Traffic deaths continue to plague U.S. streets, with pedestrian deaths reaching a 33-year high last year. Now, federal safety agencies are stepping in with an ambitious strategy to completely eliminate road fatalities nationwide by 2050.
Road to Zero is the initiative of the National Safety Council, which worked closely with the Department of Transportation and over 600 industry groups over the past year. Although dozens of cities across the country already have set their own goals to eliminate traffic deaths as part of Vision Zero initiatives, this is the first national strategy, with recommendations outlined in a scenario-type report by the RAND Corporation.
“Our study is forward-thinking and a bit speculative,” says Liisa Ecola, one of the authors of the report. “If it’s 2050 now and there are no deaths—what is it that happened over the last 30 to 40 years to get us to this point?”
The report details the U.S.’s troubling reality: After decades of watching roadway deaths decline, the last five years have seen a sharp uptick in fatalities. But some Vision Zero cities—like New York and San Francisco—have been able to buck those trends with policies focused on reduced speed limits and improved street design.
Key recommendations from the report confirm that the Vision Zero strategy is working—focusing on physical changes to the urban streetscape that are known to save lives. The report cites specific improvements as particularly effective, like narrowing crossing distances using curb extensions or reprogramming walk signals to give pedestrians a head start at intersections (known as a Leading Pedestrian Interval, or LPI).
The report also champions what’s called a “safe systems” approach for transportation planning—integrating life-saving improvements consistently and universally into every roadway, where unforgiving design currently makes errors deadly. As Ecola points out, there are currently six million crashes per year in the U.S. but only .5 percent are fatal—so the goal of the approach is not to necessarily to eliminate all crashes, but to eliminate the deaths. “What we should strive for is making sure those mistakes do not have fatal consequences,” she says.
The report also issues a strong call to automakers and tech companies—which are currently swarming the urban transportation space and introducing new problems for road safety—to turn their attention to solving what is largely a preventable crisis. As part of the initiative, the Federal Highway Administration is awarding grants to groups like Smart Growth America focused on reducing speeds, redesigning streets, and introducing innovative technologies to vehicles.
But the bigger challenge for cities is that proposed safety improvements are often met with pushback from drivers who fight changes to U.S. streets. A councilmember in Los Angeles is trying to ban the implementation of road diets, one of the safety tools highlighted by the federal government as particularly effective in reducing deaths.
A recent World Resources Institute report came to the same conclusion, noting that safety improvements have been proven to work, yet U.S. cities lack the political will to implement them. The result is that the U.S. lags far behind its economic peer countries, which have managed to dramatically reduce traffic deaths over the last few decades.
“I don’t suspect the average American knows that 100 people are killed in crashes every day,” says Ecola, who notes that education campaigns could go a long way to change public perception. “Over time, as road deaths become less frequent, every time they happen it will become a bigger and bigger story, and people will want to know why the roads are not safe.”
By highlighting the cause of each fatal crash—and questioning what can be done to improve the design of the street where crashes occur—cities can combat the idea that eliminating deaths is not a worthwhile or possible goal.
“A lot of people think it’s impossible,” says Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. She equated the Road to Zero announcement to President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 call to go to the moon—and less than a decade later, the U.S. had landed on the moon.
“It’s going to take the same thing: leadership, committment of resources, and new technology,” she says. “This is our moonshot.”