After decades of incremental success at reducing traffic deaths, the U.S. has backslid dramatically. In 2020, despite stay-at-home orders and reduced car use, traffic deaths soared to 38,680, the highest numbers in 13 years; in 2021, deaths climbed even higher. The year’s final data has yet to be released, “but I can tell you, it’s not good,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as he introduced a plan yesterday to reverse the grim trend. “This is a national crisis. It is disproportionately impacting some Americans more than others: people of color, Native Americans, low-income communities, people in rural areas — more likely to die on our roads. And yet, the other thing that we see is that this crisis truly affects everyone.” It’s killing about 3,000 people a month.
Buttigieg’s National Roadway Safety Strategy is the first comprehensive federal proposal to reduce road deaths, a task that’s been historically left up to states and cities (and with uneven results). What’s notable about it is not necessarily the national focus, but the goal: zero deaths. “The decision to commit to that goal in a serious way at a national level changes the way cities and towns design roads, it changes the way companies make cars, it changes the way people drive,” said Buttigieg. Its five sections each address a different aspect of roadway safety, with a focus on the communities suffering most. With the help of several experts, we’ve graded each section on its ambition and likely effectiveness.
“Encourage safe, responsible behavior by people who use our roads and create conditions that prioritize their ability to reach their destination unharmed.”
This part of the plan is largely focused on curbing drunk driving, which despite years of successful advocacy, is still a major cause of serious crashes. “Drunk driving remains a factor in about one-third of crash deaths, a percent that hasn’t changed much over time even though there was an overall downward trend in crash deaths before 2015, so I agree that this is a useful focus,” says Liisa Ecola, senior policy analyst for the RAND Corporation and author of a national road map to eliminate traffic deaths by 2050. One of Buttigieg’s proposals is a national clearinghouse that would standardize licensing regulations, keeping drivers deemed unsafe off the roads. Automakers also possess the technology to keep those drivers from getting behind the wheel in the first place; Ecola’s report showed how adding alcohol detection to ignition systems fleet-wide would likely save about 7,000 lives per year. That’s good, but less attention is paid to driver distraction, where the government could intervene by requiring eye-tracking technology and regulating ever-expanding infotainment screens on the dashboard. What is praiseworthy here is that the “people” in this part of the strategy are the drivers: The plan doesn’t call for placing more responsibility on pedestrians, who often get blamed for behavior that’s caused by bad road design.
“Design roadway environments to mitigate human mistakes and account for injury tolerances, to encourage safer behaviors, and to facilitate safe travel by the most vulnerable users.”
The plan says it plainly: The U.S. most urgently needs a big shift toward what’s known as the “safe system” approach to street design, which many countries that have virtually eliminated traffic deaths have already adopted. “We’ve been fighting for years to get the media, the public, and especially transportation agencies to focus on the neglected role of street design,” says Beth Osborne, Transportation for America director. The DOT plan calls for changes to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), the outdated street-design guidelines that a large coalition of engineers is working to reform. At the same time, Osborne notes, it matters where the money goes, particularly from the recent infrastructure bill. The ratio needs to be flipped: less for driving, more to support walking, biking, and transit. “USDOT needs to make safety the fundamental consideration of the hundreds of billions that states get in programs,” she says. “If safety for our most vulnerable users is the top priority, then it will be a priority of all the programs, not just niche programs.”
“Expand the availability of vehicle systems and features that help to prevent crashes and minimize the impact of crashes on both occupants and non-occupants.”
Much of what Buttigieg is proposing here hangs on the New Car Assessment Program, which would change safety ratings to include tech like pedestrian-detection systems in all new vehicles. Making such features standard would indeed save lives, but the problem with this approach are that automakers (which hold a tremendous amount of sway and rarely agree on anything) have to sign on to such rules, meaning that change will take many years to filter into areas where people drive older vehicles, leaving poorer people at extra risk, says Jessie Singer, author of the forthcoming There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster — Who Profits and Who Pays the Price. More troublingly, however, there’s nothing in here about regulating the size or weight of SUVs and trucks, which have grown absurdly heavy and tall. “Relying on the free market to decide the life and death of people on the roads is perhaps one of the oldest ideas in America, but it’s still grotesque,” says Singer. “The fact that the pedestrian safety crisis is rising unabated, and is directly correlated with the growing size of SUVs and light trucks, and that USDOT pays this no mention at all, is terrifying to say the least.”
“Promote safer speeds in all roadway environments through a combination of thoughtful, context-appropriate roadway design, targeted education and outreach campaigns, and enforcement.”
Speed is the single greatest indicator of whether someone will survive a crash. Buttigieg’s plan acknowledges the importance of designing streets that are built for safety rather than fast travel, including changing the way speed limits are set, which many states do by watching how fast 85 percent of drivers choose to travel (it sounds like a joke, but it’s true, and it’s a horrible idea). But the extremely notable part here is that Buttigieg puts forth the concept of “self-enforcing streets,” acknowledging that investing in better design is more effective — and equitable — than paying cops to patrol. “It is a new day when USDOT acknowledges the benefits of self-enforcing streets,” says Danny Harris, executive director of New York City–based Transportation Alternatives, which is working as part of a statewide coalition to pass sweeping traffic-safety reform in the New York legislature. “Not only are they a proven tool to prevent traffic violence, they are a marked shift away from the harms of armed police enforcement on our streets.”
“Enhance the survivability of crashes through expedient access to emergency medical care, while creating a safe working environment for vital first responders and preventing secondary crashes through robust traffic incident management practices.”
This is perhaps an underappreciated element of preventing roadway fatalities, but it’s really important. When severe crashes occur, the distance to a trauma center can mean the difference between life and death, particularly in rural areas. Part of the plan includes better coordination between emergency teams, hospitals, and transportation agencies to track those response times. “Something that’s a big issue here in the U.S. in particular is how poor our data is on some of these post-crash statistics, particularly with respect to vulnerable, non-motor vehicle–occupant users who are not fatalities,” says Tara Goddard, a transportation planning professor at Texas A&M University. “We do a rotten job of following up or understanding the massive costs to quality of life and the transportation system for even moderate injuries.” People who die more than 30 days after a crash aren’t even included in the totals, for example. It’s good to see codification of a more holistic approach to road safety, she says. “Of course it is ideal to prevent all crashes, but in any realistic near-term scenario, and definitely today, we need the whole continuum of care involved.”
As Osborne noted, it will take much more funding to back up all this policy; $6 billion for a new Safe Streets and Roads for All program pales in comparison to the hundreds of billions allocated for highways. Similarly, allocating dollars for educational campaigns gives state and local transportation departments too much leeway to spend federal money sharing information instead of building infrastructure. And one critical element that’s missing from Buttigieg’s plan is a target date. Ecola, who created the plan to eliminate fatalities by 2050, says this strategy is in keeping with that goal but requires steady commitment to its design priorities (and given that a half a dozen or so commissioners will run the DOT over the next three decades, that’s not a given). A battle with automakers is likely to be part of it. But now, at least, what the federal government is saying is aligned with what advocates have been saying for decades.