The U.S. has an increasing problem of traffic fatalities, which has worsened during the pandemic. In 2020, as car travel plummeted globally, traffic fatalities did as well, but not in the states. Preliminary federal data shows road fatalities rose again in 2021.
Safety advocates and government officials tend to brush it off as an unavoidable cost of mass mobility. How can that be if Americans die in rising numbers even when they drive less? They die in increasing numbers even as roads become safer.
American foreign service officers leave war zones only to die on roads near the nation’s capital, as in the case of Sarah Debbink Langenkamp, who was biking home from her son’s elementary school when she was crushed by a semi-truck.
Americans die during mundane trips to school or the grocery store. In 2021, nearly 43,000 people died on American roads. The government has gone so far as to deem the most vulnerable – the cyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians.
The transportation system is designed to move cars quickly, not to move people safely.
“Motor vehicles are first, highways are first, and everything else is an afterthought,” said Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.
This highway-focus culture is especially apparent in Sun Belt metros like Tampa and Orlando – the roads there are among the most dangerous in the country for cyclists and pedestrians.
In the 1990s, per capita, roadway fatalities were higher than today. Fatalities fell with the revolution of safety measures such as standard-issue airbags, safer car frames, and more frequent seatbelt usage. But cars grew safer for the people inside of them, not prioritizing the people outside them.
“Other countries started to take seriously pedestrian and cyclist injuries in the 2000s — and started making that a priority in both vehicle design and street design — in a way that has never been committed to in the United States,” said Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute.
Other developed nations lowered speed limits and built more protected bike lanes. Other countries also were more aggressive with automatic braking systems that detect pedestrians and vehicle hoods that are less deadly to them. They also designed roundabouts to reduce the danger of intersections, where fatalities disproportionately occur.
By contrast, the U.S. has made vehicles bigger and thus deadlier. Certain states prevent local governments from setting lower speed limits. The five-star federal safety rating consumers look at when buying a car does not account for what the car might do to pedestrians.
Advocates say more and more people have been traveling by bike or motorcycle, which could be leading to an increase in fatalities. By the end of 2020, New York had surged from pre-pandemic times in traffic fatalities.
Coming off the pandemic, there was little congestion and many cities curtailed enforcement, offering reprieves for drivers with unpaid tickets, expired licenses and out-of-state tags.
The pandemic made the flaws in American infrastructure more apparent in ways that other factors can’t easily explain.
“We are not the only country with alcohol,” said Beth Osborne, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America. “We’re not the only country with smartphones and distraction. We were not the only country impacted by the worldwide pandemic.”
She said other countries have developed transportation systems where human emotion and error are less likely to result in fatalities on roadways.
Advocates argue trucks can be outfitted with side underride guards to prevent people from being pulled underneath. Narrow roads can push cars to share with bikes so that drivers understand they should drive slower.
“We know what the problem is, we know what the solution is,” said Caron Whitaker, deputy executive director at the League of American Bicyclists. “We just don’t have the political will to do it.”
The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year takes a modest step toward change. There is more federal money available for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. States will now be required to analyze fatalities and serious injuries among “vulnerable road users” – people outside of cars.
States where vulnerable road users make up at least 15 percent of fatalities, must spend at least 15 percent of their federal safety funds on improvements prioritizing those vulnerable users. Today, 32 states, Puerto Rico and D.C., face that mandate.
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