“The rising fatalities on our roadways are a national crisis; we cannot and must not accept these deaths as inevitable,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “People should leave the house and know they’re going to get to their destination safely, and with the resources from the bipartisan infrastructure law, plus the policies in the National Roadway Safety Strategy we launched last month, we will do everything we can to save lives on America’s roads.”
Buttigieg’s comments come after a recently-released federal report’s crash data show 38,824 deaths occurred in traffic incidents throughout 2020, although shelter-at-home orders brought about fewer miles traveled overall. This is the highest number of roadway fatalities since 2007, and an overall 6.8% increase–while car and truck vehicle miles traveled dropped 11%.
The death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled rose by 21% from 2019–from 1.11 to 1.34, marking the biggest recorded percentage increase.
The Department of Transportation said in a report to Congress that it is focusing on prioritizing the health and safety of drivers in the modern era–that is: public transit users, rideshare and electric scooter users, and those delivering food and goods to households. Funding will be allocated significantly towards safer roadways, traffic roundabouts, bike paths, transit lanes, sidewalks, and pathways to bus stops.
The department, Buttigieg explained, is shifting from states’ previous prioritization of adding additional car lanes for congestion relief, which often reduces the quality of life for surrounding neighborhoods.
The report, which noted that “safety is consistently DOT’s top priority,” said that the adoption of the “Complete Streets” strategy by the Federal Highway Administration will “have a positive impact on the safety of all roadway users–reversing the trend of increasing fatal and serious injuries and creating a healthier, greener, and more equitable surface transportation system.”
The importance of focusing on these safety aspects is due to the report’s finding that around one-third of all American traffic fatalities have been deaths of those outside of motor vehicles, such as pedestrians and motorcyclists.
“A Complete Street is safe, and feels safe, for everyone using the street,” said the deputy head of the highway administration, Stephanie Pollack. “We can’t keep people safe on our roads if we don’t have safer roads and roads that slow down drivers to safe speeds. Through our Complete Streets initiative, FHWA will play a leadership role in providing an equitable and safe transportation network for travelers of all ages and abilities, including vulnerable road users and those from underserved communities that have faced historic disinvestment.”
This focus change will work to help cities that have struggled in funding economically-friendly transit improvements, as well as to slow traffic, reduce roadway deaths, and bring together communities initially separated by redlining tactics of the past. In fact, 2020’s data shows that lower-income, African-American residents more often live near common pedestrian crash areas and busy highways.
“The tragic loss of life of people represented by these numbers confirms that we have a deadly crisis on our nation’s roads,” said Steven Cliff, NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator. “While overall traffic crashes and people injured were down in 2020, fatal crashes and fatalities increased. We cannot allow this to become the status quo.”
For 2021, preliminary estimates for vehicle deaths show more than 46,000 deaths–an increase of 9% from 2020, according to the National Safety Council, which called these numbers “dark and disturbing.”
“Every crash and fatality on the highway is a tragedy,” said vice president of safety policy for American Trucking Associations, Dan Horvath. “So while it is good to see truck-involved crashes [fall], the overall trend in highway fatalities is distressing. We have long believed that driving behaviors like speeding, texting and aggressive driving–behaviors that anecdotally rose during the pandemic–are major contributors to crashes, and this data would support that conclusion. We urge federal regulators to do the important work needed to identify the true causes of crashes–particularly truck-involved crashes–and then work with law enforcement to enact strategies to curb these behaviors in motorists.”