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The Feds Plan to Reduce Roadway Deaths—With Smarter Road Design

Statistics help tell stories, and one often touted by technologists and engineers and police officers and even the federal government told a tale. The statistic: 94 percent of US traffic crashes are the result of human error. The number felt right. It also appealed to a very American idea: that individuals are in charge of their own destinies. Rather than place the burden of road safety on systems—the way roads are built, the way cars are designed, the way streets are governed—it placed it on the driver, or the walker, or the cyclist.

The statistic was based on a misunderstanding of a 2015 report from the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is in charge of US road safety. The report studied crashes between 2005 and 2007 and determined that the driver was the “critical reason” behind the vast majority of crashes. But a driver’s actions were typically the last in a long chain of events. The driver's fiddly movement of the wheel, in other words, was the final thing to go wrong—a process that started with, perhaps, the surveying of the highway, or the road design laid out on the desk of an engineer, or the policy crafted by lobbyists decades ago that made it impossible for anyone to get across town without a car.

Earlier this month, after pleas from researchers, advocates, and another Biden administration official, the US DOT nixed that 94 percent statistic from its website. And on Thursday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg began to tell a very different story about US road deaths. “Human fallibility should not lead to human fatalities,” he said during a press conference in Washington, DC. His goal, he said, is zero road deaths.

Buttigieg was there to introduce what the DOT calls the “National Roadway Safety Strategy.” It is a set of actions and recommendations that could affect everything from speed limits to street design to the technology required in cars. If all goes to plan (and that’s a big “if”) the strategy could unpin the assumptions in the country’s approach to traffic safety—and lead to fewer deaths on US roads.

“That's a big paradigm shift, to recognize people are going to make mistakes and that we aren't going to berate and enforce our way to perfect behavior,” says Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, an advocacy group.

Deaths on US roads have been declining since the 1970s, thanks to advances in vehicle tech and roadway design. But the trend reversed during the pandemic. Americans drove fewer miles in 2020, but deaths per mile traveled jumped by 23 percent, and 38,680 died overall, the most since 2007. In the first half of 2021, the DOT estimates that fatalities jumped again, to 20,160, from 17,020 in the first half of 2020. Black, American Indian, and rural Americans have died at disproportionate rates. So have pedestrians and cyclists. Compared with the rest of the world, the picture looks even darker: After accounting for population size, more people die on US roads than in any comparable high-income country.

Now, the US DOT is proposing to nix this ugly bit of exceptionalism by taking a “safe system” approach to roads: a Swedish-born principle that roads should be designed and managed to allow people to screw up without dying or maiming anyone. “We’re catching up with the rest of the world,” says David Harkey, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and a traffic safety researcher.

The strategy proposes spending billions from the recently passed infrastructure bill on road safety programs, including programs dedicated to reducing cyclist and pedestrian deaths, and ones researching how to make trucks safer. It suggests NHTSA require automakers to add systems to all of their vehicles that will automatically brake before a crash with a pedestrian. The systems, already on some cars, might require automakers to add more cameras, radar systems, or other sensors to their vehicles. The strategy also considers requiring automakers to add tech to prevent people from driving drunk. Almost a third of crashes involve an intoxicated person. The strategy commits to updating an important road design manual that, in general, controls how local governments arrange their streets, though it stops short of tearing the manual up and writing a new safety-focused one, which advocates have sought.

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The strategy also puts forward a new approach to speeding, which killed nearly 10,500 Americans in 2020. It proposes revising the department’s guidance on setting speed limits—something that’s technically left up to states. Instead of setting the limit according to how drivers “naturally” move on an open road, the department will help local engineers consider road design, layout, and people other than drivers. It could, in effect, lead some local officials to lower speed limits on certain roads to make them safer.

In practice, though, the strategy will take years to pull off and could be derailed by politics. Its effect “is very much dependent on implementation,” says Harkey. “It just takes a long time.”

The policy’s implementation will also come down to state and local transportation departments, which are generally in charge of their own highways and streets. Senior federal DOT officials told reporters Wednesday that the agency had already begun working with local officials to change their messaging and approach to road safety. For years, advocates have accused these agencies of prioritizing highways, cars, and road efficiency over anything else. King Gee, the director of safety and mobility for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, which represents state DOTs, says the reputation is outdated. He says state departments began shifting their thinking on road safety a decade ago, with agencies now considering, to varying degrees, how people on bikes, scooters, motorized wheelchairs, and their own feet are safely moving around towns and cities. “We are changing,” he says.

Indeed, there are plenty of places where federal guidance will likely be welcome—if maybe behind the times. States including California and Washington, and cities including New York; Portland, Oregon; and Washington, DC, have already committed to eliminating road deaths. The DOT “is not going to have to change everyone’s minds,” says Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “There are minds already working in this direction.”

Updates, 1-28-22, 11:10am ET: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified King Gee as the director of engineering and technical services for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

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