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‘Every Infrastructure Choice is a Safety Choice’: Secretary Pete Calls on U.S. Mayors To End Traffic Deaths

Editor's note: a version of this article originally appeared on Vision Zero Network and is republished with permission.

In his January 20, 2023 speech to the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, DC, Secretary Pete (formerly Mayor Pete) brought a keen understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing today’s municipal leaders. Notably, he focused primarily on what he called “maybe the most acute and devastating problem in our entire transportation system….We need to talk about roadway deaths in America.”

Secretary Pete’s recognition of the urgency and potential to end the roadway safety crisis is significant. This leading cause of death gets far less attention than it deserves, partly, he warned, because we’ve become “so used to it, but we should not be.”

Comparing the human toll of traffic violence – an estimated 43,000 traffic deaths in 2021 – with that of the scourge of gun violence, the Secretary challenged the status quo approach to roadway deaths and injuries, saying:

“It is not inevitable, not acceptable, and deserves our sustained attention. Especially when you consider that this is another area, like gun violence, where Americans experience more pain and worse results than our peers in other developed countries.”

Secretary Pete held up examples of the Biden Administration’s and US Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) stepped-up leadership for safety, including the first-ever National Roadway Safety Strategy and significant new funding for Vision Zero planning and implementation, emphasizing Complete Streets designs to ensure safe mobility for all people. And he was clear in sharing the goal of these policy and funding investments:

“Our ultimate goal is to get traffic deaths down to zero. I want to pause on that goal, because if you’re like me, if you have focused on specific and attainable goals, this may sound strange, lofty or absurd.” 

But it shouldn’t, he said, pointing to significant progress made in aviation safety, where crash deaths and injuries are (thankfully) rare. He lauded the goal of Vision Zero and the Safe System approach, sharing recent successes in roadway safety in U.S. communities, including Hoboken and Jersey City, N.J., as well as Evanston, Illinois, Edina, Minnesota – and around the world. Secretary Pete urged mayors to take the goal of zero seriously:

The most important reason for adopting Vision Zero, and the one I hope will most appeal to U.S. mayors, is just adopting that goal and taking it seriously has been shown to yield concrete results. No one thinks zero can happen overnight, but we’ve seen when cities aim for zero, they start getting closer to it.”

It takes more than good intentions, of course, to address the safety problems in our transportation system. It takes the willingness and leadership of mayors — and others in regional, state and federal governments — to make changes to our streets, policies, and to vehicles, which are proven to place the importance of safety above speed. Referring to communities that are making safety progress, Secretary Pete shared:

“When we asked the mayors of those cities how they did it, they pointed to common solutions: lower speed limits in residential areas, protected bike lanes and bus lanes, curb extensions, high visibility crosswalks, more frequent traffic signals – but also using the moral authority and visibility of the mayor’s office to encourage a fundamentally safer culture for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.”

While there’s much well-deserved enthusiasm for the new Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) program, bringing $1B/year in safety funding to local, regional and tribal governments, Secretary Pete aptly encouraged mayors to think bigger than this one funding source:

“And, it is not just about the programs with safety in their name. Done right, every infrastructure choice is a safety choice – just like it’s a choice about our economy and about our climate.”

We appreciate that Secretary Pete moved beyond the facts and figures to remind elected leaders that their responsibilities run deeper than  statistics or goals set in a plan. The commitment to Vision Zero and making changes to prioritize safe mobility will benefit everyone in our communities: beloved family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Watch a recording of a fireside chat with Families for Safe Streets co-founder Amy Cohen and National Safety Council’s CEO Lorraine Martin

The Secretary also spoke of his recent meeting with members of Families for Safe Streets, who shared their heartbreaking experiences and their motivation to champion Vision Zero so that others do not have to experience such losses. He heard from Amy Cohen, a leader of NYC Families for Safe Streets, whose 12-year-old son Sammy was killed in a car crash in 2013. And Dan Langenkamp, whose wife Sarah — a mother and U.S. foreign service officer who had recently returned from a war zone in Ukraine — was hit and killed while she was bicycling in Maryland last year.

The Secretary reminded the mayors gathered that roadway dangers affect all of us:

“But, of course, you do not need to hear other people’s stories to know how important this is, because if any of us in this room were to count the number of people we know killed in traffic crashes, we’d have to use more than both hands. We are so used to it, that it is almost as if we have spent our lives in a country going through a war. I want you to know what we’re doing to change that, and I want to ask for your help.”

Change cannot come soon enough. If this tragic trends hold true, another 115 people will die in preventable traffic crashes today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And the next…

Mayors of America: We, too, call on your leadership to make change.

Leah Shahum is the founder and executive director of the Vision Zero network. 

You can watch Secretary Buttigieg’s full speech in this recording and read the transcript below the video.

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