According to figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 2022, fatalities from vehicle collisions in the U.S. reached their highest level in 20 years. More than 40,000 people lose their lives in traffic collisions each year – the equivalent of a 747 dropping out of the sky every week of the year. All of these deaths are preventable. Yet as we see fatalities on U.S. roads climb higher, many other countries have taken action that has led to their roadway fatality numbers dropping.
So, what’s going on in the U.S.? How have other countries made strides in improving road safety? The road to creating safe streets for all is long but the pathway is clear. The question is: do we have the focus to stay the course and save lives?
In the U.S., increases in roadway deaths have been particularly acute among so-called “vulnerable road users” – people walking or biking who are not surrounded by a protective metal cage while traveling (such as in a car). Since 2010, cyclist deaths have increased nearly 50 percent, and pedestrian fatalities have risen by more than 70 percent. Preliminary estimates for the last year show that this trend has continued for both groups.
The requirements to address the severe problem of roadway fatalities in the U.S. are three-fold:
1. Data and tools to support action
2. Funding to implement changes to address this problem
3. Political will
Over the past decade, we’ve seen marked progress on item number one. A small but increasing number of agencies have drafted safety action plans, often called “Vision Zero” plans, aligned with a global traffic safety strategy to reduce traffic deaths to zero. The plans are built on the Safe Systems Approach, a proven, data-driven strategy adopted by USDOT as the National Roadway Safety Strategy. New data about how people move through the road network and where dangerous factors require attention and action are increasingly available to road safety practitioners, both from public and private sources.
What has been missing is the funding and political will required to allow committed public agencies to implement the strategies required to protect travelers on their roads. Safe Systems strategies often involve tough tradeoffs between time and capacity for roadway users. Funding will drive political will. With the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November 2021, this final piece of the puzzle has come into focus. Billions of dollars are now available for agencies to address their safety priorities, leading to ground-breaking, ribbon cuttings, and safer outcomes for our streets.
The flagship safety program for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is the Safe Streets and Roads for All Program (SS4A), which will provide more than $5 billion in discretionary funding over the next five years. Funding of this grant program will be directly applied to the aforementioned approach making our streets safer, particularly for vulnerable road users. There are two main categories that projects will fall into: planning and implementation. The SS4A program specifies that no less than 40 percent of these funds will be awarded for planning purposes. This includes the development of Action Plans and any supplemental planning, the nuts and bolts of what will go where, when, and the issues to be addressed. This 2023 round of funding will also include at least $250 million for demonstration projects, which serve to test the waters for city leaders to see how a smaller area will be affected by infrastructure changes before widespread implementation.
Demonstration projects also serve as a means for cities to build up political goodwill; a way to show that tax dollars will actually be put to good, meaningful use on projects that address real safety issues; and a way to show some ‘bite’ to the ‘bark’ that is the planning process. It also allows public officials to gauge the potential reaction to infrastructure projects from multiple perspectives.
For example, the city of Los Angeles introduced a road diet on Venice Boulevard in 2017 using temporary materials. This gave city leaders a chance to analyze the widespread reaction of residents, both positive and negative. Some residents praised the Road Diet for reducing traffic noise and speeding drivers, while others reacted with vitriol to the increased driving times and higher traffic congestion. The implementation process is a long road –planners and engineers must use demonstration projects as a chance to study the before-and-after effects of infrastructure changes at a smaller scale, and they must work step-in-step with local residents to learn how it affects their day-to-day lives. Ultimately, the Venice Boulevard project demonstrated safer outcomes, and funding for additional complete street features has been identified and prioritized for additional stretches of the Venice Blvd corridor as a result1.
NHTSA just published that traffic fatalities dropped in the first three months of 2023. This is good progress, but much more work is necessary to sustain what is currently a short trend. With the current SS4A NOFO open until the end of July, more dollars will continue to be allocated towards combatting what is essentially a public health crisis. It is imperative that city and state DOT officials leverage every resource granted by the SS4A, be it implementation grants, demonstration grants, or planning grants.
Truly righting the wrongs of this epidemic of traffic violence will require cooperation at the federal, state, regional, and local levels. Federal leaders must continue to allocate funding that drives safety outcomes, and local leaders need to continue standing up for proven, data-driven strategies in the face of personal opinions. The road to zero-death roadways in America is a long one, and we must stay the course.
The author, Nat Gale is Head of Product – Safety View, at INRIX