Written by C. Y. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
The nation’s roadways are getting even deadlier as federal, state and local governments stare down an expansive list of long-overdue infrastructure improvements.
With the U.S. ranked nearly last among high-income nations in annual traffic fatalities, new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reinforces the importance of roadway infrastructure improvements to enhancing safety. We cannot afford to delay or grow the laundry list of needed improvements; it could cost us more lives.
Road improvements have had and will continue to have an important role in reducing fatalities and serious injuries. Just-released foundation research found that by making cost-effective roadway improvements, there is a potential to reduce fatalities and crashes by 415,000 over a 20-year period.
In the U.S., close to 11 of every 100,000 people die each year in fatal traffic crashes. By comparison, Sweden, which is considered to have the safest roads in the world, has a fatality rate of fewer than 3 per 100,000 people. It is clear the U.S. is missing the mark in roadway safety.
Beginning in 1970s, the country experienced a downward trend in roadway deaths. That trend ended in 2015 when 35,092 people were killed in traffic crashes, a 7 percent increase from the year prior. Alarmingly, initial 2016 data continue the same upward trend.
There is no denying that human error plays a strong role in many vehicle crashes, but we cannot overlook the lifesaving steps we can take now to make roads safer. Research has demonstrated that certain modifications to roadway infrastructure can decrease the probability that drivers will make errors that may lead to crashes and life-altering injuries or deaths.
Six Cost-Effective Roadway Safety Improvements
The AAA Foundation’s research recommended six cost-effective roadway improvements with the greatest potential to reduce both the likelihood and consequences of crashes. Making the outlined improvements at a cost of $146 billion has the potential to save 63,700 lives and prevent 353,560 serious injuries over 20 years. These six improvements account for 95 percent of anticipated crash reduction:
- Roundabouts: Thirty percent of the overall fatality and serious injury reduction could come from converting existing intersections to roundabouts. Roundabouts can help prevent right-angle collisions, which are among the most severe crashes at conventional intersections.
- Roadside improvements: Simple actions such as clearing unnecessary roadside objects, improving side slopes and installing roadside barriers could reduce nearly 20 percent of fatal crashes and serious injuries.
- Pedestrian crossings: The addition or improvement of pedestrian facilities has the potential to reduce 20 percent of crashes by protecting these vulnerable road users. Most of these improvements would come from providing sidewalks where none currently exist. The addition or improvement of signalized pedestrian crossings should also be an element of the infrastructure program.
- Median barriers: The installation of new median barriers on existing divided highways can help reduce crashes by 14 percent. Median barriers help to prevent wrong-way driving and deadly head-on collisions.
- Rumble strips: Such infrastructure helps to keep drivers from leaving the roadway or their lane of travel. Improvement can reduce crashes by 9 percent.
- Shoulder widening and paving: Offering safer refuge for motorists and easier access to first responders would provide a 3 percent reduction in crashes.
Today’s Infrastructure Landscape, Needs of Tomorrow
While the U.S. has made improvements in roadway safety over the years, we still have a lot of work to do to make our roadways less deadly. Current investments in infrastructure improvements are substantially lower than what is necessary to fix the country’s aging roads and bridges. Furthermore, we cannot afford to simply invest in what is needed today. We must identify and prioritize our growing road needs for the future, including the potential of connected and automated vehicle systems.
The $146 billion investment outlined in the report will have a significant national-level impact, but increased investment is required at all levels of government to improve our transportation infrastructure.
The outlined safety improvements, along with other improvements such as technology advancements, effective traffic laws and increased enforcement, and continuous public education, will make our roads safer. We must commit to investing and improving our nation’s roadway and transportation infrastructure – it could be a matter of life or death.
Editor’s note: C. Y. David Yang is executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Previously he was with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.