National Recommendations: Addressing Safety & Equity with the Safe System Approach

by Leah Shahum | May 13, 2021 | in News

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Year after year, as tens of thousands of people lose their lives in traffic crashes in the U.S., the well-known saying above can feel all too tragically true. And while no one doubts the commitment and sincerity of those focused on traffic safety in the U.S., we can and must push ourselves to move beyond the status quo, recognize what works and what does not, and be brave enough to make change.

We are in a time where change — meaningful, transformative change — to ensure safe mobility for all is possible. We see it in the number of cities and Mayors committing to Vision Zero; community advocates organizing locally; State and Federal agencies embracing the Safe Systems principles underlying Vision Zero; and expert analysis that Zero is Possible.

A new report lays out key actions for the Administration and Congress to take to change the course of road safety and work toward a more equitable transportation system. We encourage you to read the full report — Recommendations of the Safe System Consortium — which was released May 11, 2021. Vision Zero Network was proud to be a part of the Consortium of groups that developed the recommendations, convened by the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), and supported by the FIA Foundation. Watch the 1-hour recording (5/11/21) of the online release of the report here.

Federal leadership now is critical to change the status quo of the U.S. trailing globally in preventable traffic deaths. Right now, the new Presidential Administration is working to Build Back Better with the opportunity to build a next-generation transportation system. And Congress will decide how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in the next Federal Transportation Bill that has the potential to not only improve mobility, but also save hundreds of thousands of lives, support climate change goals, improve racial and income equity, and reconnect communities. 

We must not only Build Back Better, we must Build Back Safer.

Following are excerpts from the report:

About this effort:

Frustrated that conventional safety approaches have not shifted traffic deaths from their rank as leading cause of death for young people and with the associated endemic inequities rooted in our road transportation system, this group of engineers, scientists, public health professionals and safety experts considered the potential of an emerging concept – the Safe System approach – for changing the way roads affect our lives and communities.”

“The Safe System approach is an essential step toward sustainable mobility. The consequences of our current road system—nearly 40,000 deaths and 3 million serious injuries, and close to $1 trillion in comprehensive economic impact each year—are simply too high. We need to change our course.”

Why Safe Systems:

“The Safe System approach starts with a different mindset. Our current road system is designed to move cars quickly, with other considerations of secondary importance. The cost of this singular focus over 100 years of roadbuilding is a predictable loss of about 100 people per day in the U.S. Change is possible. Other nations have shown that roads can serve mobility needs – for work, business or pleasure – without creating an extreme risk. They have demonstrated that designing and maintaining the road environment – including sidewalks and bike paths – to fit the needs of people works far better than focusing solely on designing roads for moving vehicles quickly.” 

“In a Safe System, infrastructure owners and operators focus on their responsibility for the safety of all users of the system, using these tools and others thoughtfully and deliberately to design and operate roads that are self-enforcing, leading people intuitively to safe behavior.” 

About Safe Systems & Advancing Equity:

“Transitioning to a Safe System provides opportunities to address a range of safety consequences in communities that have long been underserved and marginalized…”

“If locations are prioritized thoughtfully, using data that are sensitive to local needs and capture not only the immediate impacts of crashes but also their second- and third-order effects, such as limiting opportunities for physical activity and access to jobs and education, then we can implement the Safe System approach in an equitable way. We can invest first in areas most in need, closing gaps between the well-served and underserved and improving equity as we move forward.” 

“A further way that the Safe System approach can improve equity, especially racial equity, is in its potential to reduce the need for police traffic enforcement. Our current road system relies on traffic enforcement to achieve safety by reducing noncompliant user behaviors resulting from errors – such as failing to see a stop sign – and judgment – such as speeding…”

“Traffic stops are the most common reason for contact between community members and law enforcement and are a persistent source of racial and economic injustice. In a Safe System, roads are designed such that the intuitive behavior is the safe behavior. Designers adjust lane width, sight distance, and other roadway cues so that drivers find the speed at which they feel comfortable driving is within the safe speed limit. Pedestrian crossings and bike paths are designed so that walkers and cyclists find that the easiest way to get across traffic is the safe way. These designs save lives and reduce the need for traffic law enforcement to achieve safety. Achieving a Safe System will take time and the need for police traffic law enforcement will not be displaced in the near future, but moving toward a Safe System puts us on a path toward increased safety with less dependence on enforcement.”

Opportunities & Benefits:

“The Consortium recognizes the need to leverage the federal surface transportation bill and the influence that the hundreds of billions of dollars authorized by this legislation can have – directly and indirectly – on road owners across the nation. The Consortium also recognizes the influence that transportation has on other social needs such as housing, employment, education, health, and the environment, and urges a broader consideration of sources for funding, collaborations, and other resources that could facilitate realization of a holistic vision for a Safe System.”

Image from the report

“Building a Safe System will transform our communities, reducing loss of life and serious injury, reducing parents’ fear for the lives of their small children and teens, and improving equitable mobility and access for everyone. Because safer roads will invite more walking and biking, the benefits can extend to climate change.”

Read the full report here and share it widely. We encourage you to contact your Congressional representatives and urge them to incorporate the Safe Systems priorities outlined in the report and a first-ever national Zero Traffic Deaths goal in the funding and policy priorities of the upcoming Federal Transportation Bill. Please sign the letter to President Biden urging a Zero Traffic Deaths national commitment.

Watch a recording of an excellent May 20th national conversation about Safe Systems hosted by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Lastly, thank you to Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, ITE, FIA Foundation, and all of the Consortium participants for their efforts.

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