Acting with Urgency: What does “Safer People” mean?

by Leah Shahum | May 2, 2022 | in News, Webinars

It’s worth paying special attention to the first in the list of core elements in the new National Roadway Safety Strategy, released in early 2022 by the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT). Along with the other core elements of the Safe System approach – Safer Roads, Vehicles, Speeds and Post-Crash Care – the description of Safer People is noteworthy. It reads: 

“Encourage safe, responsible behavior by people who use our roads and create conditions that prioritize their ability to reach their destination unharmed(emphasis added)

We underlined the second half of the phrase above because it marks an important shift in how the nation’s leading transportation agency is communicating about safety. Traditionally, in transportation agencies, the idea of “safe people” has centered on educating and expecting individuals to know and follow “the rules” in order to keep themselves safe, then enforcing when they do not. 

This individual behavior-focused approach often ignores – to great peril – critical safety factors, such as roadway designs, land use, vehicle safety, and policy decisions, many of which date back decades. As the U.S. DOT’s new description, above, appropriately portrays: meaningfully encouraging safe behaviors among individuals rests on the assumption that these individuals have safe choices, to begin with. And, too often, this just isn’t the case.

This is the theme of the second discussion in our series, Acting with Urgency, which dives more deeply into each of the Safe System elements of the nation’s new roadway strategy.

We were honored to be joined by Jessie Singer author of “There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster – Who Profits and Who Pays the Price”; Eric Dumbaugh Ph.D., Associate Director with the Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety, and Professor at School of Urban and Regional Planning, Florida Atlantic University; Norman Garrick Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, University of Connecticut; Seth LaJeunesse Associate Director of Health and Community Sciences at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, all of whom bring valuable experience, insight, and passion to the question we’re exploring: What does Safer People Mean? We encourage you to watch the one-hour recording.

Following are our takeaways from the conversation, with a focus on these questions:

  • Why does it matter how we understand and set strategies in the realm of what traffic safety professionals call “Safer People”? 
  • What can we do to make meaningful change to the status quo, which largely – and, we believe, harmfully – emphasizes roadway safety as overly individualistic versus collective responsibility?

The status quo is not working

Research and experience show that, as a society, we have over-emphasized attention to individual behavior, an approach that has been ineffective in ensuring safe mobility. What will be more effective, the panelists agreed, is shifting more attention and action to the upstream systems that influence people’s behavior and that serve or fail to protect them when the worst occurs, including the physical environments and vehicles we move in and the policies that affect the conditions we move in.

This 2021 study shows that three-quarters of the nation’s “hot spot” dangerous corridors for people walking are ​​bordered by low-income neighborhoods, and most share common traits of wide, multi-lane roads carrying a lot of vehicles, often moving at higher speeds.

“The system has been designed so that certain conditions exist,” said Eric Dumbaugh, who has researched these topics. “All it takes is an individual engaging in a behavior that you can reasonably expect they will do to trigger that event. It’s like loading a gun and putting a bullet in the chamber and then people behaving like we might predict is going to lead to a certain outcome.”

When thinking about causes of crashes – and how to prevent them in the future – we generally look at what happened immediately before the crash. For instance, was the driver speeding? Was the pedestrian visible? But there are a whole set of things that happened before that instant that influenced the situation, what Dumbaugh called “latent errors.” For instance, an arterial road may have been built 20 years prior for a mostly rural context at the time, and development has changed land use patterns so that the road is treacherous in the current context. 

“We can blame the user – and maybe the user could have done something differently,” Dumbaugh said. “But the chain of events might have been started 20 years before. We’ve completely de-coupled how we create our environment from the results that happen. And we really need to start going up the chain and start thinking about ‘What is this environment we’re creating?’”

Education is needed…upstream

For many reasons, people are increasingly questioning the oversized roles that education and enforcement have played in the traffic safety world. A key reason is the lack of effectiveness.

Education, as Jessie Singer shared, has too often focused on an individualized approach to changing human behavior via messaging, including PR campaigns on billboards and radio ads urging people to “do good.” Even if there were solid evidence of this approach working in a meaningful and lasting way – and there is not – it is a wildly inefficient way to reach millions of individuals. And, it distracts from investing in changes that are more effective: those that reduce harm when the worst occurs.

“Blaming human error takes the onus of safety off of the automaker and off of the road designer and these are people who can make us all safe,” said Singer.

“If we’re going to talk about education, let’s start with the people who have the most power to keep the most people safe,” she added. “I want educated automakers. I want educated engineers.”

And, when it comes to enforcement, Singer explained, the blame and punishment model is not working. “I think people are increasingly aware that having police cars chasing speeding drivers around the roads makes far less sense than simply making cars that can’t go that fast,” she said, paraphrasing William Haddon, Jr., the first administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Status Quo is Worsening Inequalities

Another reason that advocacy is increasing to evolve beyond the century-old “E’s” approach to traffic safety is the growing recognition that it exacerbates inequities. As Singer pointed out, there’s a clear correlation between economic and racial inequality leading to increased vulnerability to injury-related deaths.

In the U.S. Black people are killed in traffic crashes at a rate almost 25% higher than white people. People walking in low-income communities are almost three times more likely to be killed or injured by drivers than in higher-income areas.

To over-emphasize education and enforcement as primary ways to address these inequities sends the message that these are individual-level, behavioral issues, ignoring the fact that these are the very communities that are disproportionately exposed to dangerous conditions, including poorly designed and high-traffic, high-speed roads and a lack of sidewalks and bikeways, and less access to high-quality (read: safer) vehicles.

This sets up a vicious cycle of over-enforcement in the same communities that have been designed for less safe options. Black people in the U.S. are two times more likely than White people to be stopped by police in traffic stops, and they are about four times more likely to be searched by the police.

Individual responsibility (sometimes viewed as rugged individualism) is deeply baked into our transportation processes and policies – ranging from street designs to traffic enforcement. And, as Seth LaJeunesse explained, it usually comes down to a battle between individual road users – and, of course, those who are more vulnerable and those who are not-white are the ones who usually lose in that battle.

Encouraging models for public safety

Some panelists saw hope in the growing interest in the Safe System approach toward traffic safety, in part, because it has elements of a harm reduction model, which is better known in public health circles related to substance use. While there is an educational component, it plays a supporting role and only upon ensuring that people have the resources they need. This addresses broader health and social issues through improved policies, programs, and practices. The analogy for roadway safety would be that education and encouragement efforts are valuable if the environment and systems are first in place for the behaviors desired; for instance, don’t give tickets for “jaywalking” if safe street crossings are not possible or practicable.

LaJeunesse pointed to strategies employed in suicide and injury prevention work as good models for roadway safety. And other panelists echoed the need for a stronger role for public health and sociology professionals to better understand the resources people need to survive our roads.

There was agreement that traffic safety needs to be better recognized for being interconnected with many other issues, and a more cross-sectoral approach to problem-solving adopted. 

“What we see on the roadways is not only a function of the physical design of the land and the road network”, said LaJeunesse, “It’s the American, sort of, cultural drama playing out. We have a lot of insecurity, in terms of financial insecurity, in terms of our own health. All these things can manifest on the road. So I think getting people around the table that are working on cross-cutting issues to start seeing their role and what they could possibly do to change policy and practice – I think that’s where a lot of the potential lies in this field.”

We need to re-personalize mobility

In many ways, by automating the driving task, we’ve stopped creating human spaces in our transportation systems, Dumbaugh pointed out. When we’re traveling in a motor vehicle, the other people around us in motor vehicles cease seeming like other human beings and become machines or objects. 

It’s a function of how we’re engineered biologically, he explained. People can move on their own power at 10-to-15mph max. “Beyond that, we stop being able to process our environment, we stop being able to humanize the things that are around us, and they become objects,” he said.

“What we need with safety is a shared collective understanding, an agreement, a social contract, to behave civilly and responsibly,” Dumbaugh concluded.

Change generates resistance, and that’s O.K.

Echoing a sentiment we’re hearing from some in the national-level traffic safety community, an attendee questioned the value of the discussion, which they characterized as “polarizing”.

Singer responded that polarizing can be good. “The conversation has been static for a long time, reliant on a dominant paradigm that is actually problematic…If this conversation feels polarizing, it’s because we’ve been lying to ourselves for a long time about what works and what the problem is and how we’re going to solve it.”

Norman Garrick added helpful context that for more than 100 years, we’ve promoted this idea of individual responsibility as the way to look out for our own safety, not just in the U.S. but around the world. This is the way people are taught in engineering schools and the way the media portray the issues. 

“It’s not surprising that we’re getting pushback,” he said. “This history has a very, very long tail.” 

LaJeunesse agreed with the need to shake up the status quo. “We want to grow parts of the system that are worthy and shrink those that aren’t.”

He offered a positive and forward-looking way of making change, asking: What do we want to see in the future? What do we want more of? We need more community consensus of a vision of what works and to make change toward that positive vision.

Reason for hope

Garrick shared a reason for optimism, citing that when he started in this field 25 years ago, people in the U.S. were not generally talking about this – there was not widespread recognition of the problems with over-emphasizing individual behavior. Today, that’s changing.

“I see us at an inflection point that is going to lead to much more safety in the U.S.,” he said. “We’ve seen other countries come down this same path…They have decided at some point to make a change in how the transportation system affects their cities…and they made a conscious decision to change, and I see the same things building here.”

“I think we’re going to continue towards a more people-centric, city-friendly transportation system,” Garrick said, “and a safer transportation system.”


To hear more from the discussion – including recommendations for actions we can take to make change – check out the recording and our list of relevant, helpful resources.

Please look at our discussions in the Acting with Urgency series:
Register for Part III – What is the Road to Safer Vehicles – here.

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