As crashes rise, where should policy fall?

What can we do to address rising traffic deaths.

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Matt Casale
Director, Environment Campaigns

Author: Matt Casale

Director, Environment Campaigns

(617) 747-4314

Started on staff: 2017
B.A., magna cum laude, George Washington University; J.D., George Washington University Law School

Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing on June 8 to discuss the reported 42,295 deaths due to traffic fatalities in 2021. These proceedings made one thing clear: Everyone recognizes the problem. Our roads are too dangerous, and on both sides of the aisle, there was agreement that something needs to change.

So what can we do?

Ultimately, there is no silver bullet to ending traffic deaths. In fact, we need many of these policies and investments to happen all over the country – and soon.

Investing in public transportation and cycling infrastructure

The hearing's witnesses advocated for increasing transportation options to combat traffic fatalities. These investments are necessary for urban, suburban and rural areas for many reasons, including reducing traffic fatalities. 

Increasing access to public transportation, cycling and walking reduces “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT), a measurement strongly correlated with traffic fatalities. It's straightforward logic. Driving is statistically more deadly than other forms of transportation. The less we do it, the fewer will die. 

To be fair, it’s hard to imagine driving much less in some parts of the country, especially rural areas. In many of these places there is little, if any, transportation infrastructure other than roads. So decreasing the amount we drive feels like a big lift. 

But just because rural areas don’t currently have options other than driving, it doesn’t mean they can’t. In fact, there are great examples of rural towns that invested in public transit where there was little to none and they saw reductions in traffic deaths. 

Additionally, if cities or towns worry that diverting road funds to public transit would leave fewer funds for road safety, there are quick, cheap and impactful roadway measures they could take on a budget. For example, they could implement the life-saving effects of automated speed cameras and public service announcement campaigns. Both are low-cost programs that can help reduce death. But unfortunately, they also tend to face backlash.

Road design

Road design is more complicated than it is given credit for. There are no "accidents," only design flaws that failed to keep the driver and their victims safe.

Research backs it. Speed humps, lane reduction, roundabouts, crosswalk clearance and other design features reduce speed, VMT and fatalities. Vision Zero strategies, a Swedish approach to road safety and reducing roadway deaths, has found a ton of success in other countries. Many cities and states in the U.S. have attempted their version, yet many have seen fatalities increase. Why?

Vision Zero proponents will say that US cities haven't done enough, and we shouldn't expect results until we commit to overhauling our roads and transit system. Vision Zero critics will say that what works in Europe cannot in the car-centric, sprawling United States.

In a way, both are correct. Many cities that made Vision Zero commitments attempted numerous projects on deadly roads and saw improvements. But, even if they improved, the city as a whole remained vulnerable to the same issues with a lot of people driving dangerous, large cars, and few safe alternatives.

Every state Department of Transportation  must create clear and usable policies so that every new road project will prevent deaths. However, as we retrofit our roadways, we must also look to other policies to get cars off the roads and make those that stay on the roads safer.

Traffic enforcement

Some believe the increase in traffic fatalities and an understaffed traffic police force are linked. However, the connection is a little murky. For starters, driver behavior does affect traffic fatalities. For example, 29% of traffic fatalities occurred when at least one of the drivers was speeding, and 38% happened when the driver was either under the influence or distracted. It's safe to say fewer people would die if drivers drove better (slow, sober and focused).

Traffic cops are supposed to deter dangerous driving behaviors. That is why, when people see statistics that the number of traffic stops and the number of traffic officers on the roads decreased nationally, it's not a far jump to blame the deaths on this. However, it has not yet been proven that the number of tickets issued or the presence of traffic officers affects safety. 

Some districts have implemented some enforcement strategies to significant effect– but they are often unpopular. The first we will spotlight is High Visibility Enforcement. Make it clear to drivers what the expectations are, and law enforcement will ticket them for violating them. That means public service announcement campaigns, large signage, speed displays, bright cop cars, visible enforcement and DWI checkpoints. High Visibility Enforcement strategies bring down fatalities and traffic stops.

The other is automated speed radars. They are proven to reduce fatalities, but people usually don't like them because they are pretty good at giving out tickets.

In conclusion, there are reports of reckless driving on the rise, and there are ways to combat this. The best practices don't always involve more tickets, though. 

Marijuana testing

This topic came up a lot during the hearings. Representatives expressed concern that legal marijuana would increase the number of impaired drivers, with no way to test for it. Some also complained that Department of Transportation drug testing policies prevented an understaffed industry from hiring sufficiently.

Many people want a marijuana legal limit similar to the blood alcohol content measure to know how high someone is at that moment. An in-the-moment test helps prosecutors to bust high drivers.

While a reasonable request, this misses the more significant point– impaired driving is present in a massive number of traffic fatalities. Therefore, we should have strategies in place everywhere to mitigate it. That has to include giving people better options to get home, like increased transit, alternative ride programs, and more.

Car size

The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was notably absent from the hearing since they have such a tremendous role in regulating the size of personal vehicles and their safety features. The big car trend has reenergized in the 2010s because more efficient engine technology lowers gas costs and selling them means higher profits for car companies. But unfortunately, they are also more deadly for pedestrians.

Safety requirements in the U.S. only focus on protecting those inside the car. Instead, the NHTSA should implement requirements to protect everyone, like in other countries.

Expansion

During the hearing, there was a bit of confusion on whether adding lanes makes a road safer. This is a common misconception. The simple answer is that more lanes make the road and all roads around it more dangerous. PIRG Highway Boondoggles report repeatedly shows that adding lanes adds more cars to our roads. More cars on the road mean more miles traveled. And, as we showed before, more VMT means more crashes. So if your goal is safety, you should oppose widening.

Conclusion

Everyone sees traffic injuries and fatalities as a problem. There are many tools, such as fewer drivers on the road, better-designed roads, improved driver behavior, and safer cars, that we could use to help the situation. Ideally, we would have a country where cars, cyclists, pedestrians and public transportation can coexist safely. Everyone should be able to use their preferred method and arrive at their destinations alive. Hopefully, we get there sooner than later.

 

Image: Matt Hudson on Unsplash

Matt Casale
Director, Environment Campaigns

Author: Matt Casale

Director, Environment Campaigns

(617) 747-4314

Started on staff: 2017
B.A., magna cum laude, George Washington University; J.D., George Washington University Law School

Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.