The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Crash deaths are on the rise across the nation. The infrastructure bill opens the door to a safety overhaul.

The money comes as speeding has increased and seat belt use has fallen during the pandemic.

The aftermath of a fatal pileup this summer on Interstate 15 in Utah. (Utah Highway Patrol/AP) (AP)

The Biden administration is launching a multibillion-dollar initiative to reverse a surge in road deaths and overhaul federal safety efforts, tapping new bipartisan infrastructure spending and policy changes to try to address one of the most wrenching and persistent problems in the U.S. transportation system.

The goal is to tackle both what Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called an immediate “crisis,” with deaths soaring faster in the first half of this year than in more than four decades, and the country’s toll of road fatalities that is higher than other rich nations.

The infrastructure bill, which President Biden is to sign Monday at a White House ceremony, includes dozens of safety provisions and adds billions to the money already sent to states to curtail traffic crashes and deaths.

The funds — intended for improving streets, cars and human behavior — represent a sliver of a $1.2 trillion package crafted to upgrade the country’s roads, bridges, pipelines and Internet connections, and the infrastructure overhaul is coming about as speeding has increased and seat belt use has fallen during the pandemic. But Transportation Department officials and outside safety experts say the bill, crafted by members of both parties and administration officials, also opens the door to a major shift in federal safety policy.

For decades, experts said, the arcane guidance that helps to shape what states build with federal money has emphasized moving more motor vehicles more quickly. Federal safety efforts have often directed benefits at people inside those vehicles by, for example, increasing seat belt use and vehicle crash performance.

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Now, echoing strategies developed abroad and seized on by experts in crash prevention at the National Transportation Safety Board, the infrastructure bill includes language promoting a more ambitious, holistic outlook.

Known in transportation circles as a “safe system” approach, the strategy emphasizes the inevitability of human mistakes and the need for planning to minimize their impact, and protecting people who walk and bike in addition to those who drive. In practical terms, that might mean lowering speed limits on city streets, redesigning dangerous intersections to keep drivers more alert or adding median barriers on rural divided highways to prevent head-on collisions.

Some measures could be costly. Others could slow travel. But the basic idea presented by safe-system advocates is that the changes — even those initially viewed as impractical or cumbersome — are worthwhile in lives saved. The infrastructure bill has funds for communities eager to try the approach, and it includes a provision calling on states to act when pedestrian-involved crash rates are high.

It also appropriates $5 billion for the administration’s new Safe Streets and Roads for All program, which will provide grants to cities, metro areas, towns and tribal areas, where Native Americans have faced disproportionate impacts from crashes. The bill also authorizes a related $1 billion over five years.

“We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America,” Buttigieg said last month.

His department is drafting a National Roadway Safety Strategy that is meant to stitch together the work of separate agencies overseeing highways, driver and car safety, trucking and other areas, while also appealing for action by state and local governments, engineers, safety advocates and private industry.

The strategy is to be released in January and will be based on a safe-system approach and a list of principles, including that deaths and severe injuries are unacceptable, that people make mistakes and are vulnerable, and that safety needs to be proactive and layered with redundancies.

“We have to think about building safer roads and safer vehicles. We need to address the issue of speed. We need to improve our post-crash care and, of course, safer behaviors and safer people” are also critical, Robin Hutcheson, the Transportation Department’s deputy assistant secretary for safety policy, said in an interview. “And we cannot do this alone.”

The infrastructure bill includes a highway provision that formally defines a “safe system approach,” a step advocates see as an important congressional endorsement. It cites the “likelihood of human error” and emphasizes roadway designs that consider “the ability of the human body to withstand impact forces.”

The bill also points to the need to protect “vulnerable road users,” including pedestrians, bicyclists and others. It instructs states to map out within two years all serious injuries and deaths among them, including road conditions and individual demographics, and identify high-risk spots and possible remedies. If vulnerable users make up 15 percent or more of statewide fatalities in a year, state officials must spend at least 15 percent of certain safety funds to confront the problem.

Pedestrian deaths rose 44 percent between 2010 and 2019, reaching 6,205, according to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The figures show 846 bicyclists also were killed in 2019. Road deaths continued to rise last year, despite a pandemic-era drop in driving, then jumped a further 18 percent in the first half of this year, with officials citing speeding as a key factor.

Despite new safety features in the bill, outmoded federal policies that contribute to the death toll remain largely unchanged, said Beth Osborne, the director of advocacy group Transportation for America, who said the legislation represents a missed opportunity.

“From a fundamental perspective, we still have a 1950s program,” said Osborne, a Transportation Department official during the Obama administration. “When your program is built around increasing the speed of vehicles in all places, your program increases safety problems.”

The money for safety is vastly overshadowed by the hundreds of billions set to be spent on highways, Osborne added, saying the federal government has long had legal tools to protect pedestrians and others but has failed to use them effectively.

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But Jeffrey P. Michael, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official and current injury prevention researcher at Johns Hopkins University, said changes stemming from the bill could, over time, yield significant benefits. The prioritization of fast-moving cars over the safe movement of people has been “a function of the incentives built into the systems,” Michael said.

“We’ve been on a roadway-design and operations trajectory that was set decades ago,” he said. “What we’re doing now is reset.”

The congressional endorsement of safe systems — something for which Michael and his colleagues pushed — sends a signal to engineers, planners, developers, law enforcement officials and public health experts, he said.

“The people that use these federal funds now have sort of a new direction to go, and they’ve got more money to go there. That is potentially a powerful combination,” Michael said. “In other areas of the world where they’ve done this, it’s been very popular. People like communities where they can walk around freely, and where they can cross the street safely.”

The bill also includes funding for alternatives to driving, including a historic investment in transit and the biggest infusion for rail since Amtrak’s founding.

Those moves, like the safety initiatives, are tied to other administration priorities, including cutting emissions and addressing transportation inequities. Making commuting by bike or on foot safe has broader environmental, health and quality-of-life benefits, advocates said.

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Supporting initiatives in communities will save lives, officials said.

“We know local government really needs tools to solve problems at the local level on their streets, and this funding goes for both planning as well as design and construction,” said Hutcheson, who served as director of the Minneapolis Department of Public Works.

The Safe Streets for All program is designed to help eliminate transportation-related fatalities using data-driven analyses of hazardous areas, as well as other strategies. The program also encourages “low-cost, high-impact strategies that can improve safety over a wider geographic area.”

Amid rising death tolls on the country’s roads, some communities have bolted plastic posts in roadways to slow motorists or keep them from veering too close to people, or created makeshift medians to help pedestrians across dicey thoroughfares. The bill would expand those measures to other communities and bring more permanent solutions, advocates said.

“It’s a way we will achieve results quickly,” Hutcheson said.

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