An earlier version of the chart in this post was incorrectly titled “Traffic Fatalities Spiked During the COVID-19 Pandemic." The correct title is “The Traffic Fatality Rate Spiked During the COVID-19 Pandemic” (corrected 4/15/2021).
The Biden administration recently released its American Jobs Plan, which includes $20 billion specifically for road safety. With a portion of this money, a new Safe Streets for All program would fund state and local Vision Zero plans to reduce crashes and fatalities, especially for cyclists and pedestrians.
Details on how the administration will implement the Safe Streets for All program have not been shared and may still be under consideration, but a comparative analysis of international case studies may provide some answers and useful lessons.
Why this plan matters
The announcement comes at a critical time for road safety. Although driving decreased in 2020, traffic fatalities increased by 8 percent and by 24 percent when measured by miles driven (PDF), the highest spike in more than a decade. This increase was likely caused by higher speeds and other risky behaviors enabled by less traffic.
Every year, more than 38,000 Americans die in road crashes, the leading cause of death in the US for people younger than 55. And the past four years for which records exist (2016–19) have been the deadliest for pedestrians since 1990.
The infrastructure plan is right in seeking to influence local policies through federal funding to improve road safety. Although 77 percent of roads are overseen locally, two-thirds of pedestrian deaths occur on roads eligible for federal funds and built under federal guidance.
The plan also explicitly aims to “redress historic inequities.” Evidence shows Black and American Indian or Alaska Native pedestrians are more likely to be struck by a vehicle and die. Pedestrians in low-income neighborhoods also have an increased likelihood of being struck. Black and Latino pedestrians in traffic accidents have higher hospital admission rates, higher per capita costs, longer stays, and higher proportions of children injured compared with white pedestrians.
Lessons learned from international implementation models
The Safe Streets for All proposal provides a historic opportunity to address decades of car-oriented infrastructure and put pedestrians and cyclists at the center of federal policy with equity considerations. As policymakers consider how to design the program, they could look at international models that have demonstrated increased road safety thanks to national leadership. We lay out five policy recommendations based on prominent examples from around the world.
Tie federal funding for state and local road infrastructure to safety standards and target outcomes
During the 1980s and 1990s, localities in the United Kingdom bid for Central Government Capital Funds to finance local infrastructure improvements addressing road safety. Localities were monitored by the central government and rewarded with greater allocations in future years if they achieved significant traffic casualty reductions.
Although the funding scheme has now transferred to a national trust fund, the original program was widely successful. The UK set the goal of reducing serious casualties by 45 percent, and by 1998, it reduced traffic deaths by 39 percent.
Revise federal road safety guidelines to better align with evidence
Before the federal government can tie infrastructure funding for local governments to federal guidelines, it needs to ensure its guidelines align with evidence on design and policies that reduce traffic casualties.
Currently, safety standards in the US follow a “forgiving design” that ensures road design accommodates for human error (such as wider lanes), despite evidence in the US and elsewhere suggesting these designs are more dangerous because they encourage higher speeds.
In contrast, Australia’s safety standards prioritize traffic-calming design features, such as narrower streets, roundabouts in intersections, and “self-enforcing” speed limits, where the design of the street matches the desired speed. Australia now experiences considerably fewer traffic deaths than the United States.
Provide localities with technical resources for road safety to adapt to local conditions
In partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank, Mexico developed a Manual de Calles, a streets handbook. The 375-page official technical guide provides detailed standards for street design, including project management tools, and prioritizes the mobility of people, not cars. Although its use is not enforced or tied to any incentives, the handbook is a one-stop resource for any local government seeking to improve its streets and roads.
Similarly, Canada has developed an interactive tool for its local jurisdictions. The tool includes an inventory of best practices, with evidence from independent outcome evaluations that can be “adopted or adapted to address their specific road safety challenges.”
Embrace a place-based approach to prioritize high-casualty locations
The federal government may also target funds toward the most dangerous locations. Australia’s Black Spot Program will have committed more than $750 million between 2013 and 2023 to projects improving road safety in high-casualty locations. An evaluation of 1,599 Black Spot projects between 1996 and 2003 found that fatalities and casualty crashes fell 30 percent in treated sites.
Codify the specific roles for federal, state, and local governments to improve traffic safety
Outlining the specific roles and responsibilities of government in improving traffic safety could increase accountability. Mexico recently established safe mobility as a fundamental right in its constitution. The new article states that all people have the right to “move in conditions of safety, accessibility, efficiency, sustainability, quality, inclusion, and equity.” The amendment also binds the Mexican Congress to advance and enforce a national safe mobility bill, which would provide a framework for all legislative activity in this space at the local level.
Similarly, Colombia established the Plan Nacional de Seguridad Vial, or national road safety plan, seeking a holistic approach to traffic safety. Among the various action items, the plan pushes for the codification of a dedicated chapter for road safety in local transportation plans, emphasizing traffic calming practices, pedestrian safety, and green infrastructure.
By learning from the steps taken by other countries, the Biden administration’s Safe Streets for All program can use its funding to effectively work toward the promise in its name.
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.