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DOT vows ‘paradigm shift’ in new roadway safety standards

Fatalities climbed in 2020 despite a decline in driving and were up 18.2 percent in first half of 2021

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, seen with an electric car in 2021, was releasing a department report with a new highway safety strategy to be paid for in part by the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, seen with an electric car in 2021, was releasing a department report with a new highway safety strategy to be paid for in part by the bipartisan infrastructure law. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Facing a surge in traffic fatalities, the Department of Transportation Thursday released a 42-page plan aimed at eliminating traffic fatalities in hopes of reversing an increasingly deadly trend.

Noting that it’s a “sad and universal truth” that nearly everyone knows someone who has died in a traffic accident, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a morning event at DOT headquarters, vowed to work to eliminate traffic deaths to create “a country where one day nobody has to say goodbye to a loved one because of a traffic crash.” 

He was accompanied by Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

The plan, described as a “paradigm shift” by one DOT official, comes after a sobering statistic: Even though far fewer drivers were on the road in 2020, traffic fatalities spiked, with some 38,680 people dying in motor vehicle crashes that year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It was the highest number since 2007 and a 7.2 percent increase over the 2019 level of 36,096 fatalities.

The safety agency estimated 20,160 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021, the latest period for which figures are available. Those deaths were an increase of 18.4 percent over the first half of 2020. Buttigieg said preliminary numbers for the third quarter 2021 data, which will be released soon, “are not good.”

“Think about the fact that when somebody is about to get in the car or go somewhere, we might say, ‘drive safe,’” he said. “We don’t do that with most other routines, everyday activities in civilian life, partly because we have as a society acted to make sure that more and more everyday activities are certain to be safe. When somebody is headed to a restaurant, we don’t say, ‘eat safe.’” 

The strategy comes a week after Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said a DOT statistic that 94 percent of serious crashes are solely due to driver error is “misleading” because it didn’t acknowledge other factors that played a part in the rise in traffic fatalities.

In fact, the report finds that the transportation system itself can be designed and operated to contribute to crashes, such as roads designed to encourage speed. 

“We’re shifting our safety messaging to recognize a safe system approach,” said a senior DOT official, adding that while humans make mistakes, “roadway design strongly influences how people use the roadways.” The official said the department is recognizing that “there are many factors that contribute to death and serious injury, therefore there are many strategies we have to deploy all together.”

Homendy, who attended the DOT event, applauded the strategy, calling it “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 said.

Five goals

The plan is divided into five goals: promoting safer driving, ensuring safer roads, encouraging safer vehicles, reducing speed limits and improving emergency care at crash sites.

The plan calls for using some of the $13 billion in new spending in bipartisan infrastructure law (PL 117-58) to study how best to encourage safe driving behavior. 

It would work to ensure safer roads, including by finalizing updates to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which creates consistent signage for highways and roads, and beginning a cycle of updating that manual every four years. 

It would also work to improve state performance on achieving safety performance targets, considering revisions to guidance and regulations that would ensure that states set goals that reduce fatalities over time. Some states have targets that actually allow more traffic fatalities.   

“We’re not out to punish states that miss their targets,” said one official. “We’re out to save lives.”

The plan would update consumer information on vehicle safety through the New Car Assessment Program, which analyzes auto safety features. It would initiate a new rule-making to require automatic emergency braking technologies on new passenger vehicles and heavy trucks.

It would consider a rule-making to establish motor vehicle safety standards to require passenger motor vehicles be manufactured with advanced impaired driving prevention technology — a proposal that is actually a requirement of the bipartisan infrastructure law.

And it would require manufacturers to provide notification when there is a crash involving automated driving systems, creating a public database of information.

The department also proposes actions to enable safer speeds, working through the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices to help provide a range of methods for setting speed limits. 

The department plans to revise guidance and regulations to take into account the safety of all roadway users by encouraging the setting of context-appropriate speed limits and creating roadways that help to “self-enforce” speed limits. 

Post-crash care initiatives include developing an outreach plan for emergency medical personnel for on-site safety and traffic incident training, and improving delivery of emergency services by shortening ambulance response times, in collaboration with the Federal Interagency Committee on Emergency Medical Services and the National Emergency Medical Services Advisory Council.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the strategy “is a step in the right direction” but also said implementation will be key. 

“The DOT’s commitment to zero fatalities means zero room for hesitation and inaction,” she said.  

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