Throughout the past few decades, car crash fatalities were on a decline in the United States. Much of this was due to a greater focus on safety in vehicle and roadway design. However, progress has stalled in the last 10 years, and we are now seeing these numbers take a turn in the wrong direction.

We recently discussed the rise of traffic deaths in SambaSafety’s home state of Colorado, when the state experienced more fatalities in 2021 than any year since 2002. We saw a significant increase in those driving impaired, excessively speeding and choosing not to wear a seatbelt. These alarming driver safety statistics aren’t just unique to the state of Colorado – we’re unfortunately seeing similar trends across the entire nation.

In its most recent report, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that 31,720 people died in motor vehicle crashes nationwide throughout the first nine months of 2021. That’s a whopping 12% increase from those who were killed in crashes in 2020. It’s also the highest number of fatalities reported throughout the first nine months of any year since 2006.

To put things into greater perspective, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg recently reported that “Almost 95% of our nation’s transportation deaths occur on America’s streets, roads and highways, and they are on the rise.”

So, what’s next? These numbers seem to be climbing regardless of how many vehicles are out on the road. The pandemic is a clear example of that. Serious action needs to be taken before these driver safety statistics become an even greater cause for concern.

The Government’s Response to Staggering Driver Safety Statistics

To combat this significant increase in roadway fatalities, the government is now stepping in and implementing some much-needed changes. Thanks to allocated funds from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) plans to reduce the number of lives lost on the roads with new guidance to its Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP).

“FHWA’s goal is to help state and local transportation agencies across the country deliver projects that make streets, highways and bridges safe and accessible for all users,” said Deputy Federal Highway Administrator Stephanie Pollack. “Under the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, states now have more flexibility and funding to make highway safety improvements.”

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The HSIP complements the DOT’s implementation of the National Roadway Safety Strategy, a department-wide adoption of the Safe System Approach. This Safe System Approach incorporates the following principles:

  1. No one should experience death or serious injury while using the transportation system.
  2. Transportation should be designed to withstand certain types of human mistakes.
  3. The transportation system should accommodate physical human vulnerabilities.
  4. All stakeholders are vital to prevent death and serious injuries on roadways.
  5. Proactive tools should be used to prevent crashes from occurring.
  6. All parts of the transportation system must be strengthened to reduce risk.

DOT’s National Roadway Safety Strategy

In his opening letter, the Secretary of Transportation discusses the DOT’s mission to make the country’s transportation system safe for all people.

“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. Zero is the only acceptable number of deaths and serious injuries on our roadways,” writes Buttigieg.

The National Roadway Safety Strategy states that reaching zero will require the collaboration of the entire roadway transportation community and the American people, to “lead a significant cultural shift that treats roadway deaths as unacceptable and preventable.” This will be done by addressing five key objectives: safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds and post-crash care.

We break down the key components of each objective below.

Safer People

A great majority of serious and fatal crashes includes at least one human behavioral issue as a contributing factor. People not wearing seat belts, driving while impaired from alcohol and speeding are the three most persistent factors. Other factors include distraction, drug impairment and fatigue, contributing to thousands of fatal crashes each year. DOT aims to make the safety of all road users a top priority, with plans to leverage new funding for behavioral research, interventions, education, technical assistance and outreach.

Safer Roads

The United States has more than four million miles of public roads. Both the roadway design and the environment surrounding the roadway system affect safety risks for drivers. It’s important to note that these highways, roads and streets were all built at different times and are in widely varying states of repair. DOT aims to focus on advancing infrastructure design and interventions that will significantly enhance safety on the road. Roadway design guidance and regulations will be updated to reflect best practices for implementing safer roadways.

Safer Vehicles

While safety features such as seatbelts and airbags have prevented countless fatalities since their implementation, DOT believes the next generation of motor vehicles will be able to prevent certain crashes from occurring in the first place. Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) such as Automatic Emergency Braking and Lane Departure Warning will work to enhance motor vehicle safety. Beyond developing technology, DOT also strives to investigate issues, initiate recalls and remedy vehicle defects.

Safer Speeds

According to DOT, “speeding has played a role in more than a quarter of traffic deaths – killing nearly 100,000 people – over the past decade.” To achieve safe speeds, DOT plans to implement a multi-faceted approach that will work to leverage road design, set safe speed limits, provide any necessary education and ensure proper enforcement.

Post-Crash Care

While being proactive is a key to reducing driving-related fatalities, caring for people who have been involved in a crash is equally as important. According to DOT, “in rural areas, about 39% of fatal crash victims do not arrive at a hospital for between one and two hours from the time of the crash, compared to 10% in urban areas.” DOT also estimates that the likelihood of a second crash increases almost 3% for every minute the initial crash obstructs a lane or poses another type of hazard. DOT aims to shorten ambulance on-scene response time, improve the quality of EMS data and address the importance of clearing a crash scene quickly.

How You Can Take Action Today to Increase Driver Safety

These five objectives will fuel the DOT’s launch of new programs and guidelines to improve driver safety statistics. With all of this in mind, achieving “zero roadway fatalities” will not be a one-and-done ordeal. This will take years of improvements, new implementations and education to change the trajectory of roadway fatalities.

In the meantime, it’s critical for safety professionals to understand the danger they may pose on our nation’s roads today. Your drivers could be directly contributing to this increase in road risk, so it’s crucial to intervene before they put themselves in a situation that may cost others’ lives and/or put your company at major financial risk.

What is your company doing to encourage safer driving behavior? To learn more about how you can do your part to mitigate driver risk, download a free copy of our checklist today!