The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A NHTSA official spent years trying to cut road deaths. They jumped last year.

Jeffrey Michael, who spent three decades at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is now at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. (Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University)
Placeholder while article actions load

Before Jeffrey Michael spent three decades in the federal government trying to reduce the nation’s road fatalities, he worked in college as a car mechanic.

He took that love of cars to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, where he worked on seat belts, child restraints, drunken driving and emergency medical services, eventually overseeing behavioral research at the agency. At home in the Washington suburbs, he would tinker with the 1987 Porsche 911 he bought as a fixer-upper. After retiring in 2018, he joined the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy.

Michael saw the ability of federal programs to influence safety and cites a gradual reduction in road deaths over 50 years. But in an interview with The Washington Post — days after new NHTSA figures showed fatalities hitting a 16-year high — Michael pointed to the nation’s failure and potential fixes.

Deaths on U.S. roads soared to 16-year high in 2021

“You can’t call 43,000 fatalities success. Nor could you call 30,000 or 20,000 success. Zero fatalities would be success,” he said.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: New estimates from NHTSA say 42,915 people died on U.S. roads in 2021, a jump of more than 10 percent over 2020. Transportation leaders in Congress called the total “sickening,” and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the toll is “flatly unacceptable.” How would you summarize the numbers?

A: Obviously, I agree with all of that. The constructive way of reacting to the numbers is to use this moment, this recognition, to draw attention to the scale of this problem and to commit to doing something about it. This is an issue for which answers are known. It requires joint commitment and, frankly, a willingness to make concessions to reduce the scale of this problem, and to potentially eliminate the problem.

Q: That’s an interesting word: concessions. What concessions need to be made, and by whom?

A: It affects everyone in some way. Our highway system has been built for efficiency and convenience, not to be safe. In designing the system, we have prioritized other things, and that’s been deliberate. We’ve built high-speed roads to move vehicles quickly because people want to move quickly. It saves some time. It saves them money. If you put that time and that money over safety, you kind of get what we’ve got. To improve things, we’re going to need to individually make concessions about convenience, about driving a little slower, about taking a little more care, about personal responsibility, of using our seat belts, of driving at or below the speed limit, of driving responsibly, certainly driving without impairment, without fatigue, without distraction. So all of that is going to be viewed, individually, as inconvenient. Collectively, it’s what we need to do to reach zero fatalities.

At the social level, some of these decisions are going to appear to be not popular decisions for political leaders to make. Lowering speed limits. Investing in infrastructure to protect vulnerable road users, including pedestrians and bicyclists. The use of automated enforcement where it’s needed. These are the types of concessions we’re going to need. They’re not huge, but they’re going to need to be addressed.

Q: Yonah Freemark, a transportation analyst at the Urban Institute, noted that in 1994, France and the United States had the same death rate. But as of 2020, Americans were more than three times more likely to die on the road. Why did theirs come down so quickly in comparison?

A: It comes down to this issue of concessions. In France, there was a nationwide aggressive speed program. And they cut speeds significantly across the country, largely through the use of automated enforcement. In the U.S., there has not been a willingness to follow that path. A dependence on cars in the U.S., and Europe’s investment in transit and stricter drunken-driving enforcement, are other differences.

Q: NHTSA reports that U.S. highway death rates rose in the covid era, citing speeding, drinking and lack of seat belt use among the factors.

A: Road safety in the U.S. is the function of a very complex system. We’ve got 4 million miles of roads, 230 million drivers, 300 million vehicles. The risk varies a lot. There are pockets within those people, those vehicles, those locations, that are much riskier than others. The population death rate of 21- to 24-year-old males, for example, is four times higher than females of a slightly older age group. You’ve got this complicated system. And if you push on it from one end with some external force, like an economic recession or a pandemic, then you get a result. They went down during the Great Recession, and up during the pandemic.

Q: What are some of the biggest safety problems you see around the Washington region?

A: We’ve got them all here. We’re a dense, urban area and speed is a big problem. We’ve got a lot of roads that have vulnerable road users on them, or crossing them, but have high speeds. Some of these are functions of the way the area has developed and the way roads have evolved over time. You have cars going above 35 miles per hour, or 40, 45 miles per hour. If a car is going 35 miles per hour and hits a pedestrian or bicyclist, it is a serious injury or death. If the car is going 20 miles per hour, the bicyclist or pedestrian has a chance of living.

Q: Pedestrian deaths totaled 7,485 last year, a 40-year high, according to estimates from the Governors Highway Safety Association. How much of that is due to speed?

A: Speed is a big part of it. It’s also partly due to a society that’s changing, in a positive direction. There’s increasing population and people are out walking more. There’s an increase in bicycling, particularly during the pandemic. This is what we want to see. But we need to look upstream to the factors that are allowing so many crashes to happen, to the roadways that encourage drivers to drive at higher speeds, to roads that don’t have enough crosswalks so that pedestrians are encouraged to cross midblock. Road design can be improved, both to separate pedestrians and cyclists from traffic and protect them, but also to slow traffic where it needs to be slowed.

Q: A decade ago, in summarizing your work, you were quoted as saying: “Owning and driving a car is a core part of American life and essential to our economy and quality of life. But its sustainability is threatened by its cost to our public health. We are working to reduce these costs and extend the viability of our freedom to drive. We’re making progress.” How does that fit in with the changes you’ve described in the way some Americans are living and today’s soaring death rates?

A: Our reliance on cars is a mixture of our history, our development, our geography. It’s somewhat the result of deliberate choice, of where we’ve put the investment. It’s somewhat a function of our population distribution, and the way we’ve used land in the U.S. To that extent, it’s a core American tendency. We continue to be more car-dependent than most other nations. It would be difficult for us to end that abruptly. And yet, we’re dealing with the consequences of this dependence. It seems at some point we’re not going to be able to tolerate it any longer. So how long can we do that? I think we can do it longer if we get better at it. If we design our roads better, if we design our cars better, if we are willing to make some individual concessions, then there’s a lot we can do to reduce this toll. The long-term vision would be to become less car-dependent and to live a healthier lifestyle with more active transportation. That would help everybody.

Q: How did you decide to spend decades working on this problem?

A: I came in through the vehicle side, frankly. Like many people, I’ve always loved cars. I’m drawn to cars — I also like bicycles and motorcycles — but cars have always been a focus. I would like to see us use these things I love more responsibly so that we can keep doing it. If we don’t, we’re going to come to, literally, a crashing end. And we’re going to have to react in ways that I won’t like as much.

Q: We haven’t talked about climate. But some of what you’re saying echoes similar arguments about trying to maintain the upside of cars without the climate and pollution downsides. Others see cars themselves as the problem.

A: I don’t disagree with those who advocate for a carless society. I think that is a long-term aspiration that we should share. At the same time, I love cars.

Q: What do you love about them?

A: The American ideal is that the car is freedom, and so forth. I am sure that applies to me as well. But years ago, when I was a student in Pennsylvania and California, I was an auto mechanic. I like tinkering. I spend as much time working on them as I do driving them.