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Summer of the Safe System

Last week, the League of American Bicyclists was invited to join a great panel for the second roundtable discussion in support of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)’s Most Wanted List item “​Protecting Vulnerable Road Users through a Safe System Approach.”

I was joined by Kenny Brag from the NTSB, Amy Cohen from Families for Safe Streets, Natalie Draisin from the FIA Foundation, Wen Hu from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), Russ Martin from the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA), Jenny O’Connell from National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), Seleta Reynolds from Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), and NTSB member Jennifer Homendy to discuss speeding-related crashes in the context of a Safe System.

Watch the two-hour discussion hosted by the NTSB: 

I hope you’ll take the time to listen to the entire discussion, but here is my summary:

    • I was glad that so many panelists talked about the need for speed reduction and management, not just reducing the amount of speeding. People who bike and walk are about as third as likely to be killed in a speeding-related crash, but high-speed roadways are by far the most common places to be killed. Managing for speed is essential for a Safe System even without reducing speeding by individuals.
    • We talked extensively about speed limit setting practices, including the ones in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). While many other countries suggest speed limits of 20 mph or less, those lower speed limits are illegal in many states in the U.S., or in other cases cities are required to appeal for the ability to lower speed limits. Families for Safe Streets won the ability to lower New York City speed limits to 25 mph, but is still fighting for 20 mph speed limits. In Los Angeles, and statewide in California, streets cannot have an enforced speed limit unless it is set at the 85th percentile speed of current traffic – even if that means raising the speed limit on a road with a history of deadly crashes due to high speed.
    • There was less discussion of law enforcement than I anticipated due to the focus on a Safe System Approach. A Safe System Approach recognizes the limits of enforcement where streets are designed for illegal behaviors, such as when a street is designed for a higher speed than the posted speed. A Safe System Approach could be summarized as recognizing: “If one person speeds on a road then they are a problem, if hundreds do then the road is the problem.” Our discussion lingered on how roads and vehicles lead to speeding rather than dwelling on individual responsibility.

The NTSB was established in 1967 as an independent agency charged with investigating crashes and recommending safety improvements for the United States’ transportation system. In more than 50 years, the NTSB has issued over 14,000 recommendations to improve transportation safety, with recent reports on bicycle safety, pedestrian safety, and speeding-related crashes, including 12, 11, and 7 new recommendations respectively. The Most Wanted Listrepresents a two-year focus on issues that have open safety recommendations, have received inadequate action on recommendations from agencies or other stakeholders, and pose a large risk to the public. 

Over the last decade, people who bike and walk have experienced large and sustained increases in traffic violence. As the NTSB has recognized, efforts to improve the safety of people who bike and walk have been inadequate. The Safe System Approach embraced by the NTSB is at the forefront of a conversation within the traffic safety community about how to reduce traffic violence and reach zero traffic deaths.

What is the Safe System Approach?

The Safe System Approach is a major shift from the traditional approach to traffic safety in the United States. 

The traditional approach to traffic safety in the United States describes traffic safety as primarily an individual problem, with human behavior as the greatest contributor to traffic safety and crashes. From that perspective, the goal of traffic safety is to improve human behavior to prevent crashes.

Under a Safe System Approach, traffic safety is recognized as a product of the transportation system. Humans are recognized as imperfect and the goal of traffic safety is to make crashes less likely and survivable when they happen. 

The necessity of a shift away from individual responsibility is recognized in the recent Federal Highway Administration Primer on Safe System Approach for Pedestrians and Bicyclists, “The concept of ‘shared responsibility,’ is central to a Safe System approach. In the context of pedestrian and bicyclist safety, this means that there will be a need to rebalance responsibility that has largely been placed on individual road users themselves.”

The Safe System Approach asks agencies, policymakers, and elected officials to take more responsibility for creating a safe transportation system. While in the past a bicyclist being killed by a driver who passes negligently might have prompted calls for a new safe passing law or increased enforcement, the Safe System Approach calls for durable systemic changes that could prevent or mitigate the injuries from the crash in the future, such as a protected bike lane, reduced speed limit, lower road design speed, and improved vehicle safety features for people biking. These systemic changes also have the positive benefit of not relying on discretionary law enforcement or individual driver behaviors.

It will not be a smooth shift to a Safe System Approach. The NTSB roundtable series is one of at least three on the Safe System this summer, with others hosted by the Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety and the National Center for Rural Road Safety. Recent webinars by both of those organizations revealed that the traditional traffic safety approach has a firm hold on many traffic safety professionals.

The Safe System and Equity

Further, the Safe System Approach has the potential to complement efforts to create transportation equity. Through its recognition that individual responsibility is not sufficient to reach zero traffic deaths and a focus on investing in safer infrastructure for people biking, walking, and using transit, it is likely to reduce reliance on discretionary policing and increase investment in communities that have suffered disproportionately from auto-oriented road building. Often those communities have higher populations of people with lower incomes or from historically marginalized groups, including where roads were explicitly built through Black and brown communities due to racist policies. 

This summer there is a lot of talk about the Safe System Approach and I look forward to this continued shift to save lives. 

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