Commentary: U.S. Highway Death Rate Can Be Cut to Zero

By Cass R Sunstein, Bloomberg View | February 23, 2017

In the near future, the U.S. should be able to prevent thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of deaths on the roads and highways. The Department of Transportation has proposed a Road to Zero — the elimination of motor-vehicle fatalities by 2030. In fact, we already know how to move toward that goal.

Over recent decades, the U.S. made extraordinary progress in reducing traffic deaths. In 2014, the fatality rate was less than a third what it had been in 1980. But in the last two years, we have seen a significant spike, to the point where 40,200 people died in 2016 – the most in many years.

Notwithstanding all the progress, the death toll has long been too high. Public officials have evidence about what works and what doesn’t, and they should be taking advantage of it.

We know, for example, that many states do far too little to get people to buckle up. They don’t allow police officers to pull people over and issue tickets when the drivers – or their passengers – aren’t wearing seatbelts. Estimates suggest that stronger laws, and stronger enforcement activity, could significantly increase seatbelt usage – and save thousands of lives each year.

More broadly, the Department of Transportation has issued an elaborate, evidence-based report that identifies, with considerable specificity, which life-saving interventions actually succeed. The report catalogs best practices, including aggressive enforcement of laws against alcohol- and drug-impaired driving; automated, high-visibility enforcement of speed-limit laws; and cellphone and text-messaging laws. If state and local officials took the catalog seriously, they would prevent a lot of accidents and fatalities.

In 2017, the federal government could do a great deal to publicize what helps and what doesn’t – and to encourage other officials to use their own creativity, and their knowledge of local norms and values, to adopt the most promising approaches. The Department of Transportation would do well to convene a conference for exactly that purpose.

There are opportunities here for saving money as well as lives, by transferring resources from the wasteful approaches to those that have been proven to work. Two quick hints: It’s effective to suspend people’s licenses for refusing to take a blood-alcohol test, and automated enforcement of speed-limit laws, as through cameras that identify speeding vehicles, substantially reduce crashes.

Of course, new technologies would help a lot. Drawing directly on cognitive psychology and behavioral economics, vehicle manufacturers, insurance companies and officials are increasingly aware that human mistakes are inevitable, that smart nudges can help reduce them, and that both vehicles and roads can produce much safer “architectures” for drivers. Warnings for blind spots, lane departures and forward collisions can be found on many new vehicles, and backup cameras, designed to increase rear visibility, will be standard in 2018. On rural highways, rumble strips appear to be saving lives.

All this is just a beginning.

Technological innovations start with the private sector, but the federal government can build on them. In an important but widely overlooked development, national regulators have, since 2003, adopted an assortment of mandatory regulations that essentially codify developed technology – and require all vehicles to have them.

One example is “electronic stability control,” a technology now required by regulation, which is estimated to save between 5,300 and 9,600 lives every year, while preventing up to 238,000 injuries. In general, the recent rules have had benefits far in excess of costs – and thus easily survive the test that both Republican and Democrat presidents have rightly imposed on new regulations.

If we are really going to travel the Department of Transportation’s proposed Road to Zero, self-driving cars will likely be one reason. Last September, the department issued an extensive guidance document for automated vehicles, emphasizing their life-saving potential and observing that “automated driving innovations could dramatically decrease the number of crashes tied to human choices and behavior.”

At the same time, the document stresses the need for an appropriate safety assessment, which includes a design that provides sufficient protection of occupants in the event of a crash.

Let’s step back from the details. One of the most impressive features of the recent efforts by the Department of Transportation is that they combine high levels of ambition with an insistence on discussion and collaboration, rather than top-down dictates from Washington – on working closely with automobile companies, state and local officials, researchers and private organizations committed to safety.

In a period in which costly regulations are properly being subjected to rigorous scrutiny, the Trump administration should embrace these efforts — and make them a priority. The lives of tens of thousands of Americans, and those who love them, are hanging in the balance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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