Click source: Keith Barry

What the National Roadway Safety Strategy means for drivers

A new policy from the Department of Transportation aims to stem roadway fatalities, which have risen rapidly over the past few years, with a new approach—including some initiatives that Consumer Reports and other safety groups have long argued in favor of or worked to support.

Called the National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS), the plan combines efforts to protect those inside and outside a vehicle in a crash, and takes steps to prevent those crashes from happening in the first place. Many of these projects are straightforward, but others may take years to implement—and some safety advocates warn that the DOT’s commitment to seeing them through is not strong enough.

Under the new strategy, the DOT says it will now work toward:

  • Updating federal safety ratings so they factor in pedestrian protection and active safety systems, as well as increased crash protection for occupants.
  • Adding information about advanced driver assistance systems to vehicle window stickers.
  • Requiring all new passenger vehicles to include automatic emergency braking (AEB) with pedestrian detection.
  • Including technology in vehicles that can detect impaired drivers.
  • Investigating emerging safety issues in a timely manner related to the deployment of new technologies—presumably including those that can control steering, braking, and acceleration.
  • Encouraging municipalities to redesign existing roadways to encourage slower speeds, rather than focusing solely on enforcing speed limits.
  • Upgrading requirements for rear-impact guards on tractor trailersto better prevent passenger vehicles from getting pinned beneath them in a rear-end crash—a dangerous phenomenon known as an “underride” crash.
  • Working with states to pilot automated safety enforcement programs, such as speed cameras.

Instead of a single-minded focus on driver behavior and building vehicles that protect occupants in crashes, the DOT says its new initiatives follow a “safe system” approach. That’s how transportation planners refer to road safety programs that try to prevent crashes from happening in the first place while also minimizing harm when crashes do occur.  It includes a focus on active safety systems that can prevent or mitigate crashes, a call for infrastructure improvements that encourage slower speeds, and new research into emerging safety technologies.

It’s a fresh attempt to keep people from being killed on U.S. roadways, whether they are in cars, on foot, or on bicycles—deaths that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called “preventable.” The effort is more necessary now than ever: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2020, an increase of 7.2 percent from 2019. Preliminary data from 2021 shows that things are getting even worse: In the first half of 2021, roadway deaths were on track to increase 18.4 percent from 2020.

“The increase in injuries and fatalities is particularly concerning because there are so many technologies available to help with crash avoidance and improve crash protection,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at CR’s auto test center. “With so many people dying on U.S. roadways, this plan should help get those technologies on more vehicles and focus on the people that cars share the roads with.”

Consumer Reports and Car Safety

The DOT’s renewed focus echoes some of the safety advances Consumer Reports has long advocated for, says Jake Fisher, senior director of CR’s auto test center. For example, in 2016, CR began awarding additional points to vehicles’ Overall Scores if they came standard with AEB systems. And today, no vehicle can be a CR Top Pick unless it comes standard with an AEB system that can detect pedestrians, and even provide some automatic braking at speeds above 55 mph.

Updated five-star crash test ratings that take these features into account will push automakers into making such proven lifesaving systems standard, making it easier for buyers to confidently choose a safe car, Fisher says. “Features that can help drivers avoid a crash to begin with are just as important as the crashworthiness of the vehicle.”

For the first time, NHTSA also will include information in its five-star crash test ratings about pedestrian safety—which crash test programs in other regions, such as Europe, already do. Pedestrian fatalities increased 43 percent between 2008 and 2018. According to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, this increase was largely due to higher speeds and larger, heavier vehicles.

Praise and Controversy

Along with Consumer Reports, other safety organizations have spoken in favor of the recommendations laid forth in the NRSS. In a written statement, Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, called the initiative a “step in the right direction.” And the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state and territorial highway safety offices, praised the DOT for implementing a safe system approach.

But Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA administrator and road safety advocate, says the strategy’s recommendations are too weak—particularly around language that the DOT will “consider” issuing drunk driving technology standards and “initiate” rulemaking that would require heavy trucks to have AEB. Many of the initiatives in the NRSS are part of the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, better known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. “Issuing final safety standards to prevent drunk driving and truck crash deaths and injuries is a legal obligation for Secretary Buttigieg, and not an option,” she said in a statement.

Some of the NRSS’ provisions are controversial, as well. For example, the DOT now recommends that municipalities enact pilot programs for automated enforcement, such as installing speed cameras. Proponents of speed cameras argue that they can reduce racial inequities by removing the opportunity for law enforcement to make subjective judgements when deciding whom to pull over. However, a recent ProPublica investigation of speed cameras in Chicago showed that these cameras can make racial inequities worse, depending on where they are installed. The NRSS recommends that any automated enforcement pilot program take equity into account.

Other programs may fundamentally change certain roadways, potentially narrowing them or otherwise reengineering them to encourage drivers to slow down. Along with multiyear research projects, these efforts may take years to come to fruition.

Ultimately, the NRSS is a step in the right direction—but only if the DOT stays on track, says William Wallace, manager of safety policy at CR. “It’s critical to set clear, public, and ambitious goals for safety rules, with timelines for final completion and milestones along the way,” he says. “The Department has a strong vision for how to make our roads safer, but it must show diligence and urgency in the coming months and years. Upending the status quo will not be easy.”

Correction: A previous version of this article, originally published on Jan. 28, 2022, included an incorrect title for the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).