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We Know How to Prevent Traffic Deaths. Our Goal Should Be Zero.

Tens of thousands of people die on our streets and highways every year. There are proven evidence-based strategies that could make our roads safe for everyone.

Multiple emergency vehicles attending to a car crash.
Multiple crashes on Interstate 81 near Grantville, Pa., June 8, 2020. (
I will never forget the feeling of leaving at a moment’s notice to fly to the scene of a deadly transportation disaster. During my time as vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I accompanied dedicated NTSB investigators as we raced to the site of a tragedy, day or night.

This fast-paced start to our investigations was called a “launch,” and we were called the Go Team. We always had our go bags ready so we could arrive prepared to collect evidence and communicate with families, officials and the public. These quick actions ultimately led us to determining the probable cause and making recommendations to prevent future tragedies. From the moment of “wheels up,” there wasn’t a minute to lose. We had to get to work.

Sometimes I arrived at the scene of a business jet or helicopter crash, other times it was a train derailment, once it was a cargo ship lost in a hurricane — always, it involved a tragic loss of life. But despite the terrible toll of motor vehicle deaths on our nation, I never launched to the scene of a traffic crash. Why? Perhaps because the NTSB only has the capacity to investigate a handful of vehicle crashes each year. Perhaps because there weren’t any crashes classified as major disasters when I was on duty. But in 2019, more than 36,000 deaths were recorded on U.S. roads, so an average of nearly 700 traffic deaths occurred every week I was on duty.

Yet our nation doesn’t think of a traffic crash as a disaster, since deaths typically occur one or two at a time. Many of us don’t believe that every road death is preventable. As a nation, we haven’t yet decided that we can protect everyone, including the most vulnerable among us who use our streets and highways — people who are younger or older, people who are walking or biking, people with disabilities. We accept tens of thousands of deaths on our roads every year as simply unavoidable “accidents,” even though we have proven solutions to prevent them.

The goal should be zero traffic fatalities, and it’s achievable through what is known as the Safe Systems approach. Safe Systems is based on the tenets of prevention and public health. It accepts that humans will make mistakes, and so we should plan our transportation network to minimize those mistakes and their impact. We must design safe roads and safe vehicles and set policies to ensure that we have many layers of protection. Vision Zero, the Swedish framework for eliminating traffic deaths, encompasses the Safe Systems approach and is the evidence-based strategy our nation must embrace. Vision Zero already has been implemented successfully in dozens of cities across our nation and in many countries around the world.

There are practical, proven actions we can take, right now, to save lives. For instance, we can ensure that all new cars, not only the most expensive ones, have the in-vehicle technology, including automated emergency braking, advanced impaired-driving-prevention systems and pedestrian-protective exteriors, outlined by the Global New Car Assessment Programme. We can help states adopt sensible laws such as the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety’s 2021 Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws. We can support state policymakers’ efforts to enact .05-percent blood alcohol concentration laws to reduce drunk driving. We can reduce speed limits where drivers interact with pedestrians and cyclists.

There’s also much we can do with our transportation infrastructure. We can design roads that protect everyone, especially around schools, using tools provided by the International Road Assessment Programme and Vision Zero for Youth. We can create a complete network of sidewalks, bike lanes and controlled crosswalks. We can improve public transportation to provide another way to get around for those most at risk. President Biden’s infrastructure plan, which provides additional transit and safety funding, is a good first step policy-wise.

At the NTSB, I learned that we should not tolerate even one death, regardless of the mode of transportation. And I learned that we could implement proven methods to prevent deaths and injuries. Vision Zero isn’t just a good idea, it’s a proven strategy to eliminate traffic deaths. It’s time to call on the Biden administration, along with state and local policymakers, to take action and commit to #ZeroTrafficDeaths. We can save lives. Let’s get to work. Wheels up.

T. Bella Dinh-Zarr trained as a public health scientist and served as the vice chairman, acting chairman and board member of the National Transportation Safety Board from 2015 to 2019. She holds a doctorate and a master’s degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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