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Bikers On Highway

Bike Paths on Super Highways?

Sept. 20, 2021
NTSB Chair Homendy proposes revolutionizing highway safety.

Analysis/Commentary

EHS professionals are well acquainted with the concept of zero accidents. Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), wants to see our approach to highway safety reoriented in that direction.

For many years, urban transportation designers have pursued a similar goal on local roads, particularly in U.S., Canadian and European cities, where for more than 20 years planning has emphasized pedestrian and alternative modes of transportation, like bicycles and mass transit. This is usually linked to the introduction of “traffic calming” measures to slow down and reduce car and truck traffic, including removing the availability of parking.

This raises the question: How can you get the same beneficial results on super highways where you can’t easily resort to speed bumps and bike lanes? Homendy is undaunted.

“Even if others think zero highway fatalities is not attainable, I'm here to tell you it is,” she declared in her keynote address to the Governors Highway Safety Association annual meeting on Sept. 13. “The carnage on our roads has to stop. You know it, and I know it.”

Even with travel and other restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the U.S. experienced 38,680 highway accident fatalities, the highest annual number since 2007, she pointed out. In breaking those numbers down, alcohol-involved crashes were up 9%, speeding-related crashes rose 11%, occupant ejections in vehicles were up 20% (which means seatbelt usage is likely down), and motorcyclist fatalities were up 9%.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 8,730 people died in traffic crashes in the first three months of 2021, a 10.5% increase from the first quarter of 2020. As was the case in 2020, vehicle miles traveled declined, showing that making sure there are fewer vehicle miles traveled isn't the solution. In this case, reduced volume was actually part of the problem, she said.

“The current approach, which favors automobiles and punishes only drivers for crashes, is clearly not working,” Homendy asserted. “If we are going to get to zero, we will have to do something different.”

As a result, she called on “all transportation leaders, from roadway designers and public health officials up to the governor, from vehicle manufacturers to transportation providers, from entire communities to safety advocates to embrace a new way, a new approach, a new vision.”

What the NTSB under her leadership is advocating is a shift in the way we think about traffic safety called the Safe System approach.

“We’ve spent decades planning, designing, building and operating our road system for the efficient movement of people and goods, rather than safety,” she noted. “And we’ve spent decades developing countermeasures and behavioral interventions that are targeted at individuals, rather than the entire system.”

Idiotic Behavior

She said the principles underpinning the Safe System acknowledge that humans will make mistakes that lead to traffic crashes, but no one should lose their life or be seriously injured as a result of a crash, and that the human body has a limited physical ability to tolerate crash forces.

Although not her exact words, the fact is that too many drivers are idiots and simply trying to educate them to drive safely doesn’t seem to do anything to reduce the carnage. This was the original insight behind federal regulations requiring padded dashboards and seatbelts in cars. Now we have cell phones added into the mix and growing frustrations among the populace that make driving more perilous than before, as readers most likely have observed when on the road these days.

In fact, the dangerous driving has become so widespread that it is cited among the factors causing the shortage of professional truck drivers—who would want to put up with that for eight hours a day behind the wheel of a truck?

One example of how the Safe System concept works differently involves changing how we approach excessive speeding, Homendy observed. “Does the responsibility for speeding just fall on the driver or did the system, as a whole, fail that driver? Did the road design encourage high speeds?”

She wasn’t shy about slamming her colleagues in the federal and state government as well as others. “How about ill-conceived federal guidance that leads to ever-increasing speed limits in states? How about states which fail to give local authorities the ability to set lower speed limits? Vehicle manufacturers who design vehicles that can exceed 100 miles per hour or that have no speed limiters. The Safe System approach considers all this and more.”

Homendy stressed that a new safety system policy should be designed so that all “parts of the system must be strengthened so that if one part fails, road users are still protected. With more than 200 million drivers on the road, somebody will make a mistake. That is guaranteed. But that mistake does not need to end in tragedy.”

Does that mean we still have to apprehend speeders and stop impaired drivers, or better yet, prevent them from driving when impaired? Homendy admitted that just and fair enforcement cannot stop or more lives will be lost.

She also believes that road safety is a shared responsibility. “It will take bringing everybody to the table to identify the best solutions, planners, designers, engineers, law enforcement, policymakers, public health professionals, educators, vehicle manufacturers, insurers, rail and transit providers, car seat manufacturers, fleet managers, road users, the media, entire communities that normally don’t have a seat at the table, and many more.”

There is nothing new about this idea, which was first introduced in Sweden during the mid-nineties as Vision Zero. At its core is the abandonment of a cost-benefit analysis assigning monetary values to human life and health, and instead embracing the belief that preserving life and health is a priority that can never be compromised.

Other countries, like the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, and Canadian provinces as well as some American cities, have adopted the concept to varying degrees, sometimes as part of a “Complete Streets” plan. However, they have pretty much left alone major high-speed highways like the Autobahn. This will present challenges for a continent-spanning country like the U.S., where major cities are dependent on multi-lane highways.

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