U.S. traffic fatalities have climbed throughout the pandemic, despite 30 years of steady declines. Early this year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that in just the first nine months of 2021 traffic fatalities increased 12%. That’s the largest such jump in fatalities since 1975. In total, 31,720 people died in traffic accidents between January and September 2021–the highest total since 2006.
This increase comes on top of the fact that, according to the World Health Organization, US roads were already 50% more deadly than those in similar nations.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently noted that these exceedingly high roadway fatality rates are treated “as normal, sort of the cost of doing business. Even through a pandemic that led to considerably less driving, we continue to see more danger on our roads. … We cannot tolerate the continuing crisis of roadway deaths in America. These deaths are preventable.”
A Holistic New Approach to Highway Safety
According to the Department of Transportation, “Safety is an ethical imperative of the designers and owners of the transportation system.” With this in mind, they’ve formally shifted to a “Safe System Approach” to highway safety. This is a “holistic view of the road system that first anticipates human mistakes and second keeps impact energy on the human body at tolerable levels.”
Secretary Buttigieg described this as “a bold, comprehensive plan” that brings together driver training, civil engineering, automotive engineering, and first responders. “We will work with every level of government and industry to deliver results, because every driver, passenger, and pedestrian should be certain that they’re going to arrive at their destination safely, every time.”
The Safe System Approach has already proven beneficial elsewhere. Adopting a Safe System Approach in Sweden and the Netherlands corresponded to a 50% reduction in traffic fatalities over two decades.
Minimizing Deadliness Instead of Eliminating Accidents
A Safe System Approach assumes that there will be accidents, and simply aims to decrease the deadliness of those accidents. It does this by addressing five elements that contribute to making mistakes less deadly:
- safer road users: Minimizing the risk to all road users: pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, mass transit riders, etc.
- safer vehicles: Embracing designs and regulations that minimize collision severity.
- safer speeds: Slower speeds reduce impact forces, improve visibility, and give drivers time to take evasive action.
- safer roads: Incorporate passive systems that reduce speeds, reduce forces in the case of an impact, etc.
- improved post-crash care: Get responders to the scene of accidents faster and ensure they can take decisive action when they arrive.
Communities and organizations are already embracing the Safe System Approach with simulation technology. Immersive simulators play a key role in research to improve roadway design and better understand road user behavior. Some communities are using funds from the American Rescue Plan and bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to buy scenario-based simulation training technology that improves EMT driving and increases their readiness for emergency situations. And, of course, immersive simulation already plays a key role for automakers exploring human-machine interaction as they design the next generation of control systems and ADAS.
As Secretary Buttigieg noted, “People make mistakes. But human mistakes don’t always have to be lethal. In a well-designed system, safety measures make sure that human fallibility does not lead to human fatalities.”