The American Highway Safety Establishment Warms Up Some Leftovers

Thinking of all traffic deaths as “highway fatalities” and measuring safety in terms of how much we drive is part of the problem. Graph: Toward Zero Deaths [PDF]
A group of heavy hitters in the road building and traffic safety establishment recently came out with a plan called “Toward Zero Deaths” [PDF], presented as an ambitious strategy to cut traffic fatalities in America. But don’t get too excited by the branding — the ideas inside don’t present much of a challenge to practices that have made the U.S. a shameful laggard on traffic safety compared to other affluent nations.

The document was produced by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (the body represents state DOTs), in coordination with the Federal Highway Administration and a number of safety and law enforcement groups. Take a look at what they’re proposing and it’s clear the mentality of these institutions hasn’t evolved much in the past 40 years, even as America falls farther behind countries with far safer streets.

Is it still 1975?

The report starts off stale and doesn’t get any fresher. The three main recommendations are the same ones the U.S. transportation establishment has focused on for decades:

  1. Increasing seat belt use and reducing drunk driving
  2. Improving the driving practices of young people and old people
  3. Regulating vehicle safety more strictly

All fine ideas that make a difference, but this formula leaves out many other strategies adopted by countries like Germany, Japan, and the UK — countries where the per capita traffic fatality rate is less than half the rate in America.

America’s traffic fatality rate is much worse than peer nations, and we’re only falling farther behind. Chart: International Transport Forum

What the report notably does not do is clearly address the broader failures of street design and transportation planning. There is no overarching call for these two powerful approaches to reduce traffic violence:

  1. Designing streets to lower motorist speeds in thickly populated areas (while the report does mention speeding as a major factor in crashes, street design solutions are in conspicuously short supply in the list of recommendations)
  2. Reducing dependence on driving through better land use practices and increased investment in other modes of transportation

In fact, the report predicts a large increase in mileage — which would undermine the stated goal of eliminating traffic deaths. AASHTO represents all 50 state DOTs, which collectively spend tens of billions of dollars each year on transportation infrastructure and could hypothetically implement systems that reduce driving and car dependence. But the report simply forecasts a 17 percent in mileage by 2030 due to rising incomes, despite a decade of stagnant driving levels in America.

Getting people out of the way

The “Vision Zero” approach to eliminating these deaths would call for a system where people outside cars can make mistakes without getting killed. That is not the approach in this report, which suggests campaigns to reduce “distracted walking” and “impaired walking and cycling,” as well as bright clothing for pedestrians and helmets for cyclists.

The few design recommendations in the report tend to echo 1950s-era thinking — the idea that people should be channeled away from the street is prominent. “Preventing mid block crossings” is one suggestion, instead of increasing the number of crosswalks and safe crossings. “Constructing alternative paths such as overpasses” is another, instead of slowing traffic and making at-grade crossings safer.

The old street safety paradigm rears its head again

It’s worth noting again that the team behind these recommendations is led by AASHTO and doesn’t include any organization focused on safe walking or biking. Here is the coalition:

  • American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials
  • American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
  • Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance
  • Governors Highway Safety Association
  • International Association of Chiefs of Police
  • National Association of County Engineers
  • National Association of State Emergency Medical Service Officials
  • National Local Technical Assistance Program Association

Not exactly a fount of new ideas. So it’s not surprising that the discredited “forgiving highway” approach — the idea that design should accommodate inattentive, reckless driving to the extent possible — permeates the report, with its recommendations for rumble strips, “crash cushions” around objects near roads, and the elimination of trees.

That’s not how America will get to zero deaths — it’s how we’ll keep falling behind.

23 thoughts on The American Highway Safety Establishment Warms Up Some Leftovers

  1. The USA has a lower injury and fatality rate per passenger mile than any of the other nations being compared against. But per-capita fatality rates are higher because Americans drive so d**n much. Conclusion: the best way to lower fatalities to to decrease the amount people drive, by: (1) building cities where people don’t have to drive as far, and (b) switching to other modes.

  2. Also building more of the safest types of roads- grade separated freeways, especially in areas lacking such as northern Washington D.C., Brooklyn, N.Y. and western San Francisco, CA.

  3. Out of curiosity, I took a look at the ‘Safer Vulnerable Users’ white paper they mention at the end of the document
    Interestingly, the white paper does include some strong points about the need for the engineering establishment to re-examine its practices with regard to pedestrian safety (including: narrower travel lanes to slow traffic; speed cameras; bike boxes; green lanes; retraining for engineers; tighter curb radii). However, it seems the AASHTO brass decided to highlight only the recommendations that didn’t question anything about existing street design practices…

  4. Also the entrenched nomenclature is misleading. They’re called “highway fatalities” as if they all happen on interstates. But these could just as well be on city streets or suburban roads, right?

  5. The city of Los Angeles DOT has uses the term highway as a designation for the width of a road. There’s a class I, II and III highway type. I was amused going to a neighborhood council meeting about installing bike lanes on a street (they turned it down) and the representative of their transportation committee recommended that another street not be classified as a highway. I was sitting there thinking why not just put in bike lanes by way of a road diet on that street–which happens to be the street I live on.

    How course to the person presenting this reclassification idea the designation highway probably meant that cars are allowed to proceed at a high rate of speed.

  6. Every time something endorses “campaigns to reduce ‘distracted walking'” I think “you’ll be retiring soon so I’ll ignore you in the mean time.”

    The “get off my lawn!” of the next generation?

  7. There might (or might not) be a case for (1), but one of the reasons the fatality rater per mile-passenger in US is so low is exactly because there are few people walking on public streets or cycling.

    Safety for car occupants is much higher now than 30 or 40 years ago. Safety for pedestrians increased, but not as much. So getting people “out of their cars” might contribute to an uptick on traffic fatality rates as more people are exposed to hits and collisions as vulnerable pedestrians instead of relatively protected car passengers.

    I’m not saying this means everything is cool and good right now, just pointing to some possible unintended consequences of your suggestions.

  8. I wouldn’t say that the US is lower than any of the other nations when you account for fatalities per mile traveled, but the numbers are a whole lot closer when you take into consideration the miles travelled. We are no longer 4x of any country in Europe considering only population, rather we are barely 2x when you consider miles traveled.

    As people like to cite the Netherlands, they currently sit at 4.9 traffic deaths per 1B KM traveled, while the US weights in at 7.6 deaths per 1B KM traveled. So, sure, we got room for improvement.

  9. It’d be great to see alt transpo advocates consider the broader social
    inequality picture to help explain why spending public resources on driving continues to make the most sense to this establishment. How do those other affluent countries compare to the U.S. in terms of wealth inequality? The transportation establishment in the U.S. is probably going to be
    reluctant to change its approach as long as access to a car is still
    such an important status symbol here. Maybe it’s less of a status symbol in Germany and Japan? Curious to hear more international perspectives on social status and transportation.

  10. Except that it is well established that the number one way to improve safety for people on bicycles is to have more people on bicycles.

  11. Incorrect. Most developed countries for rates much lower then the U.S. The U.S. rate is 7.6 people killed per billion km traveled. Some example comparisons: Norway is 3.3, Denmark 3.4, UK 4.3, Netherlands 4.9.

  12. Thank you, I stand corrected. I think i got my information when I was specifically looking at the safety of the American Interestate vs. German Autobahn systems. I concluded then that the German Autobahn is significantly more dangerous per km than American Interstates, but that Americans are more likely to die from Interstates because we drive further (not surprising, if you’ve ever been driven around by a German drive hell-bent on speed). I suppose that’s different from looking traffic fatalities from ALL roads, not just the largest.

    BTW, I just discovered that in the UK, apparently walking is slightly MORE dangerous per km than biking. Let’s start blaming pedestrians for getting hit, especially if they weren’t wearing a helmet. “Like any sport, walking can be dangerous.”

  13. You have my highest regards for that.

    BTW, the autobahn is considerably safer than U.S. Interstates. If I remember correctly you are something like 7 times as likely to be killed per km driven on U.S. Interstates as on the autobahn (goes for Germany, Switzerland, and Austria portions).

  14. That’s not what the numbers I found said. But either way, it would be great if someone could dig them up again, I’m interested in knowing.

    I would say that Germans seem to drive with more skill and consistency than Americans. But then again, we rarely see 150-car pileups in foggy weather.

  15. True. During the 1970s, the authorities were in the habit of crediting the 55 mph speed limit for reducuing ‘highway’ fatalities on roads that always had a 55 or lower limit.

  16. “So it’s not surprising that the discredited “forgiving highway”
    approach — the idea that design should accommodate inattentive,
    reckless driving to the extent possible — permeates the report, with its
    recommendations for rumble strips, “crash cushions” around objects near
    roads, and the elimination of trees.”

    If this is about roads in general, that is quite dishonest Streetsblog! That article actually makes a sensible distinction between freeways where such makes sense, and slow speed urban streets, where the article makes points that are valid.

    “1. They rejected that wider, straighter and faster is better for non-freeways in urban areas.”

    Streetblog really hurts its credibility with its anti freeway dogma.

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America’s Traffic Death Toll Is a National Disgrace

More than 40,000 Americans were killed in traffic last year, according to new estimates from the National Safety Council, the worst toll in a decade. The U.S. transportation system claims far more lives each year than peer countries. If America achieved the same fatality rate as the UK, more than 30,000 lives would be saved each year.