ANOTHER VIEWPOINT: New federal vision for traffic safety redirects focus

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The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette

The U.S. Department of Transportation has set a new goal: zero traffic deaths.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced Thursday the new National Roadway Safety Strategy. It’s a set of actions and recommendations that could change the way roads are built, how motor vehicles are designed and how traffic is monitored.

Deaths on American roads had been falling since the 1970s, but that trend reversed during the COVID-19 pandemic. People drove less in 2020, but deaths per mile soared 23%, and 38,680 died. It was the highest total of traffic deaths since 2007. In Indiana, crash fatalities jumped 10%, from 803 in 2019 to 888 in 2020.

The National Roadway Safety Strategy proposes spending about $14 billion from the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 on road safety, including programs aimed at reducing pedestrian and cyclist deaths. It suggests the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandate systems on vehicles that automatically brake for pedestrians, as well as technology to prevent people from driving drunk.

The strategy also puts a new focus on speeding, which killed almost 10,500 Americans in 2020. Instead of setting the speed limit according to how motorists “naturally” drive on a road, the U.S. Department of Transportation will help local and state engineers consider road design, layout and people other than drivers.

For years, safety advocates have accused state and local transportation departments of prioritizing highways, vehicles and road efficiency over motorists and their passengers. A change of focus could force some local officials to lower speed limits on some roads.

The biggest change the National Roadway Safety Strategy makes, though, is putting more of the burden of road safety on roadway and vehicle systems. Previously, all of the safety burden was on drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.

“Americans deserve to travel safely in their communities. Humans make mistakes, and as good stewards of the transportation system, we should have in place the safeguards to prevent those mistakes from being fatal,” said Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend.

Though most motorists and transportation officials would agree a renewed national effort on traffic safety would be of benefit, the National Roadway Safety Strategy will take years to implement and could be undermined by politics. State and local transportation departments are charged with caring for their own highways and roads, and they will have to implement the new traffic safety strategy.

They might establish a pilot program automating work zone speed enforcement, as Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, proposed in the Indiana General Assembly with House Bill 1035. They might support a bill that allows the use of traffic cameras in school zones, as set out in House Bill 1150.

Or they might seek to repeal the law requiring motorists to signal a turn 200 feet before its execution, as Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, proposed in Senate Bill 124.

In any case, the U.S. Department of Transportation “is not going to have to change everyone’s mind,” said Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “There are minds already working in this direction,” he told Wired magazine.

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