November 30, 2023 BY Jenn Foxin News

States: We’re looking at you. We need you.

Local, regional and tribal communities in the U.S. are committing to Vision Zero at record numbers. And, the national Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and stepped-up federal strategies are bringing more funding and attention to safe infrastructure and public transportation. While this is encouraging, we need states to align their policies and funding decisions. Without state level change, the U.S. will likely continue to move in the wrong direction in terms of addressing transportation safety and the climate impacts. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore the importance of states stepping up their activities to align safety and climate goals with transportation work, including prioritizing Safety over Speed. We’ll highlight examples of states – such as Georgia and Texas – moving in the wrong direction on roadway safety and look at what we can learn from states making positive shifts. And you can see how your state is measuring up in the new National Resources Defence Council (NRDC) Scorecard: Getting Transportation Right: Ranking the States in Light of New Federal Funding.

NRDC’s ranking of states doing the least to improve climate, equity, and safety outcomes in transportation.

Let’s look at states that need to do more


Like most state transportation departments, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) continues to prioritize speedy single-occupancy vehicle travel at the expense of safety and access for people traveling by walking, biking and transit. In addition to more roadway crashes and deaths, this also leads to serious negative climate impacts and harms the state’s budget.

Georgia’s low safety ranking is one of many reasons Georgia performs poorly in NRDC’s Transportation Scorecard. But there are well-known ways to make our communities safer, while also improving the state’s climate resiliency and financial bottom-line. Consider Decatur, Georgia, a town of about 25,000 people just outside Atlanta, where a boy was hit and killed by a driver on November 6, 2023. The boy had been walking on College Avenue to meet his mother. 

This recent tragedy shines a light on a common problem in Georgia and throughout the country. College Avenue is one of five state-owned roads [1] that runs right through Decatur and has long been identified as a road needing safety improvements. In fact, community members for years have been urging the GDOT to lower speeds and re-design College Avenue, which leads to several schools.

While Decatur prides itself on being a walkable city, the five state-owned roads running through the community have a deadly mix of high-speed vehicle traffic and high pedestrian activity. Concerned about the dangers of walking, especially for the many students who walk to school, community members are calling for Georgia leaders to lower speed limits and add traffic calming measures to slow drivers down. Read Calm Decatur’s petition for these improvements, which must be made at the state level, and read on for ways to support safe and clean mobility in your state.


Texas leads the nation in traffic deaths, with one person dying every two hours on Texas roads [2]. Vision Zero cities in Texas, including Austin, Houston and San Antonio, are being stymied by state restrictions on well-known safety best practices, including lowering speed limits, redesigning roadways and using speed safety cameras.

The increase in roadway deaths - and in driving overall - has gotten so bad that it inspired this Dallas-Fort Worth NBC investigative series – Driven to Death.

The series highlights two common vicious cycles: first, more auto travel lanes lead to more driving and higher speeds; then, higher speeds lead to more frequent and more deadly crashes. As the series describes, while tools to improve safety are proven and readily available, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) continues to set speeds and design roads for speed over safety. As is the case in many states, city staff working to make streets safer face resistance from state leaders.

Much of this state resistance contradicts the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) directive to design streets and set policies in ways that lead to safer behavior. For instance, the federal National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS) encourages upstream strategies to curb high speeds: “The Department believes it is important to prioritize safety and moving individuals at safe speeds over focusing exclusively on the throughput of motor vehicles.” 

Thanks in part to the NRSS and advocacy work by Vision Zero Texas, TxDOT is starting to consider changing speed policies. But the governor and state elected officials continue pushes to speed up travel. So as described in the NBC series, “state road design and speed limit rules actually contribute to higher speeds and more deaths.” As Jay Crossley of Vision Zero Texas describes in the NBC investigative report, “We blame the users for using the system in the way it was designed.”

“At some point you have to make the choice of whether it’s more important to save lives or to facilitate fast car traffic.” – David Zipper, in Driven to Death

In the meantime, straightforward safety improvements on the most deadly roads in Dallas are stymied by these attitudes and TXDOT inaction. Many state leaders point to lack of enforcement as the problem, as does the head of TxDOT in the interview. This misses the point of using a Safe System approach, which focuses on upstream, preventative factors – such as designing roadways and setting speed limits to prioritize safety over speed – rather than relying on reactive, punitive measures such as enforcement.

What is your state doing?

State DOTs play a central role in the safety and sustainability of transportation systems. States lead planning processes and set policies ranging from how speed limits are set [3] to whether equity is considered. States largely decide where funding goes. Right now, in most states, funding priorities are not aligned with safety and sustainability goals. How does your state measure up in the NRDC 50-state Scorecard?

The Scorecard ranks state planning for climate and equity, vehicle electrification, expansion of transportation choices, system maintenance and procurement. Georgia and Texas rank toward the bottom in the NRDC Scorecard – with Georgia at 35 and Texas at 37 out of the total of 50. With a doubling of federal transportation spending, states need to direct investments and re-shape systems and policies to prioritize safety, climate and equity goals.

How can your state use this historic opportunity of more federal safety and climate funding to invest in the kinds of transportation projects that will make our roads safer while also addressing health inequities and tackling the climate crisis? And what can we learn from the highest scoring states?

California - recognizing the role of land use

California was the top ranked state in NRDC’s Scorecard. California is making it easier to get around without driving, in part by advancing policies to better coordinate transportation planning with land use and climate goals. California Senate Bill 375, passed in 2008, requires regional targets for planning entities to align plans with vehicle emissions reduction targets. Other recent state laws encourage infill housing development and eliminate minimum parking requirements near high-quality transit stops. California is also a leader in spending flexible federal transportation funds on public transit projects that promote affordability and clean air, although more work is needed to ensure that funds are not used for polluting and ineffective highway expansion projects.

At a minimum, states should give local and regional entities more control to address pressing safety, climate and equity goals. Much of California’s progress results from the State encouraging better planning - and then passing funds to local and regional governments - which are often more willing to lead on climate, safety and equity goals. Other states would do well to pass more federal funding onto local jurisdictions to support clean transportation investments in safety.

Massachusetts - taking a Safe System approach

Massachusetts was ranked second in NRDC’s Scorecard. While the state is doing less on electrification and lower carbon procurement, Massachusetts is doing an admirable job of integrating the Safe System approach into its transportation policy. MassDOT uses a risk-based screening tool to quantify and address sites with the highest risks of fatal or injury crashes related to speeding. This is a prime example of using a more proactive, preventative approach, in contrast to waiting until tragic events occur to address problems such as high speeds and unsafe road designs.

Presentation about MassDOT’s work on Safe Systems

MassDOT establishes target speeds and employs proven techniques to encourage lower and safer operating speeds to prevent serious injuries and fatal collisions. Rather than prioritizing wider travel lanes on high-speed roads running through neighborhoods, Massachusetts supports local jurisdictions’ work on roadway treatment for safe speeds.

Massachusetts has established design standards for pedestrian, bicycle and transit facilities that are applied to all projects. Massachusetts is also one of the growing number of states that incorporates more modern and relevant design standards. In 2014, it was the second state to endorse the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide, which better supports goals of increasing and improving trips made by bicycling, walking and transit.

Funding to do better

NRDC’s Scorecard shows that leading states, such as California, are also better stewards of an unprecedented infusion of federal dollars. Consider the recent federal policy that directs states to spend more money for known safety problems - the Vulnerable Road User (VRU) Special Rule. This 2022 “VRU rule” requires states with a certain threshold of traffic deaths for people biking and walking to address the safety of people biking and walking with state-controlled Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) funds, the largest dedicated source of safety funding in the U.S.

The District of Columbia and 32 states have to comply with the VRU rule because in these places, the percentage of vulnerable road user deaths exceeds 15%. In Georgia, for example, the percentage of roadway fatalities that involve vulnerable road users has doubled in the past decade - from 11 percent to more than 20 percent [4]. This is a staggering proportion of fatalities. 

The amount each state must obligate is based on how much HSIP funding a state receives, ranging up to $46.1 million in Texas [5]. According to FHWA, all states successfully obligated their VRU rule HSIP funding in 2023, resulting in $347 million obligated to projects that state DOTs say will improve bicyclist and pedestrian safety. But just obligating these funds doesn’t ensure that they’ll be spent on safety projects. In past years, 66% of HSIP funds were used on state-owned roads and less than 10% went to projects to improve bicyclist and pedestrian safety. Massachusetts is a leader in safety projects, while Texas and Georgia are far behind on this safety work. 

Advocates and local leaders will need to continue to hold states accountable to making roads safer, as the federal allocations were designed to do. The League of American Bicyclists shares these helpful - and sobering - statistics by state. We encourage Vision Zero champions to monitor the types of projects funded and whether state-owned roads were addressed to ensure that funding is spent on safety as it was intended.

States: we’re looking at you; we need you; and we want to work with you

Whether it’s lowering speed limits, re-designing roadways to encourage safer speeds, adding speed safety cameras, or other proven safety countermeasures; states are usually loath to make change, often citing such excuses as “We don’t have funding” or “That’s not the way we’ve done things in the past.” This can – and must – change.

The challenges in Dallas and Decatur, outlined above, are far too common. So, we’re understandably seeing more local jurisdictions lay out changes needed at the state level to help communities be safer and healthier places to live. For example, Fremont, CA integrates state-level policy changes into its Vision Zero Action Plan, including gaining ability to use speed safety cameras and authority over speed limit decisions.

As the federal government steps up investments and policy focus on roadway safety, now is the time to encourage states to up the ante for roadway safety, especially for people walking and biking and especially on state-owned roads.

It is time for changes to the status quo in all 50 states, whose leaders have outsized influence on what happens – or does not happen – for safety on our roadways, sidewalks, and bikeways. And if stepping up is not yet happening, states should – at the very least — step out of the way to allow locals and regions to address pressing safety and climate challenges.

[1] In this blog post, we are referring to state-owned roads through cities and towns, not interstates or freeways.
[2] Texas Motor Vehicle Traffic Crash Facts.
[3] For readers interested in the state role in speed setting, check out minute 7 of the NBC investigative report that describes TxDOT’s use of the 85th percentile approach and the federal government’s move away from this outdated approach.
[4] Vulnerable Roadway User Safety Assessment report by Georgia Department of Transportation.
[5] Uneven Start for Safety Funding by the League of American Bicyclists.

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