From Wired: U.S. DOT shifting away from the actions of individual drivers to focus on the role street layouts and local policies play in efforts to reduce roadway deaths

Proof that Transportation has become one of the hottest topics nationwide, popular technology-focused publisher, Wired, released an article on January 27 exploring the new federal administration's plans to reduce roadway deaths through smarter road design. Below is a summary for anyone without a Wired subscription, or you can read the complete article here.


Also check out November 2021 coverage in Wired, "The Infrastructure Bill: 5 Key Takeaways" which highlights how pedestrians, cyclists, transit systems, broadband networks, and climate change measures could benefit from the $1.2 trillion plan – or our own summary of the bill in the #TNU archives.




Outdated policies for managing roadway deaths is rooted in an oft reported statistic touted by technologists, engineers, police officers, and the federal government – that 94% of US traffic crashes are the result of human error.


On the surface, such a number suggests that individuals are in charge of their own destinies when it comes to how they travel and use our nation's roadways. Conveniently, rather than place the responsibility for roadway safety on the systems we've built, statistics like this one put the burden squarely on the shoulders of individuals – drivers, pedestrians, cyclists – and help support the narrative that the way roads are built, the way streets are governed, and the way cars are designed were not viable paths to solving the crisis that is roadways deaths in America.


The statistic itself is based on a misunderstanding of a 2015 report from U.S. DOT NHTSA (the entity in charge of road safety in the US), released after studying crash data between 2005 and 2007 in which they determined that the driver was the "critical reason" behind the vast majority of crashes.


What the statistic fails to reflect is how a driver's actions are typically the last in a long chain of events. Today's administration is taking a different look by acknowledging that the LAST thing to go wrong does not inherently make it the SOLE REASON things went wrong. Instead, federal agencies are now looking at the whole process – from the highway surveys, to the road design and engineering, to the policy crafted by lobbyists decades ago that made it difficult, if not impossible, for people to travel without a car.


Earlier this month, the US DOT has officially removed that 94% statistic from its website.


And on Thursday last week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg went public telling a different story about US road deaths saying, "Human fallibility should not lead to human fatalities." His goal, he said, is zero road deaths.


If all goes to plan, the new "National Roadway Safety Strategy" is a set of actions and recommendations that could affect everything from speed limits to street design to the technology required in cars. The strategy's supporters hope that the new approach will finally lead to fewer deaths on US roads, but it'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.


While deaths on US roads have been declining since the 1970s (a statistic attributed primarily to advancements in vehicle technology and roadway design), the trend actually reversed during the pandemic at a time where American drivers actually drove far fewer miles.


In fact, deaths per mile in the US jumped by 23% in 2020. That's 38,680 human lives lost on the road – the most since 2007.


And in the first half of 2021, US DOT estimates that fatalities jumped again (18% higher than the first half of 2020). Moreover, minority communities are disproportionally impacted by these increasing rates, as are pedestrians and cyclists.


Compared prior years in the US, the rising statistics aren't pretty, but when compared to the rest of the world, the picture looks even worse. In fact, more people die on US roads than in any comparable high-income country.


So now, the US DOT is proposing to nix this ugly bit of exceptionalism by taking a Swedish-born "safe system" approach to roads (see, Vision Zero).


In a nutshell, adopting the principle means that roads should be designed and managed to allow people to screw up without dying or maiming anyone in the process. "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 new strategy proposes spending billions from the recently passed infrastructure bill on road safety programs like those dedicated to reducing cycling and pedestrian deaths, and ones researching how to make trucks safer (key word "proposes"). It suggests NHTSA require automakers to add pedestrian sensors and automatic braking systems to all vehicles, and considers requiring automakers to add tech that prevents people from driving while intoxicated (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 the strategy does stop short of tearing up the existing manual in favor of writing a new safety-focused one from scratch.


The "National Roadway Safety Strategy" also puts forward a new approach to speeding (which killed nearly 10,500 Americans in 2020 alone. It starts by proposing revising guidance on setting speed limits (something that is technically left up to the states). Instead of setting speed limits based on how drivers "naturally" move on an open road (known as the 85th percentile speed), the strategy suggests that the department will help local engineers consider road design, layout, and people other than drivers, which could in turn lead to local officials lowering speed limits on certain roads to make them safer.


In practice, of course, the updated strategy will take years to pull off and could be derailed by politics. The policy's implementation will ultimately come down to state and local transportation departments. Senior federal DOT officials told reporters last week 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, though King Gee, the Director of Safety & Mobility for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (which represents state DOTs) says the reputation is outdated. He says that state agencies began shifting their thinking on road safety a decade ago, with agencies now considering how people on bikes, scooters, motorized wheelchairs, and their own feet are safely moving around towns and cities. "We are changing," he says.


There are plenty of places where federal guidance will likely be welcome, but as Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute says, the DOT "is not going to have to change everyone's minds. There are minds already working in this direction," with states like California and Washington, and cities like New York, Portland, and Washington, D.C. leading the pack with existing commitments to eliminating road deaths.