U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced Thursday that the Biden administration will implement a new strategy to curb the recent upswing in traffic-related injuries and deaths. After three decades of steady declines, U.S. traffic fatalities have trended back up since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Of the more than 370,000 people who died in transportation-related incidents between 2011 and 2020, almost 95% (more than 350,000) perished on U.S. roads — a situation the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) calls "both unacceptable and solvable." DOT has faced criticism from both within the administration and without for encouraging a lax attitude toward road fatalities.
"It doesn’t look good, and I continue to be extremely concerned about the trend," Buttigieg told the Associated Press. "Somehow it has become over the years and decades as normal, sort of the cost of doing business,” he said. “Even through a pandemic that led to considerably less driving, we continue to see more danger on our roads."
DOT is adopting "Safe System Approach," which operates on the premise that fatal accidents are preventable, provided all actors involved work toward the common goal of reducing accidents and resulting injuries. It's an approach that the DOT says has been effective at reducing traffic deaths in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Norway and is spreading in Europe. In Sweden and the Netherlands, traffic fatalities fell by 50 percent between 1994 and 2015.
The strategy focuses on five key components: safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds and improved emergency response and post-accident care.
The last item is especially crucial for rural areas, where response times often lag those even in some depressed urban environments. 39% of fatal crash victims in rural locations do not arrive at a hospital between one and two hours from the time of the crash, compared to 10% in urban areas, according to the government's reporting.
"We cannot tolerate the continuing crisis of roadway deaths in America. These deaths are preventable, and that's why we're launching the National Roadway Safety Strategy today — a bold, comprehensive plan, with significant new funding from President Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law," Buttigieg said in the announcement.
"We will work with every level of government and industry to deliver results, because every driver, passenger, and pedestrian should be certain that they're going to arrive at their destination safely, every time," Buttigieg said.
Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association praised the announcement, citing the organization's recent report confirming the need for the multifaceted solution to what it called "national traffic safety crisis."
"We strongly agree that the United States needs a culture shift when it comes to roadway deaths – no motor vehicle fatality is acceptable," Adkins said. "The entire traffic safety community must work together, not in silos, to make progress in achieving our shared goal of zero traffic deaths."
For a deeper dive, the DOT's "Public Roads" magazine contains an article that details how this all works, specifically, and how some of these principles have already been implemented in California, Florida and Washington state.