An Exciting Shift in Federal Transportation and Safety Policy

A new federal safety policy outlined today by Pete Buttigieg’s U.S. Department of Transportation represents a sea change in thinking about roadway safety in the US –  and embraces many of the ideas and strategies we have been advocating for at America Walks to deal with the pedestrian safety crisis.  

Just acknowledging that there is a crisis, and one that is deeply inequitable, is meaningful. But the new “National Roadway Safety Strategy” goes further by embracing a “safe system” foundation with a goal of eventually eliminating traffic deaths.    

Graph about fatalities among pedestrians and cyclists.
Graphs showing that safety does not pertain to different communities equally.

The safe systems approach represents a profoundly different – and refreshing – shift. Instead of placing blame  for traffic deaths and injuries on individuals, the new approach addresses safety shortfalls within the road system itself, such as unsafe streets and vehicle design.

In the words of USDOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg, “Human fallibility should not lead to human fatalities.” 

The document includes policy recommendations to help address escalating traffic deaths, especially for those on foot and bike.

What’s New In Federal Road Safety Policy?

In the document USDOT has proposed a number of policy interventions to help address the “crisis on our roadways,” including:

  • Providing better guidance for setting safe speed limits and placing less emphasis on the deadly current standards, known as “the 85th percentile rule.”
  • Beginning the process to require Automatic Emergency Braking and Automatic Pedestrian Detection – sensor technology that has the potential to stop a lot of crashes before they happen — in new vehicles. 
  • Making adherence to complete streets a key criteria for awarding federal grants.
  • Making changes to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. This critical engineering manual, which dictates street design around the country to a degree, has been an important America Walks policy priority. We’re excited to see our advocacy over the last year helping produce needed improvements in federal policy.
  • Proposes addressing racial bias in traffic stops with additional training and funding opportunities to better track statistics on the race and ethnicity of those targeted for traffic stops.
  • Promises to do more to improve record keeping on the worst drivers and remove them from the roads. 

This is an ambitious plan that will take years to implement. Many of these goals will require extensive rulemaking processes that call for public input.  And, it deserves to be noted, none of this would have been possible without the work of advocates nationwide pushing for this paradigm shift.

Make no mistake – there are interests that will work to water down changes in USDOT policies and priorities. If we want to see different outcomes on the ground, we have to keep up the political momentum that has led to this new Roadway Safety Strategy

America Walks intends to keep pushing. We will keep you informed on opportunities to realize the promises and commitments made by USDOT. And thank you for the work you did to make this possible. Our movement is just getting stronger.

This article was co-written by transportation and climate writer Angie Schmitt and America Walks Executive Director Mike McGinn.