Metropolis

Traffic Deaths Are Way Up. What’s Pete Buttigieg Going to Do About It?

The transportation secretary on large cars, deadly roads, and his favorite new bike lane.

Pete Buttigieg gesturing with one hand as he speaks onstage
The transportation secretary has called the spike in road deaths a “crisis.” Alex Wong/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg hosted an impromptu Twitter Q&A while flying from California back to Washington. Asked about his “top priority right now,” Buttigieg gave a clear answer: “Safety. It’s always the top priority for our department, and I consider it the main reason USDOT exists.” He promised that a plan to make roads less deadly was forthcoming. It’s sorely needed.

On Thursday the U.S. Department of Transportation released the National Roadway Safety Strategy, which has been eagerly anticipated by advocates alarmed by the spike in traffic deaths during the pandemic. In 2020, some 38,360 people died on American roadways, an 8 percent annual increase that occurred despite drivers logging far fewer miles behind the wheel (the year’s 24 percent spike in road deaths per mile was the sharpest since 1924). The first half of 2021 brought more bad news: 20,160 traffic deaths, representing an 18.4 percent increase over 2020’s already elevated total. “This is a crisis,” Buttigieg says in the official announcement of the new data.

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I spoke earlier this week with Buttigieg about the National Roadway Safety Strategy and its ambitious new federal commitment to zero traffic fatalities. I also asked the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, about all that bicycling he’s been spotted doing around D.C., why Europe has done so much better than the U.S. in reducing road fatalities, what he thinks of carmakers’ Level 2 driver assistance systems (you might have heard about one in particular), and whether he’s worried about the steroidal growth of SUVs and trucks. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Slate: I’m happy to see you’re a Capital Bikeshare user. Is there a street here that you particularly enjoy biking on, one that seems especially well designed from a safety perspective?

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Pete Buttigieg: Certainly the bike lane that goes up the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol right to the White House. One time I used it to head to a meeting at the White House. It’s not only very visible, but also very smart in how it relates to car traffic while minimizing the risk of getting hit by a door and that kind of thing. There’s also something new on 15th, just past the Washington Monument, so I look forward to test-riding it sometime soon.

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Yes, we’ve needed that 15th Street bike lane extension for a while. On the flip side, is there a street you’ve biked on in D.C. and thought, you know, this could be safer?

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Yeah, I’d love to renegotiate a few of the blocks between here in Navy Yard [where the Department of Transportation’s headquarters is located] and the Capitol, where you feel pretty exposed. You’re kind of going across four lanes into a left turn before you can pick up an area where the road is shared.

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In the National Roadway Safety Strategy, you call the recent spike in traffic deaths in the United States “a crisis.” What strikes me is that it seems to be a uniquely American crisis. Traffic deaths have actually plummeted in the European Union during the pandemic. That’s an acceleration of a trend that’s over a decade old—with traffic deaths rising here while they decline across Europe, East Asia, and many other developed countries. What are we doing wrong with traffic safety in the United States that other countries are getting right?

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Well, I think a lot of it begins in how we establish our goals, and that’s part of what I’m most excited about in this National Roadway Safety Strategy. We go on the record about the concept of embracing zero as the only acceptable level of roadway deaths. And while it sounds like a symbolic choice, it can drive a lot of policies.

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I do think policy is at the core of why you have better outcomes in some places than others. It’s not something in the water, it’s not some mystical or cultural effect. It’s choices—very specific choices—that are made at the local and national level that really drive these things. And when you see just how different the rates are between the U.S. and the rest of the developed world, it’s hard to think of any comparable area—except perhaps gun deaths. Here there is a lot less political controversy, at least about the fact that we need policies that are focused on reducing roadway deaths.

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Is there a policy that you’ve seen abroad that you’d like to bring to America?

Well, you see a lot of European cities paying attention to considerations beyond speeding traffic through city streets as quickly as possible. Not that they don’t have fast cars and fast roads too, but they’re balanced in a way that doesn’t come at the expense of road users’ safety, certainly not at the expense of pedestrian safety. The numbers are really stark. These are differences that I don’t think we should tolerate in the USA.

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I would also note that while a lot of Nordic countries famously have dramatically better rates of fatalities on the roads, this is true of U.S. cities that have taken action too. You look at Hoboken, which went I think almost three years without a single fatality. It demonstrates that zero is possible, without getting lost counting the days until we hit zero. We can count right now the communities that are at zero and grow that number.

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European countries have fewer and smaller SUVs and trucks than we do here in the United States. The new DOT strategy notes that “larger vehicles” are more dangerous to pedestrians as well as cyclists. But I didn’t see actions designed to address the ongoing growth in weight and size of new SUVs and trucks, like the new Hummer EV that weighs over 9,000 pounds. Is it a priority of USDOT to halt the expansion of vehicle size and weight?

I would think of this less in terms of blocking things and more in terms of giving people more choices. We’re interested in alternatives not just to big vehicles, but any vehicles. The truth is that you cannot separate transit from roadway safety, even though transit policy is not considered roadway policy.

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The other thing that we’re paying a lot of attention to here is speed, something we know is a factor in crashes for vehicles of all sizes. I think it’s very actionable in the U.S.—if we provide support for the communities that are trying to have a more rational, sane pattern of how they set speed limits and make sure that drivers are held to them.

You mentioned speed limits. Is it time to dump the 85th Percentile Rule?  [Many urban planners says this common method results in recklessly high speed limits.]

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I do think we need to rethink that rule and support communities that are stepping back from it. It’s one of many examples where old thinking isn’t going to get us the results that we really need.

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Research suggests that on a per-passenger-mile basis, you’re about 30 times more likely to be killed in a car than if you’d taken the train, and about 60 times more likely than if you take the bus. I didn’t see it in the roadway safety strategy, but could we save lives simply by shifting trips away from driving and toward transit?

I think that the mode shifting toward transit is something that people usually think about in the climate context. Of course it’s very important for the climate, because there’s just a multiple in the environmental benefits if people have the option of using quality transit. But there is also a less well-known safety benefit that we do need to take seriously.

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Obviously this is about a comprehensive strategy for safety on our roadways. But we know there are other modes of transportation, and there are interaction effects between the two. The more people who are using transit, the less congestion there is on our roadways. So even if you’re not using transit, you benefit if more Americans are.

Let’s continue our tour of transport modes and turn to walking. The new USDOT strategy notes that pedestrian deaths have risen sharply—45 percent in the last decade—and that Black Americans are particularly vulnerable. Black communities often have worse sidewalk networks, which are funded locally and by property owners. Historically, the federal government hasn’t done much to fund sidewalks directly. Should we rethink that?

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I think in some cases, yes. There is a precedent for this. It was funny, when I was mayor, people assumed that the city government created and owned the sidewalks, but actually we didn’t—it was usually private property owners. But with federal dollars from the Safe Routes to School program, we were able in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods to make some really meaningful improvements that benefited neighborhoods as well as the students and anybody heading to school. So this is not a completely novel idea.

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I think that streetscapes which include sidewalks are very much part of the picture when we talk about funding or supporting Complete Streets, and I think this will certainly be a consideration as we’re designing our new Safe Streets for All program, as well as looking at what could qualify for some of the existing discretionary and formula programs that we have.

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Back to cars. The strategy says there will be a new rule-making to require automatic emergency braking and pedestrian automatic emergency braking on new passenger vehicles. That’s great, but many new cars already have those systems, and some are much more effective than others. Will the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also implement performance standards to ensure that these technologies are effective?

So these are the kinds of the things that a good rule-making process can surface. In defining anything that’s going to be mandated, of course you have to define what it takes in order to qualify. These are exactly the kinds of questions that I think we can get input on through the rule-making process. There’s also a mentality shift where people need to understand that some of these features that are today considered luxuries will ultimately come to be seen as fundamental—and maybe even just the floor.

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Let’s continue talking about these systems. The head of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, David Harkey, recently said of Level 2 driver assistance systems [such as Cadillac Super Cruise, Volvo Pilot Assist, and Tesla Autopilot] that “there is no evidence that they make driving safer. In fact, the opposite may be the case.” Do you agree that we should not assume Level 2 systems are any safer than manual driving?

We shouldn’t assume anything at all. And this is part of why our department’s research agenda is going to continue to focus on safety. This is particularly important because we need to remind everyone that there is no car available on the commercial market that does not require a human driver paying full attention. I know a lot of claims get thrown around, a lot of words get thrown around. For these features to be safety-enhancing, we have to always emphasize that these are driver assistance technologies and not driver replacement technologies.

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That said, this too will change over time. While the jury may still be out on ways that current technologies are interacting with current drivers on current roadway conditions, we also know that human drivers don’t have a very good track record on safety, and our existing systems don’t have a very good track record either. That’s why our National Roadway Safety Strategy calls for existing elements to be made safer: the vehicle, the driver, the road, the speed, and what happens after a crash. All of those things need to change. Of course technology is part of that story.

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One technology issue that I didn’t see in the strategy relates to infotainment—the interactive screen displays now standard on dashboards. New research from Temple University indicates that infotainment systems are among the most significant sources of distraction leading to crashes. Nonbinding guidance from NHTSA in 2013 set thresholds for the amount of time it should take to complete a task, like making a call or changing a mapping destination, but automakers routinely violate them. Meanwhile, infotainment systems are growing more complex, with touch screens and the like. Should DOT do more to keep American road users safe from infotainment’s risk of distraction?

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This is a classic case of where policy needs to be more nimble to keep up with technology. We’re talking about a technology that almost as a category has existed on a routine basis for less than a decade and is now becoming almost standard. As we’ve come to recognize that distracted driving is a serious issue right alongside impaired driving, we do need to continue following the research and following it quickly to identify the steps we need to take for safety.

I want to zoom out on auto regulation. The USA is a bit of an anomaly using self-certification, basically letting carmakers sell any vehicle as long as they assert it complies with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Other countries—including the EU—use type approval, which requires obtaining advance government permission to add or change a feature, akin to what we in the USA do for aviation. As car software and hardware becomes more complex and interconnected—and problems become potentially more catastrophic—should American automotive regulation shift toward a type approval model?

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Right now, we know there are improvements we can make within the regulatory architecture we have. Those are called for in the new strategy. I would point to things like updates to the New Car Assessment Program.

What I will say is that as the line between the car and driver gets blurred, the division of labor gets called into question between what we at the federal level who regulate cars do, and what the state-level officials do as they effectively regulate drivers through their DMVs. For future generations of automated technology, we should ask ourselves whether it’s time to look at our regulatory architecture as well.

I think this will be a fun one for you, because I know you’re an urbanist. Your deputy secretary, Polly Trottenberg, implemented major changes to Manhattan’s 14th Street when she was New York City’s transportation commissioner. In October 2019, her department effectively banned personal automobiles on the street during the daytime. Injuries fell 42 percent as a result. I’m wondering—with your mayoral hat on, perhaps—should cities pursue car-free streets as a safety strategy?

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Well, I want to follow the data here. That’s a very compelling example, in this one case. We want to make sure that we’re coming up with bodies of research that are useful in a general way that many cities or jurisdictions could use. For example, during my time as mayor, we took advantage of very specific and easy-to-generalize findings about how a well-placed roundabout could reduce injuries and accidents.

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I will say, though, that this is only going to work if it’s an effective strategy for how the use of cars and vehicles can be safer in this country. While in an individual location there might be a strategy that reroutes cars away completely, this is still about how to make sure that cars and drivers are safe. As long as we have cars, we have to be focused on how to make them safer than they are.

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And we’ll probably have cars for a while, I’m guessing.

[Smiles.]

For my last question, it’s a big deal that you’ve set a new federal goal of “zero deaths.” But many crucial elements like road design, speed limits, and limits for blood alcohol content are set primarily at the state level. How will USDOT hold states accountable for getting to zero deaths?

This is going to be a mix of carrots and sticks. In the carrot department, I would point to the funding that’s being made available. Not just expansion of formula programs like the Highway Safety Improvement Program, but the creation of whole new programs like the Safe Streets for All program, which is funded with $6 billion as envisioned by the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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I would point to standards, looking at the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices as an example. MUTCD is interesting to me precisely because it’s not an enforceable rule, but rather something that has the force of law in how it’s used. It’s just as important as some of the things that we do that are more prescriptive.

Across all of that, I also think there’s more power than you would think in simply setting the tone or setting certain goals. Again, to our roundabouts experience in South Bend, one of the things that gave me the cover to take what was a very unpopular move was a little bit of a boost from USDOT. Not in the form of money, but in the form of some positive comments about our plan that allowed me as a local leader to get out there in a community that was skeptical and say, “Look, this is going to be good, and it’s going to be good for safety.”

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So it’s all of the above. And that continues from year to year as we continue to write the guidance on our discretionary programs, and as Congress over a longer cycle of time evaluates the criteria for our formula programs, making sure that every dollar we put into our roadways is not just making them bigger and better, but safer.

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Will there be penalties for states that are not making progress toward zero deaths?

We’ve got to look at each program individually. When you have discretionary programs about safety, you had better demonstrate your safety outcomes in order to be competitive in that program. Formula programs are a little different, but even there I think we can find ways to highlight good practices and incentivize them.

Ultimately, part of the reason that this strategy calls for everybody to get involved—not just setting out the roadmap for what we as an agency are going to do—is that it’s going to be on people who live in states and cities to hold their leaders accountable for setting very clear targets and adopting those strategies that save the most lives.

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