What the Safe System Approach Means for Fatal Car Accidents in America

What the Safe System Approach Means for Fatal Car Accidents in AmericaCar accidents are an unfortunately common occurrence — approximately 1.3 million people all over the world die each year in road traffic crashes, with a further 20 to 50 million people suffering from non-fatal injuries and disabilities.  

Many countries and their governments have long since tried to reduce this number, but the complexity of the factors involved makes it a difficult endeavor. It requires coordinated action from various levels (national, municipal, local) and sectors (transport, police, health, education, and more) in order to make significant improvements in road safety.

Recently, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that it is implementing a National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS) based on the Safe System Approach. This move is meant to address a concerning uptick in fatal car accidents in America. To learn more about the program and how it is meant to make America’s roads safer, continue reading. 

America’s Roads Are Dangerous

Transportation can occur in a variety of settings — on roadways, in the air, on the sea, or even on a railroad. Over the last decade (2011-2020), over 370,000 people died in America in a transportation incident. Out of those 370,000 people, 350,000 or 95% were killed on the nation’s streets, roads, and highways. 

This brings to light a simple truth: America’s roads are dangerous.

The danger of America’s roads is a problem that is only getting worse. During the global COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and restrictions swept the nation, leading to a decrease in the total amount of miles traveled. The logical result of this scenario should have been a corresponding decrease in the total number of motor vehicle accidents, but in reality, a worrying increase happened.  

Based on preliminary data, the National Safety Council (NSC) estimated that as many as 42,060 people died in fatal car accidents in America in 2020. 4.8 million additional roadway users were estimated to have been seriously injured, and the total cost of these accidents was estimated at $474 billion. 

The NSC’s preliminary estimate of roadway deaths was an 8% increase compared to 2019 and resulted in a 24% spike over the previous 12-month period due to the total miles driven dropping by 13%. This 24% increase in death rate per miles traveled marks the highest estimated jump the NSC has calculated in 96 years, ever since 1924. This data outlines the state of America’s roads during the pandemic: emptier, but far deadlier. 

The president and CEO of the NSC, Lorraine Martin, describes it as such: “It is tragic that in the U.S., we took cars off the roads and didn’t reap any safety benefits. These data expose our lack of an effective roadway safety culture. It is past time to address roadway safety holistically and effectively, and NSC stands ready to assist all stakeholders, including the federal government.”

The preliminary data for 2021 had a similarly bleak outlook. Restrictions had loosened, which meant more drivers returning to the road, and the rate of accidents increased in response. 

The NSC estimates that the total number of motor vehicle deaths for the first six months of 2021 is 21,450 — this is a 16% increase from the estimate of 2020’s first six months (18,480) and a 17% increase from the 2019 estimate (18,384).

In addition, the estimated number of non-fatal injuries from motor vehicle accidents is 2,445,000 (based on the current medically-consulted injury-to-death ratio of 114:1), and the total cost of the deaths, injuries, and property damage resulting from motor vehicle accidents is $241.9 billion. 

The worrying safety of America’s roads has led the NSC and other organizations and individuals to call on President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to commit to zero roadway deaths — and the recent announcement sees the administration taking the first step toward that goal. 

Announcement of the Safe System Approach

On January 27, 2022, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced that the Biden administration will be implementing a new strategy to address the recent increase of traffic-related deaths and injuries in America.  

In the announcement, Buttigieg said, “We cannot tolerate the continuing crisis of roadway deaths in America. These deaths are preventable, and that’s why we’re launching the National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS) today — a bold, comprehensive plan, with significant new funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

“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,” he declared. 

Under the NRSS, the DOT is adopting the “Safe Systems approach” which features a holistic view that acknowledges both human mistakes and human vulnerability and is founded on the premise that all fatal accidents are preventable. In order for it to work, the system and the actors within must be geared towards a common goal of preventing accidents and reducing any resulting injuries and death. It operates on six key principles and five key elements, as detailed in the following section. 

The Safe System approach has already been adopted in other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, and several more in Europe. It has seen remarkable success in Sweden and the Netherlands in particular, where the approach first originated. Road traffic fatality numbers saw a 50% decrease from 1994 to 2015. In comparison, the United States only saw a 13% decrease during the same period. 

The implementation of the NRSS and the adoption of the Safe System approach were developed with the help of the DOT’s Executive Safety Council headed by Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg. It combines the efforts of all three of the DOT’s roadway safety agencies: the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).  

The cooperation of these three agencies along with other roadway safety advocates will be instrumental to the success of the program, as commented by Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg: “The Roadway Safety Action Plan is designed to focus all of USDOT’s resources, authorities, and incredible expertise, working with our stakeholders, to combat the tragic number of fatalities and serious injuries we see on U.S. roadways – from our largest cities and towns to rural and tribal communities all across the country.”

Through the Safe System approach, the DOT takes the first step towards a long-term goal of reaching zero roadway fatalities.

A Goal To Reduce Fatal Car Accidents in America

Unlike the traditional safety approach, the Safe System approach focuses on the system as a whole instead of attempting to change human behavior and prevent all crashes. It accommodates human behavior and strives to reduce the severity of crashes instead of preventing them entirely. 

In order to understand how the Safe System approach works and implement it in your own community, here are the six key principles

  • Death/Serious Injury is Unacceptable — The system focuses on zero deaths and serious injuries, instead of zero crashes. No one should experience death or injury when using transportation. 
  • Humans Make Mistakes — Transportation systems should be designed and operated to accommodate human error, as people will inevitably make mistakes.
  • Humans Are Vulnerable — Transportation systems should be designed and operated to accommodate human vulnerabilities, such as their limit for tolerating crash forces before death and serious injury occur. 
  • Safety is Proactive — Instead of reacting to crashes after they occur, proactive tools should be used to survey transportation systems in order to identify and mitigate risks.
  • Redundancy is Crucial — All parts of the transportation system must be strengthened, to ensure that it can still protect people even if one part fails. 
  • Responsibility is Shared — Everyone (transportation system users and managers, vehicle manufacturers, etc.) must do their part to ensure that crashes don’t lead to fatal or serious injuries.

 

In order to uphold these principles and address the risks involved in a crash, the Safe Approach system looks to improve five key elements: 

  • Safe Road Users — The safety of all road users must be addressed, whether they are walking, biking, driving, riding transit, or traveling by other modes.
  • Safe Vehicles — Using the latest technology, vehicles must be designed and regulated to minimize the occurrence and severity of crashes. 
  • Safe Speeds — Reducing speeds will reduce impact forces, provide additional time for drivers to react and stop, and improve visibility. 
  • Safe Roads — Designing roads for human mistakes and vulnerabilities will reduce the severity of crashes. 
  • Post-Crash Care — This involves emergency first responders that treat injuries, forensic analysis at the crash site, traffic incident management, and others. 

Through focusing on these principles and elements, the Shared Systems approach creates several layers of protection across the entire transportation system. Under this protection, death and serious injuries resulting from crashes will ideally be reduced, bringing down the number of fatal car accidents in America.

What To Do if You Get in a Car Accident

While the DOT and its roadway safety agencies are actively working on making our roads safer, accidents can still happen. Always drive cautiously and follow traffic laws, and in the event that you do get in a car accident, get the assistance of experienced car accident lawyers to help you secure compensation for your injuries and losses. 

 

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