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Advocates to Chao: First ‘Pedestrian Safety Month’ Must Be More Than Just A Press Release

Pedestrians are constantly in danger. Photo: AAA

Safety first.

The first federal National Pedestrian Safety Month starts tomorrow, but activists are demanding that the Trump Administration save the platitudes and pedestrian-blaming and actually pass policy reforms that will save lives.

A diverse coalition of powerful transportation safety, public health and consumer advocacy groups co-authored an open letter yesterday urging Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to push for laws aimed at decreasing the pedestrian death toll on America's roadways, which reached a 30-year high of 6,590 last year.

The letter is pragmatic rather than visionary by design. All five of the coalition's recommendations concern vehicle design, rather than more politically challenging reforms to infrastructure and traffic laws, and all of them have already approved by Congress in July as a part of the Democratic transportation mega-bill the Moving Forward Act. The larger bill languished in the Senate because of its aggressive stance on ending transportation-related climate change emissions, but nothing is stopping the DOT from implementing the aspects of the proposed legislation related to saving walkers' lives — and advocates think Chao has a moral obligation to do so.

"There is a groundswell of support for these measures in Congress," said Catherine Chase, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and the lead signatory on the letter. "These types of technologies have already been proven to work, but the problem is, they're not standard equipment. They’re typically only features in luxury cars that get bundled together with other bells and whistles like heated seats and heated steering wheels. We don’t think that safety should just be a luxury for people who have a lot of money."

The coalition wants the US DOT to:

    • Require the installation of pedestrian detection systems, automatic emergency braking, and other automated driver assistance technology on all new cars;
    • Require the installation of systems that onboard alcohol sensors or other technologies that detect erratic driving behavior from drunk motorists on all new cars;
    • Require automakers to redesign hoods and bumpers to make cars more forgiving in crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists, using better crumple zone technology;
    • Enhance headlight visibility standards for new cars to help prevent the 76 percent of pedestrians crashes that happen at night;
    • And last but not least, finally join the rest of the planet in requiring automakers to test how safe their vehicles are for vulnerable road users in the event of a crash, rather than just the people inside vehicles. 

Those kinds of common-sense reforms, though, are decidedly not the focus of National Pedestrian Safety Month, which is little more than a public awareness campaign dedicated to amplifying the myth that pedestrians can always prevent their own deaths by simply being alert to their surroundings. (Our coverage is here.)

The National Transportation Safety Administration kicked off the festivities yesterday with a webinar that emphasized dubious catchphrases like "safety is a shared responsibility" — ignoring the fact that the "responsibilities" of walkers, who have little more than a bit of protected infrastructure to keep them safe, are drastically different than the responsibilities of drivers, who are operating multi-ton vehicles capable of taking a human life with the press of a toe.

The Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which authored the letter before the Administration revealed the details of its effort, were disappointed but not surprised to learn they had a fight ahead of them.

"They’re taking the easy way out," said Chase. "It’s always easier to put the onus on a pedestrian, when what [NHTSA] should be doing, as the agency charged with protecting all road users, is rulemaking on making vehicles and road users safer."

The signatories of the letter — including members of organizations such as Consumers for America, Families for Safe Streets, the League of American Bicyclists, and even a former administrator of NHTSA itself, Joan Claybrook — say continuing pressure on the Administration will be key in getting them to take action.

"I would encourage everyone to reach out to their members of Congress and members of the Administration and express support for these policies, and remind them that they are charged with protecting the safety of all road users, says Chase. "We could make every month Pedestrian Safety Month, but until pass these measures, the bottom line is that people are going to continue to die."

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