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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called for drastically reducing deadly crashes, but much of the heavy lifting for the department's new initiative will fall on states and localities.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is revamping the way it approaches traffic safety, amid a startling surge in road deaths over the last two years. The sweeping plan could change everything from the design of vehicles to the look of city streets.
“When it comes to roadway deaths, we have a crisis that is urgent, unacceptable and preventable,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg when unveiling the plan Thursday.
Nearly 38,700 people died in traffic crashes in 2020, a 7% increase over the year before, according to federal estimates. Things got worse in the first six months of last year, with federal estimates showing an 18.4% increase in traffic deaths over the same period in 2020.
Buttigieg called for a drastic reversal in those trends. “Our goal is zero deaths, a country where one day nobody has to say goodbye to a loved one because of a traffic death,” he said.
The federal initiative is a major victory for safety advocates, who for years have complained that the federal government had focused too much on moving traffic along smoothly and not enough on safety.
It will complement efforts like the Vision Zero programs many cities have launched in recent years to reduce road deaths, which were inevitably hamstrung by the fact that cities could not change the safety features of vehicles and had limited options when redesigning their streets.
But much of the heavy lifting in the Biden administration plan will fall to state and local officials, many of whom have resisted calls to reduce vehicle speeds or promote nondriving alternatives that are safer than vehicle travel.
“We are going to team up with governors, mayors and county executives who are the ones who actually design and maintain so much of American road systems. Our strategy gives government at every level a shared roadmap, and we’re counting on their help, just as they can count on ours,” Buttigieg said.
The USDOT’s newly released National Roadway Safety Strategy calls for a “safe systems” approach, much like the way the aviation industry handles flight safety. It requires improvements throughout the transportation industry, including redundant systems that reduce the risk that one mistake would lead to crashes that kill or injure road users.
The federal plan will stress the need for “safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds and better post-crash care.”
Among the major changes and new initiatives included in the plan are:
- Overhauling the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, a publication that standardizes road features across the United States and acts as a de facto national regulation on traffic control devices, which can affect street design. The National Association of City Transportation Officials, along with many pedestrian and cyclist advocacy groups, have criticized existing versions for making it difficult to add crosswalks, pedestrian signals, red transit lanes and other features to protect people who aren’t in vehicles.
- Promoting road designs that slow down vehicles and that encourage motorists to follow posted speed limits.
- Encouraging state and local governments to adopt “complete streets” programs that design roads for users of all transportation modes, including walking, biking, strollers, wheelchairs and buses. The plan emphasizes that lighting should be part of those plans and that transit agencies should be consulted to better accommodate transit users.
- Working with state driver’s licensing agencies to improve sharing of information about commercial drivers with drug and alcohol violations to remove them from the road faster. The USDOT also wants states to use more accurate records for other drivers in order to get them off the road, too.
- Reworking the safety goals state transportation agencies set to qualify for federal road funds. The USDOT said it would consider issuing regulations that “ensure that state safety performance targets demonstrate constant or improved performance for each safety performance measure.” This apparently comes in response to criticism from groups like Smart Growth America, which noted that, in 2018, 18 states set safety goals that would result in an increase in traffic deaths.
- Updating the department’s crash-rating system for new vehicles so that it will consider the safety of people both inside and outside the cars or trucks being tested. This could include specific protections for pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrian deaths have climbed in recent years, as SUVs and trucks have become more popular, more powerful and heavier.
Some Praise From Safety Advocates
The USDOT plan pleased at least some safety advocates when it was first revealed.
“The strategy recognizes that communities and states will achieve zero traffic deaths using different approaches, but our collective goal is the same,” Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said in a statement.
Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America, praised the initiative for addressing the “neglected area of street design.”
“Why is it so important that USDOT use their administrative powers to improve safety? Because in the infrastructure bill, Congress declined to make safety a core priority of and requirement for the huge formula programs used to build or repair roads,” she said in a statement.
Osborne raised concerns, though, that USDOT’s proposals for overhauling the street design guide would not come fast enough and that the scrutiny of new vehicles did not mention higher hoods on trucks and SUVs that block visibility.
The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency that does not report to Buttigieg, has criticized federal agencies for their approach to roadway deaths in the past. But NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy called the new plan the “bold paradigm shift we need.”
“Swift action by federal regulators, state and local authorities, and all stakeholders must immediately follow if we are to reverse the deadly public health crisis on our roads,” she added.
Indeed, getting state and local officials on board could be a challenge for Buttigieg and the Biden administration.
State legislators have moved in the opposite direction in many states, passing laws that raise speed limits, prohibit speed cameras and undid helmet requirements for motorcyclists.
Several Republican governors, meanwhile, have resisted other attempts by the Biden administration to set new priorities for transportation systems. The administration, for example, wants states to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and to address racial inequities in the existing transportation system.
Both of those are also a driving force in the safety discussions. Transportation options like taking the bus, riding a bike or walking produce less greenhouse gas than driving a car. Meanwhile, according to the USDOT strategy notes, Black or Native American people make up a disproportionately high share of traffic deaths.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the purpose of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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