Seeking to address what has been among the nation’s grimmest public policy challenges, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg released a plan Thursday with the goal of reducing, and eventually eliminating, tens of thousands of annual road deaths.

The Transportation Department strategy calls for following a “safe system” approach that emphasizes the inevitability of human mistakes and the need for planning to minimize their impacts on everyone who uses roads. The efforts come amid new safety spending in the infrastructure law President Joe Biden signed in November.

Citing progress cutting food-poisoning deaths and workplace fatalities that would be “borderline unthinkable” today, Buttigieg said in an interview that “it might sound pie in the sky now, but . . . that change can happen within one human lifetime.”

He called the National Roadway Safety Strategy released Thursday a commitment to a goal of no road deaths. While he wouldn’t quantify the chances of reaching that goal this century – an objective that some within his department characterize as impossible – Buttigieg said, “I think we just have to get there.”

“There are communities that have gotten to that already,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about Oslo, but a place like Hoboken in the U.S. has seen multiple years with zero deaths.”

The New Jersey city of 60,000 across the Hudson River from Manhattan has a “Vision Zero” plan that gathers data to identify dangers to vulnerable populations. The plan includes strategies to reduce speeding and protect walkers and bikers, among other changes. Hoboken last summer pointed to a three-year stretch of no pedestrian fatalities in the city.

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In 2019, Oslo – the Norwegian capital, with more than 10 times Hoboken’s population – had no pedestrian deaths, according to the European Transport Safety Council, which credited speed bumps, traffic enforcement and safety zones around schools, among other steps.

In releasing the plan, Buttigieg said the U.S. objective should be to amplify what’s working in places like Hoboken, having “as many communities as possible get to zero any given year, and then work so that each passing year, more communities and larger communities hit that mark.”

The strategy lays out steps the department will take over three years in five categories: safer people, roads, vehicles and speeds, and improving post-crash care. It calls for tying together the work of transportation agencies that oversee highways, trucking, and driver and car safety, while appealing for the private sector and state and local governments to support a no-fatalities goal.

The plan comes alongside spending in the infrastructure law on rural road safety, work to combat drunken driving and a new Safe Streets and Roads for All program that will give grants to cities and towns to use data-driven analyses of hazardous areas.

Critics argue that safety programs represent a tiny fraction of spending compared with the vast amounts for roads in the infrastructure bill – money controlled by states that have their own priorities. Safety advocates say they fear states will tap federal dollars for wide, car-centric roads that can be inhospitable to people on foot.

Department officials say they are working to avoid that result.

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“Unfortunately, many roads are not designed to ensure safe travel at safe speeds for everyone, especially the most vulnerable road users,” Stephanie Pollack, the Federal Highway Administration’s deputy administrator, said in a statement. She said funding in the infrastructure law will allow for “incorporating safety for all users into every federally-funded road project.”

Buttigieg said planned improvements in federal data collection and analysis will allow the department “to scrutinize states that take federal funding, use it to spend on roads and get worse outcomes over time on safety.” States that don’t fare well in such comparisons could feel more pressure from constituents, he said.

In 2020, 38,680 people died on U.S. roads, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In the first six months of 2021, that figure topped 20,000, an 18% jump over that same period in 2020.

The department’s strategy represents a “call to action” for communities and residents “to hold their own authorities accountable to do the right thing and to move in the right direction,” Buttigieg said. “And we’re going to notice the difference between those who do and those who haven’t.”


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