- The U.S. should adopt a "Safe System" approach that refocuses road design and engineering on safety in order to cut traffic fatalities, experts convened by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Institute of Transportation Engineers assert in a recent report.
- The Safe System approach, which has been adopted in some forms in other countries, centers around designing roads and traffic systems to minimize crashes and reduce vehicle speeds to make any crashes that do occur less harmful. The approach, the report says, is "tolerant of routine human errors" rather than putting the onus on drivers and pedestrians to eliminate accidents.
- Such a move in the U.S. would require a shift in priorities and funding, said report co-author and former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration official Jeffrey Michael, but would fit in the Biden administration’s equity goals. "If you prioritize implementation in areas that have been underserved and at risk, you close the gap in those communities and make everyone safer," Michael said.
The United States' motor vehicle fatalities continue to rise. Preliminary data from the National Safety Council found an 8% increase in traffic-related deaths in 2020 with a total of 42,060, the highest since 2007. That’s despite a 13% drop in vehicle miles traveled related to COVID-19 lockdowns. A projection from the Governors Highway Safety Association estimates pedestrian deaths will prove to have reached 2,957 pedestrian deaths from motor vehicles in the first six months of the year even with the drop in vehicle traffic.
States and cities have responded to the consistently high numbers with Vision Zero programs, setting goals to eliminate all traffic deaths. Michael said those campaigns are rooted in the same principles as the Safe System approach, which got its start in Scandinavia. The newly released "Recommendations of the Safe System Consortium" report, written by academics and safety experts, describes the approach as a shift from the status quo that "addresses safety with a complex set of rules and an elaborate enforcement and adjudication system."
For example, Michael said, conventional four-way stops have been designed with stop signs and traffic lights, which rely on drivers to stop properly and pay attention and for pedestrians to be wary of drivers. The Safe System approach, however, would replace that setup with a roundabout, which has the advantage of slowing traffic and averting side impact crashes, which are more dangerous.
"The conventional road system has evolved over 100 years to become a very complicated system to negotiate, and because it’s so complicated, there’s an intricate set of rules that drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists have to follow to get from place to place," Michael said. "What we’re recommending is a focus where the system itself guides behavior."
Advocates have long pointed to unsafe design as a key driver of traffic deaths. A 2019 report from Smart Growth America highlighted that poorly designed roads and intersections leave bicyclists and pedestrians at risk, especially in Southern cities that are largely designed for cars, and in minority and low-income communities that have seen less investment. Infrastructure additions like narrowed lanes, larger sidewalks and protected bike lanes and crosswalks could all reduce those deaths by forcing drivers to go slower and reducing interactions between cars and other travelers.
The latest recommendations come as many cities are taking a fresh look at road and neighborhood design, enacting Complete Streets initiatives to encourage biking and micromobility transit. Some cities have even shut down major arteries to car traffic.
With Congress set to consider Biden’s infrastructure package in addition to going through the regular transportation reauthorization process, there could be an opening for Safe System principles to be adopted at the federal level, trickling down to states through grants or other funding requirements. The Federal Highway Administration is also updating the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, a process the National Association of City Transportation Officials says could be an opportunity to encourage "cost-effective, sustainable street design elements" that will improve safety.
The problem, experts say, is inertia that makes some infrastructure difficult to change. In a panel discussion hosted by Johns Hopkins last week, U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, D-MD., said Congress needs to ensure it's prepared, especially to benefit communities that have been "chronically underinvested and deliberately harmed by exclusionary infrastructure and transportation policies."
"The fact of the matter is we have fallen behind in building the modern infrastructure that Americans deserve," Brown said. "We are envisioning a country where traffic deaths are a thing of the past."