U.S. sets high bar in strategy to battle surging road deaths and injuries

buttigieg-150x150The federal government will counterattack a grim, recent surge in road crashes and deaths with a strategy that emphasizes increased safety by and for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians, as well as in the design, development, and equipping of vehicles, streets and highways.

The U.S. battle against road fatalities also will include campaigns to slash speeding and reckless behaviors by those behind the wheel, and it will focus on improving emergency care for those involved in wrecks, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has announced.

He noted that officials in Washington, D.C., must work closely with cooperating state and local authorities to deal with challenges on a “highly complex” national transportation system in which many levels of government work with “significant levels of autonomy” to decide the designs, locations, and funding for roads, the New York Times reported.

Still, the transportation secretary also emphasized that the Biden Administration will act at high speed on the issue of road safety, particularly since Congress on a bipartisan basis has approved a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that includes billions of dollars targeted at putting in place new safeguards.

The strategy that Buttigieg described is detailed in a 42-page document posted online that charges an array of federal agencies to act quickly on tactics affecting everything from driver licensing and authorities’ better exchanging of information about problem motorists to nationwide pushes to improve road design, lighting, and signage, as well as prompting vehicle makers to upgrade brakes, crash-avoidance technologies, and high-tech safeguards against impaired driving.

Buttigieg, in his remarks, called the spiking road fatalities “a national crisis,” adding this:

“When we look deeper at the numbers, we notice two things. One, it is disproportionately impacting some Americans more than others: people of color, Native Americans, low-income communities, people in rural areas, [are] more likely to die on our roads. And yet, the other thing that we see is this crisis indeed affects everyone — claiming lives from people of every age, every race, every income level, in rural communities and big cities alike. We cannot and must not accept that these fatalities are somehow an inevitable part of life in America. Think about the fact when someone is about to get in a car and drive somewhere, we might say ‘drive safe.’  We don’t do that with most other routine, everyday activities in civilian life — partly because we as a society have acted to make sure that more and more everyday activities are certain to be safe.”

He set a high bar, indeed, to measure the eventual success of the federal road safety efforts — zero deaths. He declined to say when that standard might be reached but argued that if the country does not strive for this safety level, it never would be achieved.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by wrecks involving pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, cars, and trucks. We are all, due to vehicular menaces, one unfortunate step into a busy intersection away from seeing our lives, families, and finances upended with short- and long-term harms.

As the New York Times reported of the increasing carnage on our streets and highways:

“[T]he number of traffic deaths across the country has soared, reversing some of the progress made over the past few decades. Although fewer people were on the road at the beginning of the pandemic, about 38,680 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, an increase of about 2,500 from 2019, and deaths surged further in the first half of 2021. Officials have blamed more people speeding recklessly and using alcohol and drugs to cope with [the coronavirus] pandemic-related stress.”

So, it seems that another “d” must be added to problems that we motorists can improve to benefit the greater safety of alldestructiveness. It is unacceptable to speed and to recklessly disregard proven safety measures, including personal restraints, and common-sense conduct behind the wheel while purportedly navigating several tons of metal, glass, and plastic flying down the way. It is unacceptable to be distracted (by electronic devices, especially for texting, or loud music or conversation), to be drugged (with intoxicants like alcohol or marijuana or prescription medications). If you are sleepy, angry, or frustrated, don’t work out your difficulties by driving and putting yourself and others at risk. The independent, nonpartisan RAND Corporation has reported that Americans, women especially, are consuming more alcohol than before the pandemic — and this has health as well as safety risks, please.

We’ve got a lot of work to do to make our streets and highways safer for us all. Zero road deaths is an admirable though perhaps overly ambitious goal. But the administration and the transportation secretary are correct that we don’t solve major problems unless we deal with them, aggressively and urgently.

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