Ending Traffic Carnage Means Improving Everything From Road Design To Behavior, Report Says

Ending Traffic Carnage Means Improving Everything From Road Design To Behavior, Report Says

Better designed roads and a more integrated infrastructure are among the critical elements needed to help end the growing death toll on the world’s roads, but how well drivers – and other road users – behave is also essential to reversing the trend.  

That is the main takeaway of  a new report that highlights the integral role that behavior and personal responsibility play in reducing traffic deaths. “Putting the Pieces Together: Addressing the Role of Behavioral Safety in the Safe System Approach” was released on Wednesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), a nonprofit organization representing state highway safety offices.

“The United States is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to traffic safety,” Jonathan Adkins, the GHSA’s executive director, said in a statement. “Everything that should be decreasing is increasing, and vice versa. A public safety crisis of this magnitude requires a concerted, coordinated effort that uses every safety tool at our disposal.” 

After years of slowly declining traffic deaths in the United States, the numbers are rising again “at an alarming rate,” the safety group said, quoting federal statistics. Over 20,000 people are estimated to have died in the first half of 2021, a more than 18% increase compared to the same period in 2020, and the largest six-month climb in highway fatalities in the 46-year history of federal reporting.

The report addressed the progress made in some countries after embracing the    Vision Zero or Safe System approach to road safety that takes human error into account, first put into effect in Sweden in the 1990s. The goal is to eliminate all road deaths and serious injuries globally by creating multiple layers of protection  – safe road users, safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe roads and robust post-crash care – so if one fails, the others will create a safety net to lessen the impact of a crash.

The initiative has been highly effective in other countries. In Sweden, for example, traffic fatalities fell by 67% between 1990 and 2017, but in comparison, road deaths fell 16% in the U.S. during the same period, according to the report.  However, it added,  “those gains have subsequently been erased, as U.S. roadway deaths have been rising during the pandemic and are on pace in 2021 to eclipse 40,000 for the first time in 14 years.” 

The goal of the report, the safety group said, is to stress the importance of behavioral safety in conjunction with key elements of the Safe System approach.  Despite the initiative’s success in some countries, a comprehensive, holistic solution is needed that includes not only infrastructure improvements and changes to road design, but also enforcement of traffic laws, education and public outreach.

“The Safe System approach holds great promise in addressing the difficult task of ending roadway deaths, but only if we use all of its strategies,” Adkins added.

The report, developed by Cambridge Systematics, was published in advance of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s expected release in January of a National Roadway Safety Strategy that will be rooted in the Safe System approach, the safety group said.  

The report includes a framework for how states can integrate Safe System elements and strategies into their programs and operations, and recommendations for how road safety professionals and organizations, and advocates can collaborate.

“The traffic safety community needs to work together, not in silos, if we want to make progress on the road to zero traffic deaths,” Adkins said. 

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