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Buttigieg releases national plan to reduce road deaths

The transportation secretary said the U.S. objective should be to amplify what’s working in places like Hoboken, N.J.

WASHINGTON, DC ‐ November 8, 2021: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during a briefing at the White House in November. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Seeking to improve what has been among the nation’s grimmest public policy challenges, federal transportation officials released a plan this past week with the goal of reducing, and eventually eliminating, tens of thousands of annual road deaths.

The Transportation Department strategy calls for following a “safe system” approach that emphasizes the inevitability of human mistakes and the need for planning to minimize their impacts on everyone who uses roads. The plan, released Thursday, comes amid new safety spending in the infrastructure law President Biden signed in November.

Citing progress cutting food-poisoning deaths and workplace fatalities that would be “borderline unthinkable” today, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview that “it might sound pie in the sky now, but … that change can happen within one human lifetime.”

He called the National Roadway Safety Strategy a commitment to a goal of no road deaths. While he wouldn’t quantify the chances of reaching that goal this century — an objective that some within his department characterize as impossible — Buttigieg said, “I think we just have to get there.”

“There are communities that have gotten to that already,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about Oslo, but a place like Hoboken in the U.S. has seen multiple years with zero deaths.”

The New Jersey city of 60,000 across the Hudson River from Manhattan has a “Vision Zero” plan that gathers data to identify dangers to vulnerable populations. The plan includes strategies to reduce speeding and protect walkers and bikers, among other changes. Hoboken last summer pointed to a three-year stretch of no pedestrian fatalities in the city.

In 2019, Oslo — the Norwegian capital, with more than 10 times Hoboken’s population — had no pedestrian deaths, according to the European Transport Safety Council, which credited speed bumps, traffic enforcement and safety zones around schools, among other steps.

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In releasing the plan, Buttigieg said the U.S. objective should be to amplify what’s working in places like Hoboken, having “as many communities as possible get to zero any given year, and then work so that each passing year, more communities and larger communities hit that mark.”

The strategy lays out steps the department will take over three years in five categories: safer people, roads, vehicles and speeds, and improving post-crash care. It calls for tying together the work of transportation agencies that oversee highways, trucking, and driver and car safety, while appealing for the private sector and state and local governments to support a no-fatalities goal.

Speaking at the White House on Nov. 8, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg responded to questions about the Biden administration’s infrastructure plans. (Video: The Washington Post)

The plan comes alongside spending in the infrastructure law on rural road safety, work to combat drunken driving and a new Safe Streets and Roads for All program that will give grants to cities and towns to use data-driven analyses of hazardous areas.

Critics argue that safety programs represent a tiny fraction of spending compared with the vast amounts for roads in the infrastructure bill, saying they fear states will tap federal dollars for wide, car-centric roads that can be inhospitable to people on foot.

Department officials say they are working to avoid that result.

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“Unfortunately, many roads are not designed to ensure safe travel at safe speeds for everyone, especially the most vulnerable road users,” Stephanie Pollack, the Federal Highway Administration’s deputy administrator, said in a statement. She said funding in the infrastructure law will allow for “incorporating safety for all users into every federally-funded road project.”

Buttigieg said planned improvements in federal data collection and analysis will allow the department “to scrutinize states that take federal funding, use it to spend on roads and get worse outcomes over time on safety.” States that don’t fare well in such comparisons could feel more pressure from constituents, he said.

In 2020, 38,680 people died on U.S. roads, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That figure topped 20,000 in the first six months of 2021, an 18 percent jump over that same period in 2020 — a problem that Buttigieg said preliminary numbers show continued in the third quarter.

The department’s strategy represents a “call to action” for communities and residents “to hold their own authorities accountable to do the right thing and to move in the right direction,” Buttigieg said. “And we’re going to notice the difference between those who do and those who haven’t.”

Beth Osborne, a former senior transportation official in the Obama administration and director of the nonprofit Transportation for America, said a goal of zero deaths is not her primary concern, given the current levels of traffic deaths.

“I’m more interested in the actions they take and whether they are sufficiently ambitious to put us on the road toward those goals,” Osborne said. “I like the direction. Ask me in a few months if it was effective.”

She praised the plan’s emphasis on the deadly effects of driving at high speeds, even when those speeds are legal. The plan says the Transportation Department will help connect communities with research from safety experts to figure out how to set safer speed limits locally.

Of the 370,000 people who have died in transportation-related incidents over the past decade, 94 percent were killed on roads, the strategy document notes. But between 2019 and 2020, deaths rose 7 percent overall, while rising 23 percent among Black people and 18 percent among people ages 25 to 34.

Some states fare worse than others, in part, because people are more likely to die on rural roads. The fatality rate in Mississippi, for example, is twice that of New York. Underserved communities are hit particularly hard, according to the document, which notes that the highest-poverty counties have significantly higher fatality rates.

“Income, as well as racial disparities, are a huge part of the story of the trends with safety,” Buttigieg said. “There are some communities that haven’t had the resources to make investments that make a place safer for drivers or passengers or, for that matter, pedestrians or cyclists.”

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