U.S. Breaks With World on Pact to Cut Road Deaths

American delegates distanced themselves from key elements of a global safety pledge that would halve road deaths in 10 years.

The Second Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety. Via Creative Commons.
The Second Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety. Via Creative Commons.

The United States has disassociated itself from a global agreement to halve roadway deaths by 2030, the latest example of the Trump administration breaking away from the rest of the world on a key life-saving pact.

More than 140 countries signed the Stockholm Declaration at the Third Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety in Sweden last week — including the U.S. But before flying out of Sweden, American negotiators also issued a statement undermining key elements of the resolution — a statement that no other country joined.

The global pact identified 18 strategies to reduce fatalities by 50 percent in the next decade. But the Trump administration went out of its way to dissociate itself from “certain paragraphs” — including some of the most important elements of the document.

It’s not as aggressive as Trump’s full pullout from the Paris Climate Accord, but it’s a slap in the face to the 140+ leaders who do recognize that traffic violence is an epidemic that we must – and can — solve in our lifetimes.

Dubious objections

The American delegates specifically objected to a unanimous approval of the 10-year, 50 percent fatality reduction goal, claiming that not every voting member of the World Health Organization agreed with that target. The U.S. didn’t identify what country or countries object to that target, but it’s not hard to guess which member state it was. (Hint: the U.S.’s domestic roadway fatality reduction targets have never been anywhere near as ambitious as 50 percent. Some of them are even less than zero.)

The Americans also had a troubling objection to this seemingly non-controversial paragraph of the declaration:

“[We resolve to] address the connections between road safety, mental and physical health, development, education, equity, gender equality, sustainable cities, environment and climate change.”

The U.S. delegation said it believes climate change, gender equality, and “reduced inequalities” in general are not directly related to road safety.

But advocates disagree — and many think opting out of a global pledge on these grounds is clear evidence of how much car culture has clouded our national judgment.

As sustainability activists have long argued, ending climate change simply cannot be separated from our traffic violence crisis, because the two global emergencies share a root problem: cars. Transportation emissions were the leading contributor to total U.S. carbon emissions in 2019 for the third year on record; cars, of course, are involved in virtually all fatal roadway crashes.

As for gender equality, advocates argue that many aspects of car culture amplify the worst of structural sexism — especially when it comes to death rate disparities. Though men are more likely than women to die in car crashes in the U.S., “females are more likely than males to be killed or injured in crashes of equal severity,” according to the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety. And that’s just the start of a long list of ways that our transportation system is biased against women and non-binary people in ways that prevent them from participating fully in public life, often for fear of dying while they’re simply trying to get around.

The delegates’ blanket statement that roadway safety has little to do with “reduced inequalities”could mean anything, and the authors could not be reached for clarification. But advocates know there’s practically no end to the list of societal ills that are exacerbated when we choose to build the world around cars. Car culture has a documented impact on our country’s continued economic inequality, racial inequality, health disparities, and so much more — and when you target the primary forces behind our traffic violence crisis, you help to unwind those injustices, too.

Why the U.S. is failing to lead on road safety 

Meaningfully reducing the presence of motor vehicles on our roads is the only way to meet ambitious roadway safety goals like the Stockholm Declaration — and that seems to be exactly why the U.S. is so hesitant to commit to the resolution.

Throughout their statement, U.S. delegates suggested that while other countries might save lives by comprehensively fixing street design, adjusting land use, expanding transit, and the dozens of other strategies outlined in the Stockholm Declaration, America will do it … by simply addressing the worst driver behaviors, just like it’s always done.

The document pointed to the nation’s roadway safety wins over the last 50 years, especially national advances in drunk driving reduction and increased enforcement of seat belt laws, which it says contributed to a 76-percent reduction in crash fatalities since 1970. But it doesn’t mention that for the past 10 years, those fatalities have been on the rise again: crash deaths rose 14 percent between 2009 and 2019, and pedestrian fatalities hit a 28-year high last year.

We won’t reach Vision Zero — or even Vision “Half-the-Carnage-We-Have-Now” — by sticking to the status quo while arresting a few more scofflaw drivers. More than 140 world leaders recognize that. It’s time the U.S. does as well.

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