Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | While traffic volume dropped precipitously during the pandemic, vehicle fatalities, particularly those involving pedestrians, are increasing at a record-setting pace. But there are things governments can do to address the issue.
Despite the incredible rise in traffic volume over the past 50 years, traffic fatality rates steadily declined between 1966 and 2019. Then Covid-19 hit. And despite a marked decrease in vehicle miles traveled—down 13% at the height of the pandemic—the fatality rate has jumped precipitously.
According to a May news release issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 42,915 lives were lost in traffic crashes nationwide in 2020. Fatal crashes increased by 10.5% over the previous year, while the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was to 1.33—a 21% increase over 2019.
Even more alarming is the marked increase in pedestrian fatalities. A recent report by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that the pedestrian fatality rate jumped 21% in the first six months of 2020. During that span, motor vehicle crashes killed 2,957 pedestrians nationwide, even as vehicle miles traveled dropped 16.5%.
Worse still, early estimates are showing that fatality rates are continuing to rise into 2022 as Covid wanes and life for most people in the United States returns to normal. NHTSA data indicates that, on average, a pedestrian is killed every 85 minutes somewhere in the continental U.S.
While the causes of all this carnage run the gamut from distracted driving to driving under the influence, speeding is almost always a contributing factor if not the primary cause. Numerous studies clearly show that the higher the speed, the greater the impact at the time of a crash, leading to more severe injuries and fatalities. While a pedestrian has a 90% chance of surviving when hit by a vehicle driving in the 20-25 mph range, that survival rate drops to 50% when the vehicle is going 40-45 mph.
Complicating this picture is the size of the vehicle. A pedestrian is two to three times more likely to die if hit by an SUV or a pickup truck as opposed to a sedan. The reason is simple. SUV and truck front ends are taller, so they are more likely to strike an adult pedestrian higher on their body than a sedan, which would hit the pedestrian’s leg. Small children, meanwhile, are completely out of view of a pickup truck driver. Given that, it is not surprising that nearly half of all pedestrian deaths involve SUVs, light trucks or vans.
Lighting is also a major contributor to traffic fatalities. While the number of fatal crashes occurring in daylight is about the same as those that occur in darkness, the nighttime fatality rate is three times the daytime rate because only 25% of vehicle miles traveled occur at night, according to the Federal Highway Administration. At nighttime, vehicles traveling at higher speeds may not have the ability to stop once a hazard or change in the road ahead becomes visible by the headlights. Therefore, lighting can be applied continuously along segments and at spot locations, such as intersections and pedestrian crossings in order to reduce the chances of a crash.
Given this deadly crisis on our nation’s roads, what can communities do to reduce, if not eliminate, traffic fatalities, with a particular focus on lowering pedestrian deaths?
Obviously, the first step communities should take is to bring down speed limits. Unfortunately, that is not an easy feat. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. While smaller towns and local communities may have a fair amount of latitude in reducing speed limits, most urban arterials within city boundaries are owned by the states and, therefore, outside of city control. This enables states to give priority to measures that will allow traffic to flow more easily, especially during peak periods, while limiting the cities’ ability to make changes that will lower speed limits or impact street design. The good news here is that several states are introducing legislation that will give cities a say in what speed limits should be and how their streets should be designed.
Improved street design, in fact, can play a major role in slowing speeding vehicles. Installing a variety of traffic calming measures, such as narrower traffic lanes, speed bumps, roundabouts, medians and central turn lanes helps to reduce both the speed and volume of vehicle traffic, while enabling pedestrians and bike traffic to travel safely.
Pedestrian safety can also be vastly improved by making adjustments to pedestrian crossing times and installing inroad LEDs for crosswalks, high-quality midblock crossings, and dynamic sensing devices to extend crossing times.
Proper signage and lighting can also help to significantly reduce pedestrian fatalities. A diamond grade reflective sign, for example, can be seen three to four times sooner than an engineered grade stop sign. Since drivers traveling at higher speeds need more time to react to changes in the road environment ahead, this kind of improvement can have a huge impact on the safety of pedestrians crossing unsignalized intersections.
Similarly, installing speed signs that show both the existing speed limit and how fast vehicles are actually driving has proven to be one of the best ways to slow traffic flow. Whether used on their own or in conjunction with speed cameras, these devices are highly effective in encouraging motorists to slow down, particularly in high-risk areas such as school zones or popular pedestrian or cycling routes.
There are, of course, numerous other steps communities can take to reduce traffic fatalities and improve pedestrian safety, including more extreme measures such as limiting or completely banning large trucks from neighborhood roads which are responsible for 7% of all pedestrian fatalities and more than 11% of bicycle fatalities nationally. To assure adoption of traffic calming measures that will be effective, communities should consider developing and then implementing a jurisdiction-wide speed management program.
Speed management programs provide the necessary framework for how to create safety and mobility for all road users in the context of specific road conditions and across a vast road network. Effective speed management efforts typically involve a balanced program that:
- Defines the relationship between speed, speeding, and safety.
- Applies road design and engineering measures to obtain appropriate speeds.
- Sets speed limits that are safe and reasonable.
- Deploys enforcement efforts and appropriate technology to effectively address speeders and deter speeding.
- Generates marketing, communication and educational messages that focus on high-risk drivers.
To create a successful speed management program, communities should:
- Develop stakeholder working group to establish the goals of the program, determine timelines, set meeting schedules, communicate to the public and evaluate the program for changes.
- Identify speeding issues through data collection of crash records, crash types, fatality rates, citation history, road conditions, public information act requests, citizen concerns, public surveys and speed studies;
- Identify countermeasures that are effective in managing speeds and reducing the incidence and severity of speed-related crashes.
- Develop an action plan that can include speed limit changes for designated roads and implementation of speed reduction projects where needed.
- Evaluate the progress of the program.
Obviously, none of this happens overnight. And public support must be solicited and maintained to be effective. But by taking these steps, communities can go a long way toward reducing traffic fatalities and improving the safety of drivers and pedestrians alike.
Wes Guckert is president and CEO of The Traffic Group, a traffic engineering and transportation planning firm serving clients nationally and internationally. He is also an ITE Fellow and on the National Small Business Leadership Council.