Last week I gave a high-level summary of the new National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS) document announced by the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT). In case you have not read that post or the document itself, the creation of the NRSS is a landmark moment in US transportation policy as it commits the entire government to a unified, Safe Systems Approach to road safety. This approach focuses on the shared responsibility of road safety between all stakeholders – road users, road designers, automakers, and public officials – and states that road designs should be forgiving of human error such that no mistake results in serious injury or death. The importance of the NRSS cannot be overstated as this is the most comprehensive commitment to ending traffic fatalities in the United States to date. While a host of actions are pledged in the document, today I wanted to focus on a few very promising developments that the document foreshadows in the coming years.
Improvements to and investment in new technologies
First, the NRSS pledges improvements to and investments in new technologies, as well as additional oversight into these new technologies. In the coming years, we should see expanded access to and availability of automatic braking systems, among other technologies; in fact, these systems may even become required in all new vehicles. Additionally, the NRSS promises these systems will be held to very high standards. For these systems to be required, there needs to be a baseline level of effectiveness, and Secretary Buttigieg has alluded in the past week to the development of these standards. We also may see new advanced impaired driving and distracted driving prevention technologies in the coming years, and if these systems are found to be reliable and effective, these could be required in new vehicles as well.
Updated guidance and standards from FHWA
Practitioners should look for updated guidance and standards to come from the Federal Highway Association (FHWA). First, the current rulemaking process for the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) will be finalized, taking into account much of the feedback received from the public during the comment period. Other updates to the current rulemaking are promised so that the document more closely aligns with the priorities of the current administration. This may mean reducing the auto-centric nature of the document to promote more sustainable modes transportation. To what extent that is possible within the current timeframe and without more significant structural changes remains to be seen; however, the NRSS also promises that further updates outside the scope of the current rulemaking process will be moving forward. This could signify a more substantial structural reorganization of the MUTCD – something for which many advocates and practitioners have been calling for years.
Another exciting development in this arena is the creation of a nationwide Complete Streets Initiative, which is slated to include technical guidance for implementing context-sensitive designs. While not as comprehensive as the Complete Streets Act that Smart Growth America has been advocating, this initiative should provide vital guidance and incentives to cities looking to rethink the priorities of their streets. Lastly, the NRSS promises new and updated guidance for speed limit setting, including the provision of additional context on the current 85th-percentile method as well as alternative, context-sensitive methods for speed limit setting.
Lots of funding opportunities for communities
Jurisdictions, local governments, and researchers can expect lots of new investment courtesy of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Increased funding is expected for addressing unsafe driving behaviors, such as intoxicated driving, distracted driving, and lack of seatbelt use. Funding for safer street design will be expanded through the existing Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) and the new Safe Streets for All program – a competitive grant program for the implementation of Vision Zero The NRSS also promises additional funding for the expansion of Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE).
Improving equity in American transportation
Lastly, in keeping with the priorities of this administration, the NRSS includes a major emphasis on improving equity in American transportation. Recognizing that the current roadway network has disproportionate safety impacts on underserved and marginalized communities, each of the key focus areas seeks to improve equity outcomes. Some of these action items include developing training materials to improve equity in law enforcement, improving engagement and outreach with communities of color and rural communities during future updates to the MUTCD, implementing behavioral safety programs that focus on equitable application of automated enforcement strategies, and improving the equity of post-crash care from emergency medical services.
A nationwide strategy for eliminating roadway fatalities has been in the making for many years. Thanks to the hard work of dedicated practitioners and advocates, we now have a unified governmental policy that will begin implementing targeted actions to improve road safety. These improvements to safety will have far-reaching impacts – from improving equity and racial justice efforts to helping the US increase its climate resiliency. It is an exciting time for anyone involved in transportation as more resources become available and new guidance is published to help jurisdictions implement Safe Systems interventions. Thank you for joining me over the past week as we unpacked the NRSS together – while we have lots of work to do to implement safer roads, I am excited that USDOT is committing itself to these and many more actions over the coming years through the NRSS.