Deaths on U.S. roadways have seen an alarming increase since 2019, despite seeing less traffic due to the pandemic. This latest spike in traffic fatalities has prompted the Department of Transportation, under the direction of former U.S. presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, to implement a new “National Roadway Safety Strategy” in an effort to curb traffic deaths.
The NRSS will be funded in part by the $1 trillion infrastructure bill recently passed by the Biden administration, and it’s arranged around five major points, which Buttigieg called “safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds and post-crash care.” The goal of the NRSS, per Mayor Pete, is ultimately to eliminate deaths on U.S. roadways altogether. As in zero traffic deaths.
That’s an ambitious goal that lacks a timeline, but the NRSS’s five-point plan is just a first step in the right direction. The figures from the DOT, which I’ve emphasized, indeed show a rise in traffic deaths that we should worry about:
The rate of roadway fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled has not substantially improved over the last ten years, and increased significantly in 2020. An estimated 38,680 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, of which an estimated 6,236 were people walking. In the first six months of 2021 an estimated 20,160 people died in motor vehicle crashes, up 18.4 percent over 2020. That is the largest number of projected fatalities for January through June since 2006. Since 2015, the annual number of fatalities has exceeded 35,000, with millions more injured – sometimes permanently – each year. Traffic crashes are a leading cause of death for teenagers in America, and disproportionately impact people who are Black, American Indian, and live in rural communities.
For reference, Buttigieg claims that Canada saw roughly half the number of traffic deaths last year, while Europe (it’s unclear if he meant the EU) saw roughly one quarter that amount. Zooming in, Buttigieg also said that Hoboken, New Jersey actually had zero traffic deaths for three years straight. So, even in a country as big as the U.S., it’s worth addressing what Mayor Pete called this “national crisis.” Take a closer look at the numbers from 2020:
You can click here for a look at the NRSS brief to go though the “Safer” and the “Post-Crash Care” sections of the plan. I’ll just touch on some of highlights.
Among those are plans to slow speeders down by “re-engineering roads to slow down vehicles rather than relying primarily on enforcement to manage speeding. Promote speed safety cameras as a proven safety countermeasure.”
There’s plans to begin prioritizing better-lit streets “so that lighting becomes a key design factor in roadway upgrades. Involve transit providers in Complete Streets implementation activities to support safe walking, biking, and rolling to stops.” Because pedestrians are dying in alarming numbers, also.
The NRSS will require automakers to include new information on Monroney stickers about crash safety systems, both for drivers and pedestrians. The NRSS will set new requirements for carmakers to include “Automatic Emergency Braking” and “Pedestrian Automatic Emergency Braking” technologies on new passenger vehicles and heavy trucks.
Buttigieg did specifically mention autonomous cars but mostly to say they are not the answer to lowering traffic deaths — not by far. If anything, the technologies that are actually going to help us are mostly from the ADAS systems that work to help drivers avoid accidents, not drive the cars for them.
Again, even if the NRSS feels like it’s too broad to help, there are always things we can do to help. At one point during his statement, Buttigieg mentioned three simple rules that everyone can easily follow, saying drivers “need to put down their phones, need to take their foot off the gas. And, of course, driver sober.”
So often, it’s easy to abstract away these announcements. It’s tempting to tell ourselves that the stats and figures behind the plans are far away, but they’re kind of not. Look at the traffic deaths by state to get an idea of the breakdown of those abstract, impersonal figures. And please don’t be one of them.