More than 35,000 people a year are killed, and some three million are injured, in vehicle-related crashes in the United States each year. Fortunately, there are a lot of people and organizations that work all year, every year to try to bring those numbers down, and we all want that. The traffic safety stories of 2020 will resonate in 2021 and beyond; here are a few trends and initiatives that drivers will want to watch in the new year.
Fewer Traffic Deaths during Pandemic, but Worrying Trends
A report in October from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) detailed the continued decline of traffic deaths nationwide. There were 36,096 fatalities in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2019, which was down 2 percent from 2018. That’s good, but the 2020 picture now coming into focus is more complicated.
NHTSA’s preliminary estimates for the first half of 2020 show a continued decline in fatalities, but there’s a catch. In the second quarter of 2020, as COVID-19 restrictions took hold, traffic volume decreased at a pace greater than fatalities. So, while the overall number of deaths went down, there was an increase in the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
And why is that? According to the report: “Drivers who remained on the roads engaged in more risky behavior, including speeding, failing to wear seatbelts, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.” The rate of fatal crashes per mile driven through the first half of 2020 was the highest it has been in more than 10 years. How this will change as we move (we hope) out of the pandemic in 2021 will be interesting to watch.
Emptier Roads, Worse Driving
A Slow-Down Pilot Program
In direct response to this information from NHTSA, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) said it will kick off a Speed Management Pilot Program in 2021. “We have a culture of speeding in this country,” complained GHSA’s Pam Shadel Fischer, who said the program will include both rural and urban roadways, although its exact location has not yet been announced. She said she expects the program to roll out like the Click It or Ticket seatbelt program, which began in North Carolina before expanding nationwide.
A proposal for the pilot, published in January 2020 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and GHSA, indicates that the program would include tactics such as “traffic calming” by making roads narrower or adding pavement markings that encourage drivers to slow down. The use of radar and lidar, as well as “saturation patrols” and automated traffic enforcement focusing on speeding prevention, are also mentioned. Or maybe they’ll try what Detroit has done and install a whole lot of speed bumps.
Detroit Has Ways to Slow Drivers Down
Dangerous Vehicle Abatement in NYC
This program, the first of its kind, was signed into law by New York City mayor Bill De Blasio in early 2020. It allows officials in New York City to seize vehicles driven by the state’s most reckless drivers—until they complete a safety course. It requires that drivers with 15 or more school speed camera violations or five or more red-light camera violations during a 12-month period will have their vehicles impounded unless the driver completes a DOT-run accountability course. One small detail: De Blasio failed to put funding for this new program into the city budget, a NYC-themed blog pointed out, but it will surely make its way into one eventually.
Inside a Driver-Ed Class
Assault on Drunk Driving via Ignition Interlock
Spearheaded by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), two pieces of proposed legislation would require NHTSA to include drunk-driving-prevention technology in all newly manufactured vehicles—in other words, a blood-alcohol test system of some kind that would prevent a vehicle from being operated by an inebriated driver. Research by the IIHS suggests that this kind of passive drunk-driving prevention technology could save nearly 10,000 lives a year.
An End to Drunk Driving?
The HALT Act was introduced in 2019 in the House of Representatives as part of a massive transportation bill. It directs the Department of Transportation to add alcohol detection devices with an ignition interlock feature to the country’s Motor Vehicle Safety Standards requirements. It also calls on NHTSA to put these devices on “not less than 1500” government fleet vehicles by the end of fiscal year 2022.
Similarly, the RIDE Act (Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone Act of 2019), calling for in-vehicle anti-drunk-driving tech, is expected to be reintroduced in the Senate in 2021. MADD president Helen Witty has called this kind of technology “the key” to avoiding accidents and deaths from drunk driving. It’s also true, however, that technology capable of preventing a driver from starting a vehicle has its detractors who may question its safety and reliability, so the debate will be worth watching.
Maybe the Solution Has Its Own Dangers
A New Leader at the DOT
President-Elect Joe Biden has tapped Pete Buttigieg to be his transportation secretary, and the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has said traffic and infrastructure will be priorities. During Buttigieg’s own 2020 presidential bid, he routinely referenced the need for long-term, roadway-safety-focused transportation bills. His tenure, if he’s approved, is expected to include a national Vision Zero strategy to reduce or eliminate traffic casualties, a focus on bicycle and pedestrian safety, rural-road safety investments, and increased funding for the Highway Safety Improvement Program.
Buttigieg’s Road-Safety Plans
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