In Search of a Vaccine for America’s Ongoing Road Safety Epidemic

Uptick in 2020 Traffic Deaths Requires Increased Investment in Proven Countermeasures

By Pam Shadel Fischer, GHSA Senior Director of External Engagement, and Russ Martin, GHSA Senior Director of Policy and Government Relations

One of the many profound ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted American life is a fundamental shift in how we get around. Despite the drastic changes in travel patterns as millions of people stayed home, causing motor vehicle traffic to drop to historic lows in 2020, the threat of traffic crashes remained high. Last year’s 16.5 percent decline in vehicle miles traveled should have translated into fewer deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Unfortunately, the data paint a different picture. Elevated levels of risky driving by some motorists resulted in more deaths per mile driven than in 2019, reaffirming the need for increased national, state and local investment in countermeasures proven to prevent crashes and save lives.

A Deadly Year

2020 was one of the deadliest years in our nation’s history. While more than half a million Americans have died from COVID-related complications, preventable traffic crashes also continued to claim lives despite fewer vehicles on the road. Last April, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) was one of the first national safety organizations to sound the alarm as our members, the state highway safety offices, and their law enforcement partners began reporting a troubling uptick in excessive speeding. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) subsequently released preliminary fatality data for the first nine months of 2020 confirming that speeding along with other unsafe behaviors were primarily responsible for a 4.6 percent increase in fatalities compared to the same period in 2019. The finding is confounding, considering the dramatic decline in road travel, and frustrating, as it ended what had been a three-year decline in traffic fatalities and stalled the national momentum toward zero deaths.

The NHTSA analysis also examined the National Emergency Medical Services Information System (NEMSIS) database and found an elevated number of crash ejections, suggesting fewer motorists were buckling up in 2020. At the same time, data from five trauma centers showed an increased presence of drugs and alcohol among serious and fatally injured drivers, which aligns with widespread media reports of increased alcohol and drug sales last year. And travel speed tracking by the Federal Highway Administration also indicated drivers were going faster—not only on highways and freeways. Speeding was rampant on all types of roads.

Drivers were not the only ones at higher risk. Late last month, GHSA released our annual pedestrian safety spotlight report projecting a dramatic increase in the pedestrian fatality rate for January through June 2020 and a decade-long surge in pedestrian deaths. If this troubling pattern continues for the second half of the year as many traffic safety experts fear, 2020 is projected to have the largest ever annual increase in the U.S. pedestrian fatality rate per mile driven.

How Could This Have Happened?

With most everyone limiting their travel, it stands to reason that less risk exposure equates to improved safety. But a range of unanticipated factors have been at play. Empty roads provided more opportunities for speeding, prompting some drivers to put the pedal to the metal. At the same time, the initial stay-at-home orders in many states not only grounded motorists, but also many traffic enforcement operations, reducing their deterrent effect. This reduction in enforcement was further exacerbated by the death of George Floyd and calls to defund police along with the reallocation of state and local police resources to address protests and COVID-related issues.

The pandemic has also changed travel patterns. Many commuters abandoned public transit for personal vehicles, which prompted a boom in used car sales. Some evidence suggests that motorists who remained on the road tended to be less risk-averse, while the safest drivers were more likely to stay home. Many people switched to travel by bicycle, foot or other non-motorized modes for business or recreation. Meanwhile, the risk factors that continue to threaten non-motorized travelers—lack of infrastructure, larger vehicles, and dangerous driving, now elevated—remained the same.

If there is one bright spot in this otherwise dismal story, the pandemic has shined a spotlight on our nation’s other pandemic—traffic crashes—and the need for increased investment in comprehensive traffic safety strategies and proven countermeasures. We have the vaccine for traffic crashes—improved infrastructure coupled with high visibility enforcement, public outreach and timely, high-quality emergency medical response.

Pushing Back

To reverse this trend, many states were able to resume enforcement mobilizations and launch new communications campaigns late last spring. These efforts continue today. However, more must be done to meet this national challenge.

Achieving greater progress in preventing traffic crashes, deaths and serious injuries will require a long-term, comprehensive approach that utilizes all the tools at our disposal. The highway safety community has leveraged many models to prevent traffic crashes, from the Haddon Matrix and the 4 “E’s” of highway safety (engineering, enforcement, education and EMS)—to Vision Zero and the Safe Systems Approach. These multi-disciplinary frameworks require each of us to work collaboratively to address the unsafe behaviors that continue to plague our roads.

Criminal justice and the courts play a central role in addressing the most dangerous drivers. This includes drivers who excessively speed on roadways where countermeasures, such as speed limits and traffic calming features, are ineffective or absent. The pandemic has brought this problem to the forefront and it is imperative that enforcement—both high visibility and automated (speed and red-light safety cameras)—be used to combat this risky behavior.

We must also recommit to ending impaired driving and breaking the deadly cycle of recidivism in this country that claims thousands of lives annually. While some highway safety problems are more responsive to improved infrastructure, impaired driving will always demand criminal justice intervention. That starts by identifying all impairing substances in the offender’s system along with what is prompting their use through screening and assessment. Only then can proper treatment be prescribed, and supervision administered that holds the individual accountable for their actions.

Ensuring Equity for All

As we continue to implement enforcement and other criminal justice programs as part of a multi-pronged highway safety strategy, we must also address the persistent and pervasive problem of racial inequity that often plays out in traffic enforcement. The disparate impact of policing on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) is well-documented. Inequitable practices put at risk both lives and public support for law enforcement’s demonstrated positive impact on highway safety. GHSA vehemently condemns racism in all its form. In a statement issued last September, our organization stressed that “race, religion, sexual orientation or any other unique characteristic should never be the reason for a traffic stop, consciously or unconsciously, nor should these characteristics be used to determine who to ticket, who to test, who to search or who to arrest.”

There have been calls for the divestment of enforcement from highway safety. Some have framed the discussion as a binary choice between unjust enforcement and other safety countermeasures. While GHSA urges reform, we remain steadfast in our support for the proven role of traffic enforcement and the criminal justice system to prevent crashes, deaths and injuries; stop dangerous driving; and hold drivers accountable for poor, often deadly choices. To walk away from enforcement and accountability for those motorists who engage in behaviors that put others at risk is to give up on the countless fatal crashes that we might be able to prevent and on our national goal of zero roadway deaths. That is why GHSA is committed to working with the states and their partners to make reforms and adopt practices that result in greater diversity, equity and inclusion for all roadway users.

Will Vehicle Technology Save Us?

Many point to vehicle technology as the ultimate crash panacea. Will automated and driverless vehicles prevent crashes and save lives? Probably in part, but not for some time. Advancements in technology and design have made crashes more survivable for those inside a vehicle, but pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter riders and motorcyclists remain vulnerable to severe injury when struck by a vehicle.

The auto industry is investing in the development of sophisticated driver assistance and automated vehicle technologies. Widespread use of high levels of automation holds promise for dramatic gains in safety and mobility, but for the foreseeable future deployment will involve technologies that still require human control and thus the risk for human error. Research confirms the positive safety impact of some driver assistance and crash avoidance technologies now available in new vehicles. However, the average age of a vehicle on the road today is 12 years, suggesting a long timeline before there is universal deployment.

The U.S. Congress is considering legislation to require passive alcohol detection and impaired driving prevention technology as standard equipment on all new vehicles. This has the potential to be a game-changer in the battle to stop drunk driving. However, this requirement will only happen after a lengthy federal rule-making process, followed by years of turnover in the vehicle fleet.

All these projects are worthwhile, but we must continue to address the dangerous driving occurring today, tomorrow and in the years ahead, using proven interventions in our toolbox.

A New National Strategy

As we work toward eliminating traffic deaths, there are positive signs coming from the new administration. Recently confirmed U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, whose nomination GHSA strongly supported, has explicitly prioritized safety and equity as part of the Biden Administration’s infrastructure plan. Secretary Buttigieg has also built a national media platform that could and should be leveraged to promote the transportation safety issues that all Americans need to understand.

GHSA is a proud founding member of both Toward Zero Deaths and the Road to Zero Coalition. In January, we joined with hundreds of highway safety partners in signing onto a letter urging President Biden and his leadership team to commit to reducing traffic fatalities to zero by 2050.

Congress is also preparing to reauthorize all the federal transportation programs, including highway safety. GHSA is urging Congress to make targeted improvements to NHTSA’s behavioral grant programs, of which the state highway safety offices are constituents, while also increasing investment in safety across all modes.

The highway safety community includes hundreds of thousands of federal, state and local employees, engineers and planners, law enforcement officials, members of the judiciary, safety and community advocates, researchers, communicators, public health professionals, policymakers, educators, business partners, and more working diligently to save lives. But it will take public- and private-sector leadership at the highest level to champion the change required to achieve dramatic reductions in traffic deaths and to reverse what happened in 2020. There has been much talk about concerted national efforts, but more commitment, investment and action are needed today—lives are on the line.

This article was originally published in the National Traffic Law Center’s Between the Lines newsletter in April 2021 under NHTSA cooperative agreement 693JJ91950010. It is reprinted here with the permission of the National Traffic Law Center.