Black History Month and Transportation Safety

By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division

Our stoplight system—red for stop, green for go, and yellow for caution—benefits every motorist in the nation. Yet, most people don’t realize that the system was invented by a Black man whose father was formerly enslaved: Garrett Morgan.

A largely self-taught inventor and a hard worker, Morgan was the first Black person in his city of Cleveland, Ohio, to own a car. In 1923, he realized the need for a yellow signal after seeing a crash at an intersection, and the rest is history. As a result, our roads are much safer today.

But they’re not equally safe for all communities. As Chair Jennifer Homendy has said, “Black road users are not as safe as their white counterparts—and these disparities are unacceptable.” For example:

  • Traffic fatalities among Black people increased by 23% between 2019 and 2020, compared to an overall increase of 7.2%. (NHTSA)
  • From 2010–2019, Black people were struck and killed by drivers at an 82% higher rate than white, non-Hispanic Americans. (Smart Growth America)
  • Drivers are less likely to yield to Black people walking and biking than white people doing those activities. Black pedestrians were passed by twice as many cars and experienced 32% longer wait times for cars to yield to them than white pedestrians. (National Institute for Transportation and Communities)

This month, we celebrate Garrett Morgan and all Black leaders who’ve worked to improve transportation safety. We should also take this time to examine the shameful statistics and work to address their root causes. We can’t address the problems different communities face in transportation until we recognize the diversity of the communities we serve and the disparities between them. These statistics beg the question: How much of the full transportation safety story are we overlooking?

Members of the transportation safety community must understand how—and who—transportation tragedies strike, and we must engage the communities we want to help in designing solutions. We need representatives of all colors, creeds, and perspectives to improve transportation for everyone, regardless of their race.

Garrett Morgan improved life for all in the U.S. Yet during his time, a time before civil rights, overt racism was so common that it was literally built into our transportation system’s asphalt and concrete bones. We owe it to Black pioneers like Garrett Morgan—and to all the traveling public—to make transportation safety more equitable.  

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