on as one of the most immediate solutions the city could undertake to stem the tide of people killed in crashes.

How many police officers would be required wasn’t calculated in the report. Francis Reilly, a city planner who has been a leading figure in the Vision Zero task force, said the group didn’t estimate the number of people or cost required to implement all of the enforcement recommendations. Instead, it preferred to leave that up to the Austin City Council, which will have approval over all recommendations.

Vision Zero is a program imported from Sweden whose name reflects a goal to eventually bring the number of traffic deaths to zero. The program has been adopted in many cities across the United States, including those as close as San Antonio and as large as New York.

The group’s report became mired for weeks after the Austin city manager’s office changed the leadership of Vision Zero from the Planning and Zoning Department to the city’s Transportation Department. Sources said the Transportation Department held up the plan’s publication because it wanted final say on any recommendations involving engineering. Previously, the department had little to do with the program beyond answering requests for data, sources said.

Engineering recommendations included creating a traffic safety team that would be dedicated to identifying five projects each year to improve road safety. The recommendation mirrors an earlier Transportation Department program that the City Council funded at $3.8 million to fix five intersections identified as among some of the most dangerous in the city.

“We were thinking that maybe we could get a similar amount of money that would allow us to do five more,” said Upal Barua, a senior traffic engineer in the Transportation Department.

The plan’s first public presentation will take place Tuesday during a meeting of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Council, the first of several boards and commissions that will have a look at Vision Zero’s work before it is shown to the City Council.

The draft report comes as officials across the city have struggled to identify what led to a dramatic increase in traffic fatalities in 2015 that killed more than 100.

“I think now it is time for the community to look at the plan and give us feedback,” said Laura Dierenfield, active transportation program manager with the Transportation Department.

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