Dept. of Transportation announces new plan to curb highway deaths

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled a national road safety plan Thursday aimed at cutting the high rates of traffic deaths that have shocked highway safety advocates. 

Last October, the department announced that motor vehicle deaths skyrocketed in the first half of 2021, up more than 18% over the same period in 2020. It was the largest six-month increase the agency had ever recorded. 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at Union Station in Washington.

"Things have gotten worse in recent years as people drove at higher speeds, more recklessly, more distracted," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Thursday.

The department will soon be releasing fatality data for the third quarter of 2021, he added: "I need to tell you, looking at the preliminary numbers, it's not good. This is a national crisis."

The agency hopes to make roads safer by implementing a "safe systems approach" that builds multiple layers of protection for people walking, biking and driving on roadways. 

"People make mistakes, but human mistakes don't always have to be lethal," Buttigieg said. "In a well-designed system, safety measures make sure that human fallibility doesn't lead to human fatalities."

The safety framework includes plans to implement rules that would make it easier for state licensing agencies to more easily identify unsafe drivers, leverage $6 billion appropriated through the bipartisan infrastructure law to help local governments build safer streets, update speed limits and more. 

The department also will develop rules to require automatic emergency braking in new passenger vehicles and heavy trucks, and to require drunk driving prevention technology in new vehicles, as required by the infrastructure law. 

Car deaths soared in 2020, as many hunkered down due to the coronavirus pandemic and those left on the roads engaged in more reckless driving, such as speeding, driving drunk or not wearing a seatbelt. But the numbers got even worse in 2021, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reporting 20,160 people dying in vehicle crashes in the first half of the year.

John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation representing most major automakers selling cars in the U.S., said in a statement the group "welcomes" the agency's strategy: "We look forward to continued collaboration with the Department to bring about further advances in automotive safety innovation.”

The Governors Highway Safety Association also praised the plan, saying that "national leadership on traffic safety is essential for addressing unsafe streets, dangerous driving behaviors ... and other risks that needlessly claim lives on our roads every day."

Twitter: @rbeggin