By Nicholas Worrell, Chief, NTSB Safety Advocacy Division
On June 25, I had the opportunity to represent the NTSB at the Route 210 “Dignity of Life” Observance in Prince George’s Country, Maryland, where I have spent most of my adult life. Although the observance had tragic roots, it was good to see some attention paid to the toll taken by crashes in this largely Black area.
After the jubilation of Juneteenth, it was a gut-wrenching reminder of one of our greatest remaining inequities as a nation. Statistics show that Blacks and other minority groups are disproportionately likely to die in crashes.
Total crash deaths skyrocketed to an estimate of almost 43,000 in 2021. If we are to reduce the surging totals, we must also be intentional about our efforts in these underprivileged, underserved, and vulnerable communities.
This solemn and dignified gathering was to remember the irreplaceable, individual human beings who have been lost, and continue to be lost, on Maryland Route 210. Eighty people have died in crashes there between 2007 and the present. One of them was the husband of my NTSB colleague Susan Pipkin. At the event, Susan’s daughter, Diamond, said, “He was just thrown from his motorcycle, and it shook our lives,” as she broke into tears. Like bicyclists and pedestrians, motorcycle riders are vulnerable road users and are overrepresented in fatality statistics nationwide.
Every loss on our roads is a tragedy. Every one of these losses is preventable. And, as I said to the families of the victims, every one of their loved ones was an individual, irreplaceable, had dignity and humanity, and deserved to live.
At the NTSB, we investigate crashes in all modes of transportation. We focus on answering one question, the same question that family members also ask after such a tragedy: Why? Unlike victims’ families and loved ones, though, we must be as objective as possible and look at the same question from an investigator’s point of view. We strive to turn our findings into action by issuing safety recommendations. However, we can only recommend changes—lawmakers, industry, and others must act on them.
I have worked enough with victim and survivor advocates to know that these tragedies are not one-time events. The loss persists and reemerges in so many ways: every time they look across the holiday table to the seat their loved one used to take, every time there is a birthday or a wedding anniversary that they used to celebrate, whenever they go to dial a number to share something with someone who is forever disconnected.
As we approach the Fourth of July holiday, a notoriously dangerous time on our nation’s roads, there’s no better time to take stock of how we’re protecting road users in all communities. This means reflecting on all parts of the system, not just on the behaviors of drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and riders. We must adopt a Safe System Approach that builds in redundancy so that when one part of the system fails, road users don’t lose their lives. We owe all road users nothing less than our determination that one day, Maryland Route 210 will be another safe road in a safe system, one with zero road deaths and zero serious injuries. And we must ensure that we are making equitable safety investments.
We don’t lose 43,000 faceless statistics every year, we lose 43,000 loved ones. They are irreplaceable. They are precious. The lives of those left behind are shaken, forever changed.
The families I met on June 25 are members of a club none of them ever wanted to join. The best way to honor the life of Mr. Pipkin and the lives of countless others who perished on our roads is to close the door to the club forever.
This is the last post in a three-part series examining the safety of vulnerable road users, as new federal data show a rise in traffic deaths among motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians last year. You can read the first two posts here and here.
I just got back from Helsinki, Finland, where I attended the International Transportation Safety Association’s annual meeting.
I am amazed at the Finn’s approach to road safety, especially their focus on road design and infrastructure that separates and protects pedestrians and bicyclists from each other and road traffic, which has enabled them to achieve a safety feat in their capital city that people in the United States still consider impossible: zero pedestrian deaths.
A Tale of Two Countries
The public health crisis on U.S. roads is devastating and getting worse. People at the greatest risk are vulnerable road users, which includes anyone lacking the protection of a vehicle in the event of a crash, such as bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians.
In fact, bicyclist deaths were up 5% over 2020 levels, while motorcyclist deaths increased 9% over the same period, according to 2021 estimates recently released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But the most astonishing take-away is that pedestrian deaths soared 13% to 7,342 lives lost in 2021.
That means, every single day last year, more than 20 families had to plan a funeral because their loved one was killed while walking, running, or rolling on our roads.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not in Finland.
For a fair international comparison, we can look to the estimated 2019 roadway death rate provided by the World Health Organization. Using this apples-to-apples measure, it’s easy to see how much more dangerous our roads are.
For every 100,000 people in each country, less than four died on Finland’s roads in 2019. That’s the same year Finland’s capital of Helsinki recorded zero pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities.
In the U.S.? Over a dozen people died on our roads for every 100,000 — more than triple Finland’s death rate.
Lessons from Helsinki to Hoboken
Many villages, towns, and cities around the world are having incredible success in saving the lives of vulnerable road users, including here in the United States. And they all have one thing in common.
Whether we’re talking about Helsinki or Hoboken, New Jersey (which has achieved zero traffic deaths for four consecutive years!), these communities all embrace the Safe System approach.
Far from a new fad, the Safe System approach derives from the Vision Zero movement in the 1990’s in Sweden, when it was called Vision Zero. It’s a philosophy or way of thinking, not a single action or “quick fix.” The core belief is that even one roadway death or serious injury is too many.
Places that successfully eliminate traffic deaths through the Safe System approach understand that all parts of society share the responsibility for roadway safety:
This includes government workers in agencies at the local, state, and federal levels that design and build our roads — and set and enforce the speed limits.
It includes the people who make life-and-death decisions every day at companies that manufacture vehicles. Decisions like which safety technology comes standard and how to market new features ethically, among others.
It includes emergency responders who arrive on-scene following a crash, from the firefighter to the tow truck driver and everyone in between.
And it includes individual road users, who must make safe choices every time they walk, run, bike, drive, or roll.
The Safe System in Practice
What does a Safe System look like in practice? Here’s how Hoboken and Helsinki are bringing the concepts of safe streets, safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe road users, and post-crash care to life.
One of the biggest opportunities to move the needle on safety across the U.S. lies in safe vehicles. The NTSB has made many recommendations to NHTSA that, once implemented, will save lives by making new cars safer for people outside the vehicle. Here are a few of our recommendations:
Develop test criteria for vehicle designs that reduce injuries to pedestrians, which NTSB has recommended since 2017 — and has been a reality in Europe since 1997.
Test and require new cars to be equipped with technologies that prevent collisions with vulnerable road users, such as pedestrian automated emergency braking. This is something our European counterparts have been doing since 2016, and which we’ve recommended since 2018.
Incentivize vehicle manufacturers and consumers to adopt intelligent speed adaptation systems (ISA) by including ISA in the New Car Assessment Program. Even though NTSB recommended this back in 2017, Europe is again ahead of us: ISA systems in passenger vehicles will be mandatory in the European Union starting next month.
For even more NTSB recommendations aimed at saving the lives of vulnerable road users, check out the NTSB’s special investigation report on pedestrian safety and my earlier post on bicyclist safety.
Zero: A Bold — But Achievable — Goal
If you think Helsinki or Hoboken are outliers when it comes to eliminating roadway deaths, think again.
This interactive map shows places all over the world that have done it — many for several years in a row, including here in the U.S. (You can change the map language to English by clicking the flag in the top-right corner.)
To be sure, zero is a bold goal. But it’s not impossible. The current world leader is Siero, Spain, which has had zero roadway fatalities for over a decade.
That’s a safety record worth celebrating…and stopping at nothing to emulate. The NTSB will continue to push our safety partners at NHTSA, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and in state and local governments to implement our recommendations to move our country farther along the road to zero.
This is the second in a three-part series examining the safety of vulnerable road users, as new federal data show a rise in traffic deaths among motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians last year. Read the first post.
I love nearly everything about bicycles, from riding around Virginia to creating art for the NTSB office with old parts. I say “nearly” everything because U.S. roads are far too dangerous for bicyclists — and it’s getting worse.
On World Bicycle Day, I’m calling on every road user to help change the conversation.
Outdated Thinking is Deadly
Bicycles have been around for two centuries. But that’s no excuse for our safety approach to be stuck in the past, as it currently is.
We have to stop telling bicyclists not to get injured. We have to let go of the idea that educating bike riders will solve the problem. This type of thinking is too narrow to stem the public health crisis on our roads — and clinging to it is proving to be deadly.
Of course, we implore all road users to make safe choices to protect themselves and others. But we’re missing the bigger picture when we only focus on individuals’ actions. It’s certainly not how we get to our goal of zero traffic deaths!
Instead, we should be talking about how the entire system is failing to protect bicyclists and other vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and motorcyclists. This means asking new questions such as the following:
Are vehicles equipped with technology to prevent crashes with bicyclists?
Are drivers traveling at speeds that would make it unlikely for a bicyclist to survive a crash?
Is the road itself designed to prevent crashes and protect bicyclists?
If a crash does occur, how effective was the emergency response in its goal of saving lives and treating injuries?
These questions help us “zoom out” and see that we can’t solve our road safety crisis by focusing solely on individual road users. We also have to consider safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe roads, and post-crash care. That’s why Protect Vulnerable Road Users through a Safe System Approach is on the NTSB’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.
In a truly Safe System, the safety burden is shared by all, from individual road users to traffic safety and highway engineers, regulators, vehicle manufacturers, and more. Absolutely everyone is responsible for preventing crashes.
Because even one death is one too many.
Tragically, the stakes have never been higher. According to data released last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 985 cyclists died on our roads last year — a 5% increase over 2020 levels. Combined with the 9% increase in motorcycle deaths and the 13% jump in pedestrian deaths, you can see how dire the situation is for vulnerable road users.
We have to do better. And that means considering all components of a Safe System. The best place to start is with the implementation of NTSB safety recommendations.
Here are just some of the ways we could make streets safe for all road users:
Invest in bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, like separated bike lanes and safety treatments at intersections. The recent infrastructure law presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make such lifesaving investments.
Reduce speeds, especially in areas where there are a lot of vulnerable road users, like bicyclists. This can be accomplished through infrastructure improvements, like road diets; granting local jurisdictions the authority to set safe speeds for their own community and implement speed safety camera programs; and requiring auto manufacturers to install advanced speed-limiting technology on vehicles.
Require in-vehicle technologies, such as automatic emergency braking, that can help prevent crashes before they occur — and not just crashes with other cars and trucks, but with bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorcyclists as well.
Prevent impaired driving, which leads to one in four traffic fatalities. NHTSA should require vehicles to come equipped with technology that will detect and prevent drunk driving. States should lower the per se blood alcohol content (BAC) to .05, an action only Utah has taken (with proven success!). States should also implement laws requiring all drivers convicted of alcohol-impaired driving to use an interlock device.
Require front, side, and rear underride guards on newly manufactured trucks to protect cyclists and pedestrians from going beneath large trucks.
Collect and analyze data, including hospital data, on the level of bicycling activity, crashes, and injuries. State and local leaders should use this data to design countermeasures and evaluate outcomes to measure effectiveness. How do you know if a project or program is successful if you aren’t tracking progress?
My Next Project — And the Nation’s
My next bike project has already begun. I’m restoring an old Sears Spaceliner that I picked up at my local thrift shop. And I’m planning a few rides with the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
I’m also using World Bicycle Day as an opportunity to assign you a project of your own: Join NTSB in changing the bike safety conversation. Ask new questions. Stop putting the entire safety burden on bicyclists. Embrace the Safe System approach.
An early estimate, released this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), shows 42,915 people—117 people per day—died on the nation’s roads last year. I, for one, am outraged by these needless deaths. Those victims are mothers and fathers, children and grandparents, friends, and coworkers. They are also often the most vulnerable among us. Where is our collective outrage over these deaths? Zero fatalities is our goal!
Here are a few insights within the data:
Pedestrian fatalities up 13 percent
Motorcyclist fatalities up 9 percent
Bicyclist fatalities up 5 percent
Fatalities in speeding-related crashes up 5 percent
Fatalities in police-reported, alcohol-involvement crashes up 5 percent
Fatalities on urban roads up 16 percent
Fatalities in crashes involving at least one large truck up 13 percent
The NTSB knows what needs to be done. The NTSB has investigated countless crashes, issued thousands of safety recommendations, and identified the data-driven approaches to make our roads safer, to prevent deaths and injuries. The NTSB has highlighted safety improvements on our Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements that can save lives on our roads.
We don’t need more guidance, we don’t need pilot programs, we need action. Action by regulators. Action by lawmakers and states. Action by manufacturers. Action by road designers and engineers. Action by all road users. We need to adopt the Safe System Approach and share the responsibility for safety.
Speed increases the likelihood of a crash and injury severity when a crash occurs. Speeding contributes to about one-third of all traffic-related crash fatalities. States must set safe speeds. Speeds that ensure that when a crash happens—because they will—whether you are inside or outside a vehicle, you will survive. States’ decades-old, one-size-fits-all approach for setting speed limits based on the speed of vehicles is senseless, focused on drivers rather than all road users, and is just leading to increasing speed limits across the U.S. And State Departments of Transportation reliance on education over proven countermeasures like implementation of speed safety cameras is ineffective.
Since 1995, the NTSB has issued more than 25 safety recommendations to the US Department of Transportation modal agencies and vehicle manufacturers on the need to develop performance standards for collision avoidance technologies and to make them standard in all vehicles. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: nearly 30 years later, we’re still waiting.
Prominently bolded on NHTSA’s homepage is the phrase “Safe cars save lives.” However, the safest cars are still only for those who can afford them. NHTSA must act to implement NTSB safety recommendations and mandate that vehicle safety technology be standard equipment on all vehicles. Safety isn’t a luxury. NHTSA must also update the New Car Assessment Program, ASAP, to push auto manufacturers to implement, and drive consumer demand for, the safest technologies in vehicles.
The nation’s roads were designed to efficiently move motor vehicles; they weren’t designed for the safe mobility of all road users. We have made no progress in recent years to prevent deaths among those who walk, bike, and roll on our nation’s roads. States must adopt the Safe System Approach and make infrastructure investments and improvements that prioritize the safety for vulnerable road users.
However, I’m increasingly concerned that many in the highway safety community don’t know how the Safe System Approach differs from the traditional, flawed approach of the 3E’s: education, enforcement, engineering. In other words, is this becoming just an “inside the beltway” term? We cannot let this moment pass us by. We need to ditch our overreliance on ineffective education and enforcement campaigns to address increasing death and look to much better, long-term solutions.
Safe Road Users
The NTSB cannot make safety recommendations to individual road users. Making safe choices is only something we can encourage and advocate for. We’ve seen individual choices contribute to the cause of countless highway crashes or severity of injuries. Distraction while driving or walking. Speeding. Impaired driving. Not buckling seat belts or wearing protective gear like helmets. All these choices have resulted in the devastating loss of life. We implore all road users to make safe choices to protect themselves and others. Many of the fatalities on our roadways would be prevented if safe choices were made every trip, every time.
The Safe System Approach accepts that crashes will happen, but that they should not be deadly. We must ensure that in the event of a crash, those involved have efficient access to the care and resources they need to live and recover. Our first responders—law enforcement, EMS, fire, and 911 personnel—need appropriate resources to serve our communities and respond to crashes. Law enforcement, EMS, and fire personnel need safe working environments free of the risk of secondary crashes.
A key principle of the Safe System Approach is shared responsibility. The entire system, our current approach to traffic safety, is failing all road users. We all—government, auto makers, policy makers, law enforcement, planners, engineers and, yes, road users—are failing. We must do better. I know that if we all come to the safety table and work together to implement the strategies that we know are successful, we can reach zero and save lives, both inside and outside vehicles.
We have the tools to reverse the trend. Now we need everyone to act. Lives depend on it!
Soon after the unveiling of the MWL last year, NTSB Board members and staff sprang into action to educate, engage, and amplify the critical safety messages of our 10 safety improvements. Here’s a quick look by mode, starting with Highway, which makes up 5 of our 10 safety improvements.
In recent years, we have increasingly expressed our highway safety goals in the language of the Safe System Approach—the very approach that we use in our own safety investigations. (We first discussed the approach in our 2017 report on reducing speeding.)
The Safe System Approach views every aspect of the crash as an opportunity to interrupt the series of events leading to it, and an opportunity to mitigate the harm that the crash does. People make mistakes, but safe roads, safe vehicles, safe road users, safe speeds, and post-crash care can combine to prevent the crash entirely, or failing that, to prevent the deaths or serious injuries of road users.
Between May 2021 and February 2022, we produced seven virtual roundtables to explain the approach and call for its adoption. National and international experts discussed the approach and shared their successes and challenges. More than 1,000 advocates, regulators, academics, and others attended our webinars.
In 2021, the Department of Transportation and Congress incorporated the approach into the DOT’s National Roadway Safety Strategy and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, respectively.
Will the new model result in lifesaving protections? Only final, and positive, closure of our recommendations will answer that. But the signs are very good, with the alignment of Congress, the DOT, and the road safety community.
Vehicle to everything (V2X) technology can save lives but has been delayed, and might be reduced or stopped, due to FCC rulings limiting the spectrum for safety operations. We released a four-part video series in which Member Graham interviewed some of the leading experts in V2X technologies—including academics, researchers, automakers, and policymakers—to discuss what can be done to find a way forward to deployment.
With an increasing number of deadly fishing vessel accidents in recent years, Office of Marine Safety Director Morgan Turrell and Chair Homendy hosted a virtual roundtable on improving fishing vessel safety that was viewed by over 1,000 people. Panelists discussed what can be done to address commercial fishing safety, implement NTSB safety recommendations, and improve the safety of fishing operations in the United States.
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials
Our MWL calls for pipeline and hazardous materials (hazmat) stakeholders to “Improve Pipeline Leak Detection and Mitigation” by equipping all pipeline systems with leak-detection systems and automatic shutoff or remote-control valves. These valves allow for quick detection and mitigation.
Additionally, we produced a video featuring Member Michael Graham and Hazardous Materials Investigator Rachael Gunaratnam, which explores cases in which odorants failed as a natural gas leak-detection strategy, and promotes both required natural gas leak detectors, and voluntary adoption of such detectors until they are required.
To highlight the dangers to rail roadway workers and to help Improve Rail Worker Safety, Member Tom Chapman wrote a blog on rail worker safety, discussing how the railroad regulators—the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA)— are in the best position to make change.
We also completed our investigation of the April 24, 2018, accident in which an Amtrak rail watchman was killed in Bowie, Maryland. As a result of this investigation, we called on the FRA and Amtrak to put an immediate end to the use of train approach warning (TAW) systems as the sole method of on-track safety in areas covered by positive train control.
To mark the anniversary of the January 2017 train collision in Edgemont, South Dakota, we also issued a media statement again urging railroads to act to better protect rail roadway workers.
We are pleased by the engagement of so many of our safety advocacy partners, industry groups, and associations in the past year, to promote our recommendations and highlight transportation safety concerns. Also, we acknowledge that many industry groups and operators are making voluntary efforts to improve safety, including on some of our recommendations. However, without mandates, many others may not act.
We remain disappointed by the lack of movement by regulators to implement the safety recommendations associated with our MWL. While there has been some progress during this first year, much more needs to be done to implement the 167 remaining safety recommendations associated with the current list. The longer these authorities wait to implement our recommendations, the greater the risk to the traveling public. Safety delayed is safety denied.
The NTSB will not stand by quietly and watch as regulators, industry, and other recommendation recipients ignore and dismiss our safety recommendations—and neither should the public. As NTSB Chair Homendy expressed in recent remarks to the largest highway safety gathering in the U.S, “The horrific toll of people who’ve died on our roads and their families… millions of people who were injured… are counting on us to “fight like hell” for the next family. To give a voice to those who no longer have one.”
All our lives are on the line, and no death in transportation is acceptable. It is our mission to advocate for the changes outlined in our safety recommendations which, if implemented, will save lives.
Safety is a shared responsibility. We all play a role in getting us to zero transportation deaths. The NTSB cannot do this alone. We need each of you, individually and collectively, to help us advocate for these critical safety improvements.