We need states to up the ante for roadway safety!

by Jenn Fox | June 1, 2022 | in News

The news that 42,915 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. in 2021 – the most since 2005 and a 10.5% increase from the prior year – should shock and sadden us. This predictable and preventable loss should also embolden us to take stronger actions to prioritize safety for all road users.

Nowhere is bolder, more effective safety action needed – and possible – than at the state level across the nation. It is time for a wake-up call and 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.

Thanks to the biggest influx of federal infrastructure support ever in the nation – with states receiving the vast majority of the $1.2 trillion in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) – states are in a strong position to change the unacceptable status quo of tens of thousands of roadway deaths and millions more serious injuries each year.

What’s the Problem

As in-depth analysis from our friends at Smart Growth America shows, change is needed to align states with the new national goal of zero roadway fatalities and the Safe System approach. Their analysis shows that “current practices and policies at state departments of transportation (DOTs) lead to the construction of huge, expensive road projects as the ‘solution’ to almost every transportation problem. Big, over-engineered road projects waste precious funds, generate more driving and more pollution, and prioritize high-speed vehicle travel over the safety of every other road user.”

Many states are modernizing their approach to improving safety and addressing the climate impacts of an over-reliance on autos. Some examples include Colorado’s new Greenhouse Gas policy to steer transportation planning towards investments to meet climate change goals, Massachusetts’ work on safer speeds, and California’s pivot to a Safe System approach and acknowledgment that we can’t road-widen our way to success (see graphic below and this important effort at Caltrans).

Caltrans (the California DOT) is rethinking how we build so Californians can drive less.
Caltrans (the California DOT) is rethinking how we build so Californians can drive less.

But change has been slow and sporadic for too long. Too often, “safety” funds go unspent or are re-directed to questionable safety priorities. Similarly, meager state investments in proven safety strategies, including slower speeds and Complete Streets, are undone by over-spending on projects that increase vehicle trips, carbon emissions, and dangerous speeds.

Now is the Time to Shift States’ Approach to Safety

With the influx of new federal funding to states and a stepped-up policy and funding commitment from U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), now is the time to work with your state to ensure the funding is leveraged for meaningful, lasting safety improvements.

We encourage everyone committed to advancing Vision Zero to find out how their state is currently prioritizing safety – or not – and join advocacy actions to encourage change. Join us for a webinar on this topic June 7, 2022.

Thanks to Transportation for America for this image and summary about moving the needle on roadway safety.
Thanks to Transportation for America for this image and summary about moving the needle on roadway safety.

While there are many timely and relevant funding programs at the state level that would benefit from change, we focus here mostly on the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) because it offers HUGE opportunities for more investments in meaningful safety improvements, especially, if done right, to address the tragic, fast-rising death rate amongst people walking and biking in the U.S.

Highway Safety Improvement Program

Here’s a high-level overview of this important funding program and the opportunity to make significant improvements. Note that we’re doing our best to avoid getting too wonky or technical here; please check out the embedded links for important details and background information.

WHAT IT IS: The HSIP is a federal transportation program for infrastructure projects to improve roadway safety. It is state-controlled and project selection is based on each state’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP).

WHY IT MATTERS: It’s a lot of money – $16.8 billion over the next five years (a 24% increase in HSIP funds). Some states’ HSIP spending on “safety” could be called “subjective”, to put it nicely. More can and should be spent on Complete Streets, managing speeds for safety, and traffic calming projects that protect all road users, and that boost non-vehicle transportation options. Don’t let the name of the program fool you – this funding is not only for highways. It can be used on local, county, and/or state-owned roads too.

Are you getting your fair share of the hugely expanded pot of HSIP funds for top safety needs in your community? According to FHWA’s 2019 report on HSIP spending, $262 million in these critical safety funds were used on roadway widening versus $188 million for bicycle and pedestrian safety projects, and only $28 million on road diets (see Appendix B).

Despite one of the key elements of the Safe System approach being “Safer Speeds,” some states do not use HSIP funds for speed management, such as Texas, where at least one person has been killed on Texas roadways every day for more than 21 years. Based on HSIP Annual Report data, Texas spent only $1 million on pedestrian and bike safety between 2018 and 2019, while 1,265 pedestrians and 135 bicyclists were killed on Texas roadways, representing just under 19% of all traffic fatalities in the state. This is an example of the disturbing trend of HSIP funds not recognizing and addressing the troubling rise in traffic deaths amongst people walking and biking. According to the FHWA, 23 states transferred funding from HSIP between 2016 and 2021, with some states such as New Jersey transferring more than 40% of funding, even as pedestrians and bicyclists were more than 30% of traffic fatalities. Each State’s report about HSIP effectiveness and 2020 HSIP fact sheets are included on this FHWA webpage.

WHY IT MATTERS EVEN MORE RIGHT NOW: Thanks to new guidelines from the USDOT, there are now stronger requirements to actually spend the safety funds where needed most. Specifically, if more than 15% of a state’s roadway deaths are people walking and biking, then the state is now required to spend at least 15% of its HSIP funds on safety improvements for people walking and biking. That’s a big deal!

Analysis from the League of American Bicyclists, based on 2020 data, estimates that 31 states and Washington, DC will likely fall into this category. Is your state one of them? Check here.

WHY SHOULD I CARE: We should care – and act – because this massive amount of money – could and should be going toward meaningful, measurable safety improvements, especially supporting more and safer walking, biking and access to transit.

Take Action

While it can feel daunting to change state-level policies and practices, it is possible. But nothing will change without strong advocacy. Following are ways to engage with and encourage meaningful safety investments in your state via the HSIP funding. Some of these may be more appropriate for individuals, advocacy groups, or cities and MPOs:

Find out if your state is on the list of states likely to qualify for the new special rule requiring at least 15% of these funds be dedicated to walking and biking safety (as referenced above). If so, your advocacy is even more urgent. For a state like New Jersey, this will mean at least a doubling of the amount spent on bicycle and pedestrian safety projects, from less than $5 million to more than $11 million. For Texas, the state must spend more than $45 million compared to an average of about $1 million in recent years. The $45 million that Texas is required to spend on bicycle and pedestrian safety projects is double the amount of federal funding Texas spent on all bicycle and pedestrian projects in 2020.

Look up your state’s HSIP lead (hover over your state on this map) and contact them to ask about their plans for safety. You can: (1) Request a briefing on how HSIP funds will address state’s top safety needs and align with the Safe System approach. (2) Ask how are they addressing new eligibilities, especially for safety of people walking and biking. (3) In advance of the meeting, check out your state’s SHSP to see what is missing and when it will be updated. Ask: how can localities, MPOs, and community members influence the safety investments and decisions on the state’s SHSP priorities?

Work with safe streets leaders (advocates, transportation planners) to develop recommendations for safety investments that could qualify for HSIP funding. Share this with or better yet, develop it in partnership with your Mayor’s Office and City Council members and local community groups with a focus on equitable representation and underserved communities. (Not sure where to start? Check your city or region’s Vision Zero plan or other safety-focused plans to identify worthwhile projects that need funding. And see these Proven Countermeasures for safety.)

Share the list of recommendations with your state’s Department of Transportation Director, HSIP contact, legislators, and the Governor’s office. This will help draw attention and urgency.

Track your state’s SHSP, which is required to be updated every few years and directly influences how funds are spent. Does it prioritize walking and biking safety? And, if so, is it based on a Safe System approach that elevates Complete Streets and speed management for safety, rather than over-emphasizing enforcement?

Thanks to the League of American Bicyclists for these materials about federal programs to support safety and bicycling and walking.
Thanks to the League of American Bicyclists for these materials about federal programs to support safety and bicycling and walking.

Find out about other important state-level funding programs that can and should be used for safety, including Transportation Alternatives, Carbon Reduction, Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ), Safe Routes to School, Active Transportation, Reconnecting Communities, and Rural Surface Transportation. For more on these programs, check out the USDOT BIL website and this informative webinar hosted by The League of American Bicyclists and the Safe Routes Partnership.

HSIP can also fund Vision Zero Planning

While most HSIP funding goes to infrastructure projects (FHWA proven safety countermeasures include protected bike lanes, crosswalk visibility enhancements and speed safety cameras), 10% of a state’s HSIP fund can be used for programmatic purposes, including Safe Routes to School, Drivers Education and Vision Zero. And, HSIP funds can also be used to develop local road safety plans, such as Vision Zero plans.

Related to Vision Zero plans and funding, we encourage you to dig into this historic opportunity for more safety funding to directly benefit local, regional, and tribal communities, thanks to the new, first-ever Safe Streets and Roads for All program, which focuses on Vision Zero and Safe System planning and implementation. The grant window is open now, with the deadline of September 15, 2022. Find out more and attend one of the USDOT’s mid-June “How to Apply” webinars.


Did you find this information helpful? If so, please support the important work of the following organizations, whose expertise and advocacy we depend upon to influence federal funding and policies, and see links to more resources on this topic: Transportation for America, League of American Bicyclists, America Walks, and NACTO.

And please support the Vision Zero Network’s continued advocacy for safe mobility for all.

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