As car crash deaths soar, what can the government do?
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg released a plan on Thursday to redesign roads, reduce speeds and tighten vehicle safety features, pledging to cut nationwide fatalities in just weeks after closing a year in Los Angeles that saw a significant increase in fatal collisions. on the congested roads of this car-centric city.
The plan, called the National Highway Safety Strategy, would be funded with funds from the Biden administration’s $1 trillion infrastructure act, with the impossible goal of “zero road deaths.” It would incorporate what it calls a “safe system approach” that recognizes human error and physical frailty and designs a transportation system that minimizes the risk of death or serious injury in the event of an accident.
New federal data to be released next week will show deaths have increased across the country, Buttigieg told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of the plan’s release.
“It doesn’t look good and I continue to be extremely concerned about the trend,” Buttigieg said. “Somehow, over the years and decades, it’s become normal, sort of the cost of doing business. Even during a pandemic that has led to a dramatic reduction in driving, we continue to see more danger on our roads. »
Traffic collisions killed 294 people in Los Angeles in 2021, city officials said Thursday, a 24% increase from the previous year. The number of cyclists and pedestrians killed by drivers also increased last year compared to 2020.
LA officials say 2021 data suggests motorists are being distracted by cellphones, speeding and reckless driving. Officials also point to car design trends that make cars heavier and more dangerous.
“For generations in this country, we have prioritized cars, speed and capacity on our streets, over people,” Seleta Reynolds, chief executive of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said Thursday. Today, federal transportation leaders “reported a huge culture shift that puts safety first, with a clear strategy that includes funding, actions and timelines.”
Reynolds called the plan a “tremendous victory for cities like Los Angeles, where we’ve been implementing a safety-first approach for years…With the resources and focus of the federal government, we have a much better opportunity to deal with the wave of traffic violence that has torn far too many families and communities apart in our city and across the country.”
The total number of road crash deaths in Los Angeles has held steady or fallen only slightly in the years leading up to the pandemic, frustrating activists who want to see more progress on a city program to end road deaths by 2025.
This program, Vision Zero, was started by Mayor Eric Garcetti but needs more funding and attention from city leaders to be effective, transportation activists say.
Michael Schneider, founder of the Los Angeles-based advocacy group Streets for All, said he was encouraged by Buttigieg’s focus on making roads safe for all modes of transportation.
“It’s so refreshing to see a transport secretary recognize that the purpose of roads isn’t just to get cars through as quickly as possible,” Schneider said.
The 42-page plan acknowledges the uneven pain caused by road deaths. The death rate is about twice as high in rural areas as in US cities, he said. The poorest counties in the country have a higher traffic collision death rate than the country as a whole.
“Deaths among black people increased by 23% between 2019 and 2020, compared to an overall increase of 7.2%,” the report said. “People who are American Indian and Alaska Native have road fatality rates more than double the national rate per population.”
Over the past decade, deaths of pedestrians and cyclists have increased faster than deaths on the roads as a whole, which has had a “chilling effect” on climate-friendly human-powered modes of transport.
To combat these alarming trends, the safe system approach focuses on five elements: safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds, and what it calls post-crash care.
The plan would focus on developing ways to more accurately measure drug and alcohol impairment and would require state driver licensing agencies to “take licensing action against commercial drivers who have drug or alcohol offenses in the system and are not cleared to return to duty.”
This would push local governments to plan, design and build safer roads, efforts that would be funded with federal funds. This would encourage automakers to integrate collision avoidance features such as automatic emergency braking into new passenger vehicles. And it would focus on shortening ambulance response times in the event of a collision.
“Unfortunately, many highways are not designed to ensure safe travel at safe speeds for everyone, especially the most vulnerable road users,” Federal Highway Administration Deputy Administrator Stephanie Pollack said in a statement. a written statement. Funding provided by the Infrastructure Act will enable state, local, federal and tribal governments to build “all user safety into every federally funded highway project.”
Shannon Frattaroli, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University who focuses on injuries, has long studied troubling road deaths. On Thursday, she welcomed news of the plan.
“We are moving from a system of moving cars to a system of moving people,” Frattaroli said. “We have never seen leaders in the transportation world put safety, equity or environmental concerns first. It’s very exciting.”
Frattaroli said transportation infrastructure in the United States has long been designed with the primary goal of moving cars as quickly as possible, rather than moving people as safely as possible. She believes roads should be designed with imperfect drivers in mind.
“In the United States, we have placed far too much emphasis on safe driver behavior, and not enough on the road itself,” she said. “We know people can’t be safe all the time, and when they make mistakes, we don’t want them to be fatal.”
Buttigieg is “going in the right direction,” she said, “But I’m looking to see that vision come true. There are a lot of great ideas, and I’m optimistic, but I appreciate the work that needs to be done. done now.