Despite their intimate knowledge of the ruin of traffic fatalities, no president has comprehensively confronted this public health crisis. Biden and his nominee for transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, have an opportunity to change that: They can make a public pledge to achieve zero traffic deaths by 2050.
The surge in traffic violence has continued even as many Americans work and learn at home because of the pandemic. In November, when the motor-vehicle fatality rate spiked 23 percent on a miles-driven basis vs. the year prior, it marked the sixth consecutive month of a distressing new pattern: Americans are driving less but dying at higher rates.
The toll is extraordinary. As Biden put it in a Yale commencement speech in 2015 about his family’s crash, “My whole world was altered forever.”
We know what he means. In 2013, Amy’s 12-year-old son, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, was struck in a Brooklyn crosswalk. In 1992, Rebecca’s brother Paul Sonkin was 16 when his friend flipped his car off a freeway ramp in Ann Arbor, Mich.
These deaths have bisected our lives and fractured our families. At every holiday, meal and milestone, the cliche of the empty chair manifests our reality. Both of us were oblivious to the epidemic of traffic violence until it was too late.
The good news is there is so much we can do. Canada, another country with a lot of open road, has achieved a traffic mortality rate of less than half of that in the United States, thanks to smart street design and graduated licensing. Norway achieved a more than four-fold decline in fatalities since 1985 and reached zero traffic deaths in Oslo in 2019 by lowering speeds and providing safe space for people walking and biking. Similar strategies in Bogotá, Colombia, are credited with a 27 percent reduction in traffic fatalities over three years.
We recognize cars are bound up in the country’s ideals of freedom. We recognize most Americans need to drive. We drive, too.
In this era of unprecedented public health crises, thwarting this one should be an easy sell for a president of any party. Victims are bipartisan. They reside in every state and die at every age. They range across race, class, gender and ability. They reach into urban, rural and suburban communities. Every year, when another 40,000 Americans are killed, their families join a snowballing, if disparate and devastated, constituency.
Still, no president has voiced a national vision for keeping Americans safe while en route to school and work and home again. Silence prevails.
Driven by our own failure to act sooner, our organization, Families for Safe Streets, has confronted traffic violence since 2014. We have successfully advocated lowered speed limits, redesigned streets for safety and established automated enforcement. We have also been able to expunge from policy reports the word “accident,” which suggests deaths are non-preventable, in favor of “crash.” We’ve staged die-ins and testified at legislative hearings. Every month, we share an email that acknowledges birthdays marred by preventable loss.
We are heartened by the progress toward safe, equitable streets happening in cities from San Francisco to South Bend, Ind. But a local patchwork approach is no substitute for federal strategy backed by the power of the presidency. That is why we are urging the administration to join more than 200 organizations in committing to solve this crisis.
To start, policy ought to prioritize evidence-based, human-centered solutions. Lower speed limits in crowded urban areas. Tether infrastructure funds to specific reductions in traffic fatalities. Advance life-saving technologies in vehicles and on the roadways. Support crash victims as we rightly do crime victims.
Americans deserve to know just how much the president cares about our lives. Our only measure is the action taken toward preserving them.
The stakes are high. The presidents know our sorrow. They live it. Biden must be the one to do something about it.