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Slow Roads Save Lives Webinar Recap

The Slow Roads Save Lives campaign has big goals, such as reframing how roads are designed to place safety and people first, and a simple idea at its core — that slower speeds save lives due to the physics of crashes and the physical limitations of human bodies when they are impacted by large and fast objects (like vehicles). With bicyclist deaths at a 45-year high, our nation sits at what we hope is an inflection point away from designing primarily for the convenience of drivers and towards designing for the safety of everyone.

Slow is Survivable

With this webinar, we focused on risks associated with speed. The speed at which a person is hit by a motor vehicle has a direct impact on whether that crash results in a scare, some scrapes, a serious injury like a broken bone, or — as happens far too often — death. Speed limits are how we as a society say how much risk it is acceptable for drivers to impose in our downtowns, in our neighborhoods, or around our parks and schools. When we say that Slow Roads Save Lives, our goal is a common understanding that 20 mph speeds mean that more than 90% of people hit will survive and if we invest to achieve those speeds through road design, then we will save lives by creating places where it is physically less likely and less risky to be hit.

We were joined in this webinar by two experts in traffic safety:

  • Brian Tefft, Principal Researcher for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, whose research on Impact Speed and a Pedestrian’s Risk of Severe Injury or Death is widely cited – by myself in this webinar and by USDOT in its National Roadway Safety Strategy for just two examples.
  • David Harkey, the President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), who has worked on expert system speed limit setting methods, directed research into places lowering their speed limits, and whose organization is at the leading edge of vehicle safety technology evaluation.

Every Extra 5 mph is Added Danger

Brian walked us through his widely cited research, showing how 94% of people hit at 20 mph are expected to survive and only 14% of people hit at 20 mph are expected to have a serious injury. He emphasized that in his research a serious injury is often one involving traumatic brain injury and is potentially life altering. Going in five mph increments, he showed how each increase in speed correlated to increased likelihood of death or serious injury, which is especially notable at speeds over 30 mph. Based on his research, he identified arterial roads — roads meant to move people quickly with limited access to local businesses and homes — as a key reason for increases in pedestrian and bicycle deaths over the last decade, likely due to changes in land use which were not accompanied by changes in road design.

David covered the dangers of high speeds from a variety of angles, including legislative trends that have increased highway speeds over the last 30 years, local governments that successfully reduced speeds through changing speed limits, and how vehicles have gotten more powerful in recent years, leading to higher likelihood of drivers speeding. He highlighted opportunities for technologies like Automatic Emergency Braking that can reduce collision speeds or avoid crashes entirely, and challenges that exist for those systems to work well in lower light conditions. The IIHS adopted the Safe System Approach to traffic safety in 2018 after seeing its success internationally and now it is a guiding paradigm for the US Department of Transportation which includes an objective of “Safe Speeds.” While much of his presentation focused on headwinds for safer speeds, USDOT support is an important step to other agencies and automakers using their powers for good and supporting safer speeds.

Changing how speed limits are set, and how roads are designed to achieve natural compliance with those speed limits, will take changes in legislation, policy, processes, and culture. Our goal is to create a culture where individuals, agencies, elected officials, and others are comfortable and confident when redesigning roads for safer speeds. We know that no one agency, community, or action will achieve safer streets alone, but that together we can build a Slow Roads movement that saves lives.

Setting speed limits to minimize injury and death rather than to ratify the speeding choices of drivers is a safe, legitimate, and objective approach to managing speeds for safety. It will require greater attention to roadway design and context and investments in our slowest streets, as well as our most deadly. Creating a culture, as individuals and agencies, that celebrates the lifesaving power of slower speeds is how we believe we will go from chasing hot spots of traffic violence to systemically and sustainably reducing traffic deaths.

If you believe that Slow Roads Save Lives, take the “Slow Roads Save Lives” pledge to help us show how many people across the country support slow speeds and slow roads that save lives.

Watch the webinar:

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