Amid a rise in traffic deaths in recent years, the National Safety Council is acknowledging that its longstanding approach to vehicle safety is failing.
After decades of maintaining the same outlook, the influential nonprofit that works with government and industry to create rules to reduce vehicle deaths is adopting a new strategy: It will prioritize the welfare of pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable road users in its policies and guidelines.
In a post on its website about the future of mobility, the council said it will commit to three focus areas in its efforts on roadway safety: advocating for policy and infrastructure to reduce “points of conflict” between transportation modes; confronting the “safety implications” of vehicle design; and working with groups to reverse a “traffic safety culture that accepts thousands of deaths each year.”
“What we’re doing isn’t working,” the National Safety Council wrote on its website. “As a leading organization in the traffic safety community, NSC recognizes that we need to continue to learn, expand our partnerships and act decisively on causes of the violence on our roadways.”
The change in strategy comes as the U.S. grapples with a rise in vehicle crashes and deaths on the road. NHTSA estimates that about 43,000 people died in crashes in 2021, up about 11 percent from a year earlier and the highest number of fatalities on U.S. roadways since 2005.
As part of its shift, the National Safety Council commissioned a report that makes a set of assumptions on how transportation will evolve over the next 20 years, which it plans to release in full this summer. According to an executive summary the council released, the report will come to 10 key conclusions that will guide its actions in the coming years.
The report makes clear that the council plans to make the safety of pedestrians and cyclists a top priority as the auto industry navigates a shifting mobility landscape. The council noted online that deaths of vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists rose three times faster than the overall jump in U.S. road fatalities between 2010 and 2019.
Prioritizing pedestrians is a significant change for the National Safety Council, which has, since the 1930s, largely equated traffic safety with just protecting people in vehicles, said Peter Norton, associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Department of Engineering and Society. Norton, a longtime critic of the council’s traffic safety approach who now serves on a newly formed external advisory group to the National Safety Council, said the changes the council is planning are a “very promising step” in the right direction.
“Like everyone else who’s been around the block a few times, we want to see action, not words,” Norton said. “But also like everyone else, we recognize that change has to begin with words. So this is an excellent beginning, in my view.”
The report called the trend in U.S. new-vehicle sales toward heavier, larger SUVs and other trucks “an ominous one for street safety,” one that could grow worse as even heavier electrified vehicles become more commonplace. The group called for revisions to federal regulations that would scale back on the weight and height of new vehicles to help protect vulnerable road users.
Vulnerable road users “are in the most need of protection, not only because they are physically exposed to motor vehicles, but also because automakers are not incentivized to protect people who are not buying their products,” according to the executive summary.
The report found that U.S. cities made “catastrophic mistakes” in the early 20th century when they prioritized the automobile on city streets. Cities cut back on mass transit, shrunk sidewalks and created laws such as jaywalking to prioritize auto speed over the safety of pedestrians and cyclists and the use of other modes of transportation.
Cities should learn from those mistakes and instead make rules that do not “promote or enable a particular technology,” the report says.
“Should conflicts emerge between the interests of street users and technology companies (such as sidewalk drones that jeopardize the access of those using wheelchairs), advocates and policymakers should stand with the people whose mobility is under threat,” the report summary states.
The report concluded that dense neighborhoods are likely to experience changes in transportation safety faster than other areas, given that they “induce more short trips” and are more likely to have “high-quality networks of bike lanes and sidewalks.”
The report urged governments to try new technologies in densely populated areas that could reduce on-street parking, such as the use of drones or e-cargo bikes for parcel delivery.
Norton said the growth of denser city neighborhoods could also help make roadways safer by cutting back on the amount of driving necessary. People often drive long distances to work because they cannot afford to live in high-end condos or expensive single-family houses near their jobs.
Allowing more multifamily dwellings in urban areas would change that, he said.
“That doesn’t sound like a traffic safety move,” he said. “But it’s a big traffic safety move because it lets people live closer to work. “We have a de facto affordable housing policy, and it’s that we’ll give you a subsidized highway so you can drive 50 miles to work. That’s a bad housing policy for a lot of reasons, but it’s a bad policy in terms of safety because it means people are exposed to much more hazard on the road.”