Seattle DOT / Flickr

As part of its Vision Zero plan, the city is rewarding everyday acts of safety.

The idea originated with a cop in the Seattle Police Department who was about to retire. Years earlier, his wife had been hit by a driver who failed to stop for her at a crosswalk. He and his colleagues regularly conducted enforcement efforts to ticket other drivers who did the same.

But as he was about to leave his post, in 2012, Captain Richard Belshay decided to do something a little different: instead of stopping drivers who violated the law, he bought a stack of $10 gift cards from a local restaurant and handed them out to drivers (and bicyclists) who did the right thing and stopped to let people on foot cross the street.

In an hour, 34 people were rewarded for stopping when they were supposed to, earning a friendly word of encouragement and a gift card. “Our police department has suffered a lot of negative media attention of late,” Belshay told Q13 Fox TV in Seattle. “So if my small gesture of gratitude to the public happens to generate some positive news for our police department, then my recognizing 34 strangers for doing the right thing was worth it.”

Three years later, at the suggestion of city councilmember Tom Rasmussen, Belshay’s action is being scaled up as part of Seattle’s Vision Zero initiative, which launched earlier this year with the goal of reaching zero traffic fatalities by 2030. For a few days last week, Seattle DOT staffers joined with police officers and local street-safety advocates to hand out $5 Starbucks gift cards at several different locations, including an elementary school, a busy bridge crossing, and a protected bike lane downtown. The giveaways were funded by a state grant aimed at increasing safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Seattle is one of a growing number of U.S. cities that have adopted the Vision Zero philosophy (San Diego is the latest to proclaim a zero-fatality target, with a 10-year time horizon). Each municipality has its own individualized strategy, and none exactly copy the model set by Sweden, where the concept originated in the 1990s. But all are fundamentally based on a three-pronged approach, using a combination of engineering (designing streets to reduce speeds in areas with lots of people on foot, reducing conflicts at intersections), enforcement, and education to make streets safer.

Scott Kubly, director of Seattle DOT, says he isn’t aware of any other cities that are using positive reinforcement such as gift cards as part of their education about safe driving habits. Kubly went out personally to the elementary school where conscientious drivers were getting gift cards for dropping their children off in the designated zone rather than across the street, and kids were getting their own rewards in the form of goody bags filled with DOT swag, crayons, and the like. Families who were walking and biking to school got recognition for following the rules, too.

Seattle DOT director Scott Kubly talks to school kids about street safety. (Seattle DOT / Flickr)

“The kids were super excited,” says Kubly. “The parents were pretty surprised and happy, too.” DOT employees and cops on the scene distributed a total of 200 gift cards and talked to dozens of kids. The hope is that all of those people will now have a positive association with driving, walking, and biking safely at school drop-off and beyond.

On another morning, the positive reinforcement happened on the west side of the Fremont Bridge, one of the busiest crossings in the city, where people driving, riding bikes, and walking all vie for space. Kubly said that beyond giving out the cards, DOT staff and cops ended up talking to hundreds of people about engaging in positive behavior in traffic.

Kubly says his department plans to continue this type of program in the future. He acknowledges that taking a positive approach was a characteristically Seattle way of dealing with things, and that it might not be an obvious tactic in every city. “It’s very earnest on the West Coast,” says Kubly, who worked in the DOTs of Chicago and Washington before he took the job in Seattle.

It doesn’t have to be only a Seattle phenomenon. Considering how much blind anger and resentment Vision Zero programs can engender among drivers, a little positive reinforcement might go a long way in creating a different kind of traffic culture. Imagine giving people a gift for behaving well in Midtown Manhattan traffic—by yielding to a pedestrian with the right of way, for instance. It isn’t easy to surprise a New Yorker, but that might do it. And maybe, in the process, make a lasting impression about the value of doing the right thing.

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