Senate Commerce Committee Reviews Roadway Safety

 On Tuesday May 21st, the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and, Transportation subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Maritime, Freight, and Ports convened for a hearing on the ongoing roadway safety crisis. The subcommittee called on a panel of witnesses to provide insights about safety issues on US roads and highways, opportunities for policy change, and important community solutions to address safety concerns. 

Witness List 

  • Sam Krassenstein, Chief of Infrastructure, City of Detroit 
  • Laura Chace, President and CEO, Intelligent Transportation Society of America 
  • Jake Nelson, Director, Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research, American Automobile Association 
  • Dr. Laura Sandt, Director, Highway Safety Research Center, University of North Carolina  
  • Jeff Farah, CEO, Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association (AVIA)  

Context 

The context of the hearing on roadway safety is grim. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), around 40,000 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2023. The number of roadway fatalities decreased in 2023 compared to 2022, and the general trend over the past 30 years saw a decline in roadway fatalities. However, roadway fatalities have increased in 2020 and 2021. Traffic fatalities disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities including people of color, Native Americans, and residents in rural areas. Moreover, roadway fatalities often include vulnerable roadway users including pedestrians, cyclists, or motorcyclists. During the hearing, senators and witnesses voiced their concerns about the rise in roadway safety incidents and a sense of urgency in addressing roadway safety at a time when roadway fatalities increased in the past few years.  

Subcommittee ranking member Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) noted that 41,000 roadway fatalities is a massive number. Yet, the level of news coverage and public urgency does not seem to match the magnitude of roadway safety incidents. Farah added that the population has become desensitized to roadway safety issues. Car crashes are daily occurrences, and the deaths and injuries caused by car crashes sometimes seem like a normal part of life. Roadway fatalities can be prevented through policy action and technological innovation, but there needs to be a sense of urgency to push for such policy action and innovation. That sense of urgency will come from acknowledging that 41,000 roadway fatalities should not be normal.  

There are multiple factors that can threaten roadway safety, and witnesses and senators alluded to those factors throughout the hearing. Krassenstein pointed out that the design of streets is a key factor in roadway incidents, citing Gratiot Ave in Detroit as an example. Gratiot Ave is a large, multi-lane arterial road, where the actual speed of motorists is generally higher than the posted speed limit, creating an environment susceptible to roadway crashes. Krassenstein noted that overbuilt streets that have not seen safety improvements for vulnerable roadway users do not address the needs of the community around the roads. Nelson added later that these multi-lane arterial roads were designed to bring people in and out of cities. Today, those roads are also spaces where people live, work, and play. The nature of the streets has changed, but the behavior has not changed accompanied by the lack of improved safety infrastructure.  

Full committee ranking member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) noted that upgrades in critical infrastructure are an important part of the conversation. Cruz highlighted several pieces of legislation designating the new I-14 and I-27 interstates that will provide critical transportation links that can reduce congestion. Additionally, Cruz and Nelson pointed to lower law enforcement staffing and negative perceptions of law enforcement as another factor in roadway safety issues. They pointed to the decrease in traffic citations and enforcement in relation to an increase in roadway fatalities in some parts of the country.  

Responding to Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE), Nelson added that beyond staffing, data-driven and equitable traffic enforcement is crucial for law enforcement and coordination between jurisdictions on traffic enforcement can help to ensure that traffic laws are enforced, thereby maintaining traffic safety.  

Throughout the hearing, the conversation around the roadway safety crisis touched on the following themes: federal policy on safety, safety technology, autonomous vehicle (AV) policy, and electric vehicle (EV) weight.  

Federal Policy 

The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in 2021 provided billions of dollars in federal funding to address roadway safety. The Safe Streets for All (SS4A) grant program, Complete Streets initiatives, and the HALT Act are all federal programs and policies that address roadway safety from multiple angles. The HALT Act is legislation requiring impaired driving detection technology in new cars and was praised during the hearing as a transformational piece of safety legislation. Funding for complete streets that create a safe environment for all people in the community, roadway, and non-roadway users alike, along with promoting innovative designs for streets can be useful in improving safety. Krassenstein praised the SS4A program as a dedicated funding source that boosts the capability of local governments to address safety. Subcommittee chair Gary Peters (D-MI) inquired about recommendations for improving the SS4A program. Krassenstein noted that creative solutions to fund improvements for large roads that are not managed by local governments and therefore not in the scope of the program will be important. Nelson added that community engagement that involves working with the community and soliciting community input will be key in fostering support for the program. 

Responding to Sen. Young, Chace noted that there is some frustration among the industry regarding federal standards on AV policy. Rather than being handled at the state level, Chace noted that setting standards for AV policy is a federal role. Chace and Farah mentioned proposed rulemaking on the AV STEP program and the importance of a standard on AV policy being implemented at the federal level.  

Safety Technology 

Innovations in technology are an opportunity to improve roadway safety in a significant way. Chace highlighted that leveraging technology solutions can be an effective policy in reducing roadway safety incidents and emphasized the importance of proactive solutions. Rather than focusing on only the reaction to roadway safety incidents, technology can be leveraged to understand road conditions and prevent crashes in the first place. Various technologies include vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology, which allows vehicles to share information with other vehicles, pedestrians, and infrastructure. This technology can improve situational awareness for hazards beyond the line of sight for drivers. Responding to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chace discussed lane assist technology, which can be a critical safety technology in rural areas.  

Dr. Sandt discussed the importance of data in safety technology. Investing in data systems, enhancing requirements for data, and establishing performance metrics are crucial in improving safety. Data is what drives informed policy making, and Dr. Sandt noted the need for better data on roadway safety issues. From a public health perspective, Dr. Sandt highlighted the wealth of resources of data in the public health community, citing the benefit of EMS or trauma data that can inform roadway safety policies.  

Sen. Young inquired about roundabouts and the safety impacts associated with them. The senator prefaced the inquiry with the acknowledgment of Carmel, IN as the “roundabout capital of the world.” Dr. Sandt praised the inquiry, and provided insight into the safety functions of roundabouts, which account for an 88 percent reduction in roadway fatalities when installed. The design of the roundabout can maintain a flow of traffic with reduced approach speeds. This means that cars approaching and driving through the roundabout are doing so at a reduced speed. The reduced speed manages the kinetic energy, or the energy of motion of the automobile, which can reduce the impact of an incident or even prevent an incident from occurring. Dr. Sandt emphasized the focus on kinetic energy as a factor in roadway safety. Driving at higher speeds increases the chance of error and increases the chance of a more dangerous and life-threatening impact if an accident occurs. As such, a focus on speed management will be critical in improving roadway safety, which can include infrastructure improvements and vehicle design improvements.  

AV Policy 

Policies on autonomous vehicles came up throughout the hearing. Farah noted that AV technology is a reality that can have significant impact on reducing roadway fatalities. Taking out human responsibility from driving eliminates the element of human behavior, including impaired or distracted driving. An autonomous vehicle does not get impaired or distracted and can respond quickly to roadway conditions to avoid accidents. According to Farah, the industry is constantly working on improving autonomous technology so that it can protect vulnerable roadway users, by removing human error from driving. Additionally, Farah noted that AV technology can improve the quality of life for people who do not drive, including the elderly or the blind. AV technology provides the ability for these populations to move freely and independently

Public trust in AV is another consideration Farah noted during the hearing. Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) addressed concerns in autonomous vehicles. AV technology is relatively new and there is hesitation about its place within the existing transportation network. While autonomous vehicles can remove human error from driving, those vehicles are still operating in a world with human drivers. Farah assured Sen. Markey that fully autonomous or level 4 autonomous vehicles operate within the Operational Design Domain, which is the area designated operating environment for where the vehicles can operate. Farah pointed to the AVIA’s Trust Principles, which highlight the association’s commitment to spreading public awareness about AV and building trust that AV technology is a positive innovation in transportation.  

While there is an AI (Artificial Intelligence) working group comprised of several senators that has addressed artificial intelligence capabilities, Farah stated that the United States is behind in AV public policy. Several US states and other countries are taking the lead on AV policy, and Farah urged for policy action at the federal level.  

EV Weight 

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) inquired about the weight of electric vehicles (EV) and the impact that increased weight in cars will have on safety. Nelson noted that while there is not much effort addressing the weight issue, the importance is there and above all, safety is a priority, echoing the response from Chace that safety is the key concern. Dr. Sandt added that speed management tools outside of vehicles are important, but there are also intelligent vehicle technologies that can manage speed within vehicles, which can limit the driver’s ability to speed. Sen. Fischer pointed to the University of Nebraska test on EV crash impact on roadway infrastructure, suggesting that the testing EV weight is ongoing which will ideally provide more data on the subject.   

Safe Systems Approach 

Addressing the roadway safety crisis is an urgent matter that requires serious policy action. The Safe Systems Approach is a set of various guidelines, goals, and policies aimed at addressing and mitigating safety risks. There are five objectives of the Safe Systems Approach: 

  1. Safer People 
  2. Safer Roads 
  3. Safer Vehicles
  4. Safer Speeds 
  5. Post Crash Care 

These objectives provide a framework from which policy actions from different angles can be pursued. Embracing recent technologies, improving street design to accommodate everyone, equitable traffic enforcement, and community engagement are all actions that can reduce roadway fatalities and injuries, among other actions. As noted by members of the subcommittee and the witnesses, the path forward is not choosing one policy over the other but adopting an “all of the above approach.” We need to take every opportunity to address roadway safety, to ensure that people are put first in transportation policy making.  

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