With 100 People Per Day Dying in Crashes, Lawmakers Weigh Road Safety Options

A smashed up vehicle sits on the shoulder of Interstate 80 in West Wendover, Nevada, following a crash that claimed at least two lives, in which one vehicle was traveling the wrong direction on the highway.

A smashed up vehicle sits on the shoulder of Interstate 80 in West Wendover, Nevada, following a crash that claimed at least two lives, in which one vehicle was traveling the wrong direction on the highway. Nevada Highway Patrol via AP, File


Connecting state and local government leaders

The issue is coming up as Congress begins to discuss renewing a key piece of transportation funding legislation.

Safety advocates and others are urging Congress to take steps to curb motor vehicle crashes, which kill thousands of Americans each year, as discussions get underway about reauthorizing a major piece of federal highway legislation.

Federal figures show that 37,133 people—pedestrians and cyclists among them—lost their lives in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2017. While that figure is down nearly 2 percent from the prior year, it’s still equivalent to about 100 people dying each day in traffic incidents.

Total U.S. road fatalities have been in the range of 33,000 to 44,000 since the early 1990s. Death rates per 100 million vehicle miles traveled were generally on a downward trajectory from the 1980s through the early 2000s before flattening in recent years.

There was a drop in the number of vehicle-related deaths around the time the Great Recession hit. But this figure climbed in 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, research has shown troubling upward trends in recent years when it comes to pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities.

“Somehow we seem to have become, sort of, inured to the fact that a hundred people a day die in motor vehicle accidents,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, said during a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday.

Experts emphasize that speeding, drunk driving and distracted driving are some of the leading contributors to deadly wrecks.

“The fact of the matter is most of the crashes that are occurring are directly related to bad behavior on the part of the participants,” said Michael Brown, the police chief in Alexandria, Virginia.

“People make bad choices and people get hurt and in some cases they die,” he added.

Jennifer Homendy, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, noted in her testimony on Tuesday that driving over the speed limit, or too fast for road conditions, was a factor in crashes that resulted in about 10,000 deaths in 2016.

She said federal guidance has enabled states to increase speed limits, with the number of states with speed limits at or over 70 mph rising to 41 in 2016, from 32 in 2012. Seven of those states, she said, have speed limits on some of their roads that are at or above 80 mph.

“We need to change how we set speed limits in this country,” Homendy said.

Automated enforcement technology, speed limiting devices in vehicles and incentive grants for states to combat speeding, were some options she offered for cutting down on speeding.

On drunk driving, NTSB recommends lowering the threshold for a driver to be considered legally intoxicated to a 0.05 percent blood alcohol content level, or lower, instead of 0.08. Utah is the only state with that standard, which went into effect late last year.

Requiring ignition locking devices for all people convicted of driving under the influence, instead of only for repeat offenders, is another one of the board’s recommendations.  

“Impairment, from all the research that we have looked at, begins at the very first drink,” Homendy said.

She noted about 10,000 people died annually in recent years in crashes where alcohol was a factor—equal to about 29 deaths per day, or one person dying every 48 minutes.

Homendy said the data is “just not there” to say with confidence how marijuana, which is now legal for recreational use in 10 states, affects driver performance and road safety.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.’s non-voting delegate in the U.S. House and chair of the subcommittee that held the hearing, said it was frustrating to hear some of the testimony.

“Congress has spent some considerable funds to reduce highway deaths,” she said.

Tuesday’s discussion took place as congressional lawmakers turn their attention to reauthorizing surface transportation funding legislation, as a five-year, $305 billion measure commonly referred to as the “FAST Act” is set to expire at the end of next September.

Fred Jones is vice mayor of Neptune Beach, Florida and works as a transportation planner. He appeared before the subcommittee on behalf of the advocacy group Transportation for America.

Jones lamented that his city is located in a metropolitan area that’s considered to be the sixth most dangerous in the U.S. for pedestrians and cyclists, and that Florida as a whole is one of the riskiest places in the nation to get around on foot or by bicycle.

About 5,400 pedestrians and cyclists have been struck and killed by vehicles in the state over the past decade, Jones’ written remarks say.

He told the subcommittee part of the problem is that for about 50 years the U.S. has focused on building bigger, wider and faster roadways to keep vehicles moving, “all at the cost of human lives.”

“We know that speed leads to more deadly crashes,” he said. “What is particularly frustrating is our acceptance of this level of danger.”

Agencies like Florida’s Department of Transportation deserve credit, he said, for their efforts to develop “complete streets” initiatives intended to help make roads safer for all types of users. But there’s some trouble where the rubber meets the road, from his perspective.

“What we're seeing is a major disconnect between what we think are feel good policy frameworks and the actual implementation of safe roadways,” Jones said.

He highlighted a reconfigured road in Orlando as an example of how to make streets safer. The project involved taking away a traffic lane on the 70-foot-wide street and making more space for pedestrians and cyclists. After it was complete, he said, injuries and collisions dropped.

"As we bring up reauthorization, we're strongly urging Congress to lead a discussion about what it is that we plan to achieve, not just how much we are going to spend,” Jones told lawmakers.

But he also said that, of over $40 billion in annual federal highway spending, less than $1 billion is often reserved for pedestrian and cyclist projects, and just $2.3 billion goes to safety.

Jay Bruemmer, who’s in the road striping business and testified on behalf of the American Traffic Safety Services Association, called on lawmakers to limit the sums of money states can shift away from what’s known as the Highway Safety Improvement Program.

His association would also like to see that account boosted so it is at least 10 percent of spending on the nation’s core highway program.

Some of Tuesday’s discussion focused on how newer technology could help make roads safer.

For example, Homendy said automatic emergency braking systems that alert drivers and automatically apply the brakes of a vehicle when a collision is imminent are currently available and proven to save lives. But she added that safety upgrades like this cost extra money.

“In our view safety is not a luxury,” she said. “Those should be standard on all new vehicles.”

Other measures that can help to cut down on crash risks are not new.

Bruemmer noted a 150-mile stretch of road in Minnesota where there had been 19 fatal cross-median crashes over a three year span, but said that this number dropped to zero in the three years after the installation of cable barriers along the center of the road.

Nicholas Smith, interim president and CEO of The National Safety Council, suggested the nation doesn’t move with the same urgency to address highway fatalities, compared to how it reacts when people die in plane crashes. “Where is our outrage over these deaths?” he asked.

“We know how to prevent these fatalities,” Smith added. “We just have not had the will to prioritize these actions.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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