Yellow traffic sign reading "Slowly Please" posted in a rural area

Weekend Reads: Getting to Zero Road Fatalities

by Kevin Schofield


This weekend’s read is the recently-released National Roadway Safety Strategy from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In 1980, there were over 50,000 roadway fatalities in the United States. Over the following thirty years the annual count dropped to about 32,000 due to a number of factors, including lowering the speed limit to 55, raising the drinking age to 21, mandates for better safety equipment in vehicles (including seat belts, air bags, passenger-side mirrors, and crush-proof roofs), and temporary use restrictions on new teenage drivers’ licenses. The simultaneous increase in the U.S. population hides the magnitude of the difference: the rate of roadway fatalities dropped from 3.5 per 100 million miles driven in 1980 down to about 1.1 in 2010. 

But in the last decade we stopped making progress in reducing fatalities; worse, in 2020 — when most people were staying home because of COVID — fatalities increased both in absolute numbers and in the rate (to about 1.4 per 100 million miles). Experts are unclear as to why the rate ticked up, though many theorize that having fewer cars on the road made it easier to drive faster.

Even setting aside pandemic-induced driver behavior, the fact that we have made no progress on further reducing roadway fatalities in ten years is sobering. But the Biden Administration’s DOT seems determined to change that. It is re-emphasizing the “Vision Zero” goal: ending roadway fatalities entirely. That is an ambitious goal and almost certainly unreachable: Americans drive over three trillion miles per year, and the Law of Large Numbers guarantees that in a sample set that large some bad things will happen. Yet the reality is that there is no “acceptable” number of deaths, and as the DOT’s Roadway Strategy report details, there is still much that we can do that will save tens of thousands of lives. 

Unfortunately, there is no simple, tidy answer to how to make road travel safer: As the report points out, the U.S. network of roads is “a highly complex, de-centralized system with an array of entities responsible for specific aspects that influence safety outcomes.” Simply identifying who is responsible for making changes is challenging; here in Seattle alone we have federal highways, State highways, HOV lanes, bus lanes, reversible lanes, city arterials, neighborhood streets, tunnels, bridges, and more. There are overlapping federal, state, and local laws that regulate speeds limits, vehicle equipment and safety standards, and who can operate a vehicle (and under what circumstances they may do so). Jurisdiction for enforcing the laws varies by road — and includes both law enforcement officers and automated devices such as traffic cameras. 

In addition, there is no single identifiable source for the bulk of the fatalities; there are a number of contributing factors, and often more than one come into play. That said, the data points to several important elements, and the DOT’s strategy lays out a “safe system” approach that focuses on five of them: safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds, and post-crash care.

The “safer people” effort focuses on reducing risky behaviors, such as intoxication, failure to use seat belts, and driver distractions such as texting or other device use. This connects to the “safer speeds” effort as well, where the report highlights statistics showing that there is a nation-wide epidemic of speeding despite evidence that the speed at which a collision occurs has a dramatic difference in whether people survive — and particularly pedestrians.

Graph via National Roadway Safety Strategy from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

There is some very interesting discussion of what could be done to make vehicles themselves safer. The report discusses some emerging but not yet required technologies such as automatic braking, warnings when a vehicle crosses lanes, ignition-locks tied to a breathalyzer, and detection of distracted or drowsy drivers. However, the report treats automated-driving technologies cautiously, arguing that they need to be allowed to continue to develop and be refined despite the lack of clarity as to whether self-driving vehicles will be better or worse drivers than humans. 

Another interesting area discussed in the report that tends not to get much attention is post-collision medical care. According to the DOT, 20% of trauma deaths related to roadway incidents are preventable with optimal emergency and trauma care, but one-third of seriously injured victims are not taken directly to a level-1 or level-2 trauma center. That aligns with statistics showing that rural roads account for a disproportionate share of roadway fatalities: On top of other factors that can make rural roadways more hazardous, the country’s rural areas tend to be farther from good medical care.

Graph via National Roadway Safety Strategy from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

To provide additional justification for investments, the DOT points out that there are significant racial and ethnic disparities in the impact of roadway fatalities. Indigenous, Black, and Pacific Islander populations have higher than average roadway fatalities, and the disparities are more pronounced for pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities. 

Graph via National Roadway Safety Strategy from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The DOT also notes that there are ties to climate change. Vehicles are one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, so addressing climate change will require greater use of transit, bicycles, other “micro-mobility” devices, and walking. But pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities are increasing at a faster rate than roadway fatalities altogether. It will be hard to transition people to a greener transportation system if it’s less safe than the current one.

The report includes a long list of “key departmental actions” for the DOT, across the five focus areas, to move the roadways safety strategy forward. The list is a mix of regulatory efforts related to licenses, vehicles, and road standards, as well as new federal funding to allow state and local partners to do their part.

National Roadway Safety Strategy


Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Insight, a website providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Rainy Wong used under the Unsplash license.

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