The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. push to reduce road deaths targets stark regional differences

Federal grants and a spotlight on divergent fatality rates are intended to address yearly tally of 42,915 U.S. deaths

Law enforcement officers work at the scene of a deadly crash in Holtville, Calif., in March 2021. (Gregory Bull/AP)
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The nation’s excessive rate of traffic fatalities compared with other high-income countries has persisted for years, often viewed as an unmovable part of the U.S. road network.

In an initiative announced Wednesday aimed at increasing safety, the Transportation Department said it will issue construction and planning grants to more than 500 communities while spotlighting the places where dangers are the worst — and some where there were no recent deaths at all.

Federal transportation officials paired $800 million in spending under the 2021 infrastructure law with the release of mapping tools that underscore the stark geographical and economic inequities in where road deaths occur. Depending on which city, county or state Americans live in, their risks of being killed in, or by, an automobile vary dramatically.

The initiatives are the latest moves by the federal agency to reduce the number of people killed on American roadways, a figure that grew during the pandemic. It comes a year after the release of a national plan that emphasized minimizing the effects of crashes for all road users, including drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Buttigieg releases national plan to reduce road deaths

According to federal figures cited in new federal maps Wednesday, the average annual fatality rate in Forrest City, Ark., measured in deaths per 100,000 people, is 78. That compares with 11 in Fort Worth. The two are among cities that will receive federal planning grants. Among states, existing Transportation Department data shows Mississippi had the nation’s highest road fatality rate, 23.2 per 100,000 people in 2020, while Massachusetts had the lowest, 4.7.

“We have to face it in order to fix it,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview, adding that the goal is not to blame communities for safety problems, particularly given a history of underinvestment, but to target money where it will make the biggest difference. “We really need to meet communities where they are.”

The new maps highlight hot spots for fatal crashes and include a county-by-county analysis showing comparisons with national averages. It also shows how historically disadvantaged communities are overrepresented among the nation’s deadliest places.

Detroit’s per capita fatality rate nearly doubled in recent years to an average yearly rate of 19 deaths per 100,000 residents, according to federal project documents. The city will receive a $25 million grant to fund bike lanes, curb extensions, high-visibility crosswalks and pedestrian refuge islands, among other measures meant to reduce deaths.

The data also highlights risks in smaller and rural counties, such as Fayette County, Iowa, population 19,000. The scenic region is home to steep hillsides, narrow valleys, limestone cliffs and trout streams.

“The very thing that make it a beautiful place to live also makes some of the road maintenance issues challenging,” said County Engineer Joel D. Fantz, who said runoff from torrential rains washes out ruts where asphalt roads meet gravel shoulders. That creates drop-offs along road edges, contributing to severe crashes, Fantz said.

A $10 million grant will allow Fayette County to improve 50 miles of road with wider shoulders and rumble strips. That work has been underway with money from state officials, but the new grant will sharply increase the number of miles that county crews can cover, Fantz said.

He said he imagines a distracted teenager who may snap back to attention when feeling and hearing tires bumping on new safety strips along the middle or sides of rural roads. He thinks about his father, who died in a car crash in Iowa when Fantz was 5.

“We can’t solve all the problems, but we can try to do what we can. … We’re going to make a big difference here in our county,” Fantz said. His family’s tragedy “gives me a reason to get up in the morning and keep working hard.”

Even before a surge in U.S. road fatalities in recent years, the nation’s population-based death rate was more than twice as high as the average in 28 other high-income countries, according to an analysis last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The United States had a 2019 death rate of 11 per 100,000 residents, compared with 5 in France, 3 in Japan and 2 in Norway.

Buttigieg said the grants announced Wednesday through the Safe Streets and Roads for All program are a key part of the Transportation Department’s work to reduce and eventually eliminate road deaths, which reached 42,915 in 2021. The agency’s National Roadway Safety Strategy, released a year ago, calls for systemwide improvements meant to make people, cars and roads safer; reduce speeds; and improve emergency care after crashes occur.

Transportation officials say part of that means facing deep-seated habits that also can affect good drivers, who can get swept up in the momentary rush of everyday life.

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

“On some level, we’re dealing with the idiosyncrasies of the human brain, which sometimes will see more risk in being five minutes late to something than in driving in a life-threatening way,” Buttigieg said.

Part of what the department and transportation safety experts refer to as the “safe system approach” means recognizing that humans make mistakes, then trying to ensure those situations don’t result in fatalities, Buttigieg said. That might mean adding broad speed bumps, narrowing lane widths or adding lighting to help guide drivers to use safer speeds, he said.

Such measures are among those being funded through 37 construction grants announced Wednesday that total $590 million. Among the safety projects in cities, counties and tribal areas are raised crosswalks in South Los Angeles, protected bike lanes in Atlanta, midblock crosswalks in Tampa and a pedestrian refuge island in Charlotte.

The department also issued more than $200 million via 473 grants to communities that identified safety problems and sought funding to develop detailed plans for fixing them. U.S. transportation officials hope many of those could be in line for future funding under the Safe Streets program.

Buttigieg said a key objective of the grants — and of highlighting successes — is to show what’s possible. Jersey City had no road deaths last year, Buttigieg said, adding that the same has been true for years in Evanston, Ill., and Edina, Minn.

“A lot of people snicker at the idea that you could have a nationwide rate of zero when it comes to traffic fatalities, even though we often have zero when it comes to passenger airline fatalities,” Buttigieg said. “The more we can add to that roster, the less this feels like a pie in the sky goal.”