States Aren’t Even Trying to Reduce Traffic Deaths

Photo: Anthony Quintano/Flickr
Photo: Anthony Quintano/Flickr

Fifty more people dead in Michigan. Sixty one in Virginia. One hundred and six in Arizona.

Those are the goals those state’s departments of transportation have set for themselves for road deaths under a new federal program challenging them to improve.

Even some of the most progressive states are calling for more people dead under new “targets” for certain performance measures they must report to the federal government. The goal-setting exercise is supposed to help make these huge bureaucracies that receive billions in federal funds every year slightly more accountable.

But the first round of goal-setting makes it clear states aren’t willing to make the substantive, structural changes to really improve safety. All of the states seem to be treating it more like a modeling exercise than any sort of call to action.


Take California, which has some of the most progressive transportation policies (as they relate to the environment anyway).

California’s goals call for 3,445 traffic deaths a year as the five-year average from 2014 through 2019. That’s 412 additional fatalities every year than the state averaged between 2011 and 2015.

True, California is adding people every year. Even so, this is an aspirational exercise in agenda setting with no penalties whatsoever for falling short.

California's goal is for more people to get killed in traffic. Graph: Federal Highway Administration
California’s goal is for more people to get killed in traffic. Graph: Federal Highway Administration

California even — inexplicably — sets a goal for a higher fatality rate per miles driven.

The U.S. Department of Transportation notes in its description of the program that it “does not prescribe a methodology for states to set their annual safety performance targets. States have the flexibility to use the methodology they deem most appropriate.”

But it does say the targets should be “data-driven, realistic, and attainable.”


Ohio has added a few hundred thousand people over the last two decades, but does actually call for a reduction in fatalities. But it’s miniscule.

The state’s target calls for 20 fewer deaths per year — about a 2-percent decrease from the rolling annual average between 2013 and 2017 versus the rolling period of 2015-2019.


In Colorado, the “goal,” meanwhile, is a 16-percent increase in traffic fatalities, rising from 554 to 644 for the five year period ending in 2019.

colorado SHIP
Graph: FHWA

Like California, Colorado isn’t even aiming to reduce fatalities when controlling for population growth and increase in driving miles. The state “targets” a 10-percent increase in its fatalities per 100 million miles driven.

At the same time the state acknowledges it has an “aspirational goal of moving Colorado towards zero deaths” in the “long term.” But it doesn’t seem to be at all willing to make the major changes needed to bring that about.

In its statement about the numbers, Colorado DOT blames it all on the models.

“Contributing factors were considered, including the following: population growth, increases in [vehicle miles traveled], economic growth, potential funding changes, and legislative changes,” the agency writes. “All of the models indicated future increases in fatality rates, resulting in short-term targets with an increase in the fatal rate.”

I reached out to Colorado DOT for more information.

“While we are doing the very best we can with the resources we have to improve safety, all of the factors that influence numbers of crashes are indicating increasing trends,” the agency responded. Specifically, CDOT wrote, population is increasing, driving miles are increasing, drunk driving is increasing [editor’s note: the Mile High State has legal pot], distracted driving is increasing and the agency isn’t anticipating any infusion of money for safety programs nor major legislative safety advances.

But Colorado DOT controls a $1.4 billion annual budget. Some of the funding is restricted. But the agency could direct additional funding to safety programs if it wanted.

Policy leaders at Transportation for America say states are showing a disappointing lack of ambition in keeping their own residents alive and healthy — even more so since there is no penalty for states that fall short of their goals. They would simply have to report that.

Transportation for America noted in a recent report that 10 of the 20 states with the worst pedestrian safety records were predicting more pedestrian deaths in the future.

“The only ‘acceptable’ number of deaths on our roadways is zero, but every single state — whether seeking to marginally reduce pedestrian deaths and injuries or allow the to continue to rise unabated — established a target for ‘success’ that allows these preventable deaths to continue or even increase,” the organization wrote.

“We can and must raise the bar,” the organization said.

10 thoughts on States Aren’t Even Trying to Reduce Traffic Deaths

  1. It’s very clear: how many deaths per year is it worth to continue to resist automated speed enforcement? Sure, it wouldn’t spare all of the lives, but how many deaths per year are justified so drivers can continue to flaunt the law?

  2. It’s very clear: How many deaths per year is it worth to continue to resist 1 MPH speed limits on city streets and 10 MPH speed limits on freeways? Sure, it wouldn’t spare all of the lives, but how many deaths per year are justified, just so that self-centered drivers, and their passengers, can insist going wherever they please in a convenient timeframe?

  3. The USA needs to have it’s gasoline prices jacked up suddenly and permanently to European levels. If there’s one good thing that could come out of our endless wars in the Mideast, that would be the thing. This dumb-assed hick nation of ours needs $8.00/gallon gas so badly it isn’t funny. And getting over the insane resistance to speed and red light cameras wouldn’t hurt either. Come to think of it, what was ever wrong with speed traps? Drivers were forced to slow down. Cities and towns made some money. What’s not to like?

  4. Not what sure what your point is Marcella. Dan is talking about cameras/radars to automatically catch speeders. That tech is designed to enforce existing reasonable speed limits. Your statement refers to ridiculously low speed limits that nobody has ever proposed. Can you please state your point clearly?

  5. Actually reducing traffic fatalities almost always requires engineering changes to the streets and highways that cost money. Far too many states would rather leave the bad engineering in place and then enforce for profits.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  6. thielges, Marcella is using sarcasm to prove no point other than they should be allowed break laws without punishment because people dying is a means to an end of breaking the law.

  7. Here’s a thought… How about actually suspending people’s license when they get a DUI?! If a convicted drunk driver needs to get back on the road — and most admittedly do — require them to buy an e-bike (or auction off their car if they “can’t afford one.”). That way the individual could still could get to work. And although they still might drink, ride and possibly get hurt, at least they’d be far less likely to hurt others.

  8. Steve – Outside of the alternative transit community the suspension of a driver’s license is viewed as draconian. Because how is life possible without a car ya know? Then consider how many people would go ahead and drive without a license. I’m not sure what the best solution to keep drunks off the road. However offering more carrot (easier, better alternatives like cheap convenient transit and protected bike lanes) will help.

  9. The purpose of the article is to demonize drivers on the way eliminating cars altogether. The majority of comments are ant-driver/anti-auto as is the whole website. Automated traffic enforcement is a racket to steal money from safe drivers and it makes the highways more dangerous.
    If a state were interested in safety they would mandate 85th Percentile Speeds on all their roads and highways, along with education on safe travel behaviors by all.

    Largely because of the automobile,
    Inflation-adjusted incomes have increased by seven times in the last century;
    Homeownership rates have increased by more than 40 percent as working-class people can now afford to own their own homes;
    The variety of foods and other goods available to the average consumer have increased by roughly a hundred times;
    Farmers have restored more than 80 million acres of former horse pastures to forests and converted another 40 million acres to more productive crop lands;
    The isolation and loneliness of rural families has been banished;
    A wide range of social and recreational opportunities are now available to the average American.
    The automobile is the greatest invention of the 20th Century.

  10. These are worrying stats, california has more deaths than the whole of the united Kingdom,

    Latest figures from June 2017 to june 2018 are 1,770 that’s all types of road users including pedestrians

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