Why US States and Cities are Failing to Reduce Road Traffic Deaths

Road traffic fatalities in the United States increased at the rate of 3 percent annually between 2011 and 2021. The largest increases (nearly 20 percent) happened during the pandemic years, largely driven by traffic conditions that promoted high vehicle speeds with poor enforcement.

In a previous article, we discussed some broad trends in road traffic fatalities and highlighted policy gaps at the federal level. We also emphasized that the state and local governments have an outsized role when it comes to ensuring road traffic safety. About three quarters of the road funding comes from states and local governments. States have the authority to enact traffic regulations within their jurisdiction. Cities and other local governments own more than three-fourths of the road network in the United States.

In that context, it is key to understand opportunities for road safety action at the state and local level. A first question to ask would be how states and sizeable cities compare with respect to their fatality trends and efforts to improve safety. Fatality trends between 2011 and 2021 point to one consistent trend: there is an evident correlation between states and cities with high car dependency and those with highest per capita fatality rates.

States and cities with highest fatality rates are car dependent and transit poor.

New Mexico, Alabama, Wyoming, Mississippi, Arkansas, Montana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee are among the states with highest fatalities per capita in the country. These states are also some of the most car dependent states as per CoPilot and US Insurance Agents.

Similarly, southern cities with poor transit infrastructure have the highest fatalities. Fort Lauderdale, Macon, West Palm Beach, Dallas, Tampa, Albuquerque, and Atlanta have some of the worst fatality rates in the country. On an average, between 13 and 17 out of 100,000 people died in these cities every year between 2011 and 2021. This is much higher as compared to New York (2.87), Jersey City (3.35), Boston (3.49), Seattle (3.72), and San Francisco (3.98), all of which are cities with better transit infrastructure and lesser car dependency. Los Angeles, which also suffers from car-centric infrastructure and inadequate transit infrastructure, also witnesses nearly 7 deaths per 100,000 people annually. This is high as compared to its peer northern cities.

Fatalities have trended upward with most states realizing the largest increases during the pandemic.

Washington DC, Oregon, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Idaho saw some of the largest increases in road traffic fatalities. While all states, barring a few, saw increases in fatalities during the pandemic (2019-2021), the largest increases were reported in Washington DC and Vermont. Some states, such as North Dakota and Wyoming, have been able to consistently reduce fatalities. Both these states saw substantial decreases in 2013 and 2016.

Barring the pandemic years, which saw large increases, the largest increases in traffic fatalities across states happened between 2014 and 2016. The largest decreases happened between 2012 and 2013.

State departments of transportation (state DOTs) and cities have set vision zero targets and created policies over the years to reduce fatalities, but the overall progress has been disappointing. While there is policy intent to reduce fatalities, states and local governments often grapple with many obstacles when it comes to prioritizing safety in practice, especially when safety conflicts with traffic flow.

State DOTs are hardwired to pursue speed over safety.

State departments of transportation (state DOTs) hold significant power to arrest the trend of traffic fatalities as they are the biggest recipients of federal aid. The Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) authorized $16 billion between 2021 and 2026 for states to improve traffic safety. States also hold significant legislative power as they have authority to enact traffic safety laws.

The State Highway Safety Plan (SHSP) is the primary tool through which states plan and allocate resources for safety improvements, including funding local government efforts.

While it is a positive sign that most states already indicate a goal to achieve zero traffic fatalities in their SHSP, a lot will depend on the concrete actions that they take to achieve that goal.

Washington state was the first to adopt a “Vision Zero” goal as early as 2000, which was followed by other states, including Minnesota and Maryland. Washington state’s most recent SHSP emphasizes high visibility enforcement, engineering, and design as a strategy to reduce speeds.

A few states have also adopted Complete Streets programs to equally prioritize all modes of transport. Washington state recently passed a law that includes a Complete Streets requirement for all projects above $500K. Florida officially adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2014, but this is still not a state-wide requirement as counties and municipalities can opt out of it.

Tennessee also recently updated its design standard to guide engineers on flexible design approaches that incorporate complete streets features to better respond to the needs of local communities.

None of these measures have made a massive dent in reducing fatalities as there is still no widescale adoption of effective traffic safety measures at the state level. State DOTs are significantly outdated in their thinking when it comes to making safety investments. Many continue to operate with the default mandate to prioritize speeds and allow for unobstructed movement of vehicles. In 2019, states collectively spent $262 million on roadway widening as compared to $188 million on pedestrian and bicyclist projects, $28 million on roadway narrowing, and merely $1 million on speed management. Nearly 30 percent of all fatalities every year happen because of speeding.

Many states underutilize the HSIP funds and transfer them out for other purposes. For example, Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, and Wisconsin transferred more than 40 percent of their HSIP funding out for other core programs between 2016 and 2021. The law allows transfers up to 50% of the funding allocated.

Vision zero strategies in some cities show promise but there are hurdles to long-term and wide scale deployment

Around 53 communities have announced Vision Zero programs, starting with Chicago in 2012. After launching Vision Zero, Chicago managed to reduce fatalities in 2013 and keep it low until 2016. Road deaths, however, shot up by 22 percent in 2017 and by 64 percent during the pandemic years. Such a trend is not unique to Chicago. Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Austin, San Antonio, Seattle, and Washington D.C have all reported increases in fatalities since they have launched Vision Zero.

New York City, which launched Vision Zero in 2014, reduced fatalities by 21 percent by 2018. The city implemented many traffic safety measures, including improving signal timing, speed cameras, road diets, protected bike lanes, and turn calming. The city also undertook legislative reforms to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety and spent nearly $160 million in 2016 alone on implementing Vision Zero. Since 2018, however, fatalities have shot up by 28 percent by 2021, reversing a lot of the progress made.

Results from city after city that has adopted Vision Zero in the United States show that reducing road deaths remains a lofty goal. Cities face several constraints. They must comply with the state legislations, which are often designed to promote traffic speeds. They also depend on the state governments to access funding and obtain permissions for conducting roadway safety improvements on highways owned by the states. This is not an easy task if the policies of the state government are directly at odds with those of the local governments. San Antonio, for example, wanted to turn a section of Broadway Street (owned by the state) into a multi-modal corridor with sidewalks and bike lanes. After years of planning, the city had to forgo the project as the Texas Department of Transportation was opposed to “lane reductions” that could impact traffic speeds.

Political consensus proves crucial for implementing safety improvements that often conflict with traffic flow. One way to resolve this could be by demonstrating the impact of safety measures on a smaller scale before making permanent changes. A good example is Jersey City, which is implementing tactical urbanism solutions to test out temporary roundabouts as a speed control measure. Tactical urbanism involves using temporary street design changes to create public and political buy-in. Such low-cost, low-commitment measures would be a good place to start to break the logjam and create pathways for permanent and widescale deployment of traffic safety strategies.

The United States has one of the worst per capita fatality rates among developed economies. While it strikes as a national issue, progress to reduce fatalities can only be realized through a patchwork of strategies and actions implemented at the state and local level. To that end, state and local governments can make the right choice by setting zero fatality goals and consistently prioritizing traffic safety in their investments, policies, and plans.

(The views expressed above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.)

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