Safe System and vulnerable road user safety in the USA.

It was great to be back in the USA attending the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting in January 2023, meeting up with old friends, making new connections and enjoying a brief holiday after the conference. While attendee numbers were lower than pre-pandemic, there were still over 11,000 people at the conference, which had a spotlight theme of Rejuvenation Out of Disruption: Envisioning a Transportation System for a Dynamic Future. After a day to recover from jet lag, I had four busy days of workshops, presentations and meetings.

It is encouraging to see the safe system approach gaining momentum in the USA.  A key driver of the need for this paradigm shift is that fatality rates have risen dramatically, from 35,355 (in 2019) to 42,915 (in 2021) during the Pandemic (an increase of 18%).  This is the highest annual rate since 2005 and over 30% higher than the record low of 32,479 in 2011.  In November 2021, the USA Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg – called it “a crisis on America’s roadways that we must address”. In 2021 traffic deaths rose in 44 of 50 states.

Two key areas of concern in the USA are speeding (and other reckless behavior) and the safety of vulnerable road users (VRUs – pedestrians and cyclists). Speed and VRU safety are key topics that were covered at this year’s meeting.  It was good to see strong support for safer speeds and speed limits among many of the leading safety specialists.  While safer infrastructure, and of course safer road users and vehicles, are equally important in reducing deaths and serious injury, safer speeds has a critical role in driving down road trauma and must be addressed.     

Shane in the USA

Safe System Diagram – Source: Australian National Road Safety Strategy

During the meeting, I did a presentation on the New Zealand National Speed Management Program and on the Vision Zero analysis undertaken in NZ and New South Wales (NSW), Australia.  A key aspect of the NZ speed management plan, that is of interest in the USA, is the use of a One Network Framework (ONF), based around the Movement and Place function of routes.  This acknowledges that important locations with a high placemaking function often have larger numbers of vulnerable road users, irrespective of whether they occur on quiet streets, with very little through traffic, or on high movement corridors.  The routes with high movement and placemaking functions (city hubs and main streets) often have the highest crash rates for vulnerable road users. Poor provision for VRUs can also make these areas less desirable, impacting on business. Speed management is critical on these routes. Overall, the NZ speed management work has identified that over 80% of New Zealand roads have a speed limit that is too high. Similar to NZ, the Vision Zero analysis in NSW shows that speed management has a critical role to play in reducing deaths and serious injury.

NZ’s One Network Framework (ONF)

NZ’s One Network Framework (ONF) – Source – Vision Zero Speed Management Guidelines

I also chaired a meeting on Pedestrian and Bike Safety Analysis, with over 90 attendees. In this session we discussed the new Vulnerable Road User Safety Assessment process required from 2023 for each State’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP). This new requirement is in response to the increasing role VRU fatalities have in most states. Pedestrians and bike fatalities increased by 17% (over 7,000) and 14% (almost 1,000) respectively, through the pandemic (2019 to 2021).

During the meeting we had two presentations (by Wes Kumfer, HSRC, UNC and Darren Torbic TTI, Texas A&M) on new safety analysis tools that can be used to proactively identify high risk locations for pedestrians and bikes and assessing potential solutions. These tools enable high risk locations to be better identified and targeted.