An NHTSA official has spent years trying to reduce road deaths. They jumped last year.

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Before Jeffrey Michael spent three decades in the federal government trying to reduce the number of deaths on the country’s roads, he worked at university as an auto mechanic.

He brought that love of cars to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, where he worked on seat belts, child restraints, drunk driving and emergency medical services, eventually overseeing the behavioral research at the agency. At his home in suburban Washington, he would tinker with the 1987 Porsche 911 he had bought as a repairman. After retiring in 2018, he joined the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy.

Michael saw the ability federal programs to influence safety and cites a gradual reduction in the number of road deaths over the past 50 years. But in an interview with the Washington Post — days after new NHTSA figures showed the death toll hit a 16-year high – Michael highlighted the country’s failure and potential solutions.

US road deaths hit 16-year high in 2021

“You can’t call 43,000 deaths a success. You also cannot call 30,000 or 20,000 hits. Zero deaths would be a success,” he said.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: New NHTSA estimates indicate that 42,915 people died on US roads in 2021, a jump of more than 10% from 2020. Transportation leaders in Congress called the total “sickening,” and Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the toll was “downright unacceptable”. “How would you sum up the numbers?

A: Of course, I agree with all of that. The constructive way to respond to numbers is to use this moment, this recognition, to draw attention to the magnitude of this problem and commit to doing something about it. This is a problem for which the answers are known. It requires a shared commitment and, frankly, a willingness to make concessions to reduce the magnitude of this problem and eventually eliminate it.

Q: That’s an interesting word: concessions. What concessions need to be made and by whom?

A: It affects everyone one way or another. Our road network was built to be efficient and convenient, not to be safe. When designing the system, we prioritized other things, and that’s on purpose. We built high-speed roads to move vehicles quickly because people want to move quickly. It saves time. It saves them money. If you spend that time and money on security, you kind of get what we have. To improve matters, we are individually going to have to make concessions on convenience, on driving a little slower, on caution, on personal responsibility, on the use of our seat belts, on driving at the limit of speed or below, over driving responsibly, certainly without impaired faculties, without fatigue, without distraction. So all of that is going to be considered, individually, inconvenient. Collectively, this is what we must do to achieve zero deaths.

On a social level, some of these decisions are going to appear not to be popular decisions for political leaders to make. Lowering of speed limits. Invest in infrastructure to protect vulnerable road users, including pedestrians and cyclists. Use of the automated application where needed. These are the kind of concessions we will need. They are not huge, but we will have to tackle them.

Q: Yonah Freemark, transportation analyst at the Urban Institute, noted that in 1994, France and the United States had the same death rate. But in 2020, Americans were more than three times more likely to die on the road. Why did theirs go down so quickly in comparison?

A: It comes back to this question of concessions. In France, there was a national aggressive speed program. And they’ve dramatically reduced speeds across the country, largely through the use of automated enforcement. In the United States, there has been no will to follow this path. A reliance on cars in the United States and Europe’s investment in mass transit and stricter enforcement of drunk driving are other differences.

Q: NHTSA reports that death rates on US highways have increased in the age of covid, citing speeding, alcohol and lack of seat belt use among the factors.

A: Road safety in the United States is the function of a very complex system. We have 4 million kilometers of roads, 230 million drivers, 300 million vehicles. The risk varies a lot. There are pockets in these people, these vehicles, these places, which are much more risky than others. The mortality rate of the population of men aged 21 to 24, for example, is four times higher than that of women in a slightly older age group. You have this complicated system. And if you push it through and through with an external force, like an economic recession or a pandemic, then you get a result. They fell during the Great Recession and rose during the pandemic.

Q: What are some of the biggest security issues you see in the Washington area?

A: We have them all here. We are a dense urban area and speed is a big issue. We have many roads on which vulnerable road users travel or cross, but whose speed is high. Some of them are a function of how the area has developed and how the roads have changed over time. You have cars going over 35 miles an hour, or 40, 45 miles an hour. If a car is traveling at 35 miles per hour and hits a pedestrian or cyclist, it is a serious injury or death. If the car is going 20 miles per hour, the cyclist or pedestrian has a chance of living.

Q: Pedestrian fatalities totaled 7,485 last year, a 40-year high, according to estimates from the Governors Highway Safety Association. To what extent is this due to speed?

A: Speed ​​is a big part of it. It is also partly due to a society that is changing, in a positive direction. The population is growing and people are walking around more. There is an increase in cycling, especially during the pandemic. That’s what we want to see. But we have to look upstream at the factors that allow so many accidents to happen, the roads that encourage drivers to drive at higher speeds, the roads that don’t have enough crosswalks so that pedestrians are encouraged to cross in the middle of the block. Road design can be improved, both to separate pedestrians and cyclists from traffic and to protect them, but also to slow down traffic where it needs to be slowed down.

Q: Ten years ago, summarizing your work, you were quoted as saying, “Owning and driving a car is an integral part of American life and is essential to our economy and our quality of life. But its sustainability is threatened by its cost to our public health. We are working to reduce these costs and extend the viability of our freedom to drive. We are progressing. How does that fit in with the changes you’ve described in the way some Americans live and today’s skyrocketing death rates?

A: Our reliance on cars is a mix of our history, our development, our geography. It’s kind of the result of a deliberate choice, of where we invested. It’s kind of a function of our population distribution and how we’ve used the land in the United States. To that extent, it is a fundamental American trend. We continue to be more car dependent than most other countries. It would be difficult for us to end it abruptly. And yet, we suffer the consequences of this addiction. It seems that at some point, we are not going to be able to tolerate it anymore. So how long can we do this? I think we can do it longer if we improve. If we design our roads better, if we design our cars better, if we are willing to make individual concessions, we can do a lot to reduce that toll. The long term vision would be to become less dependent on the car and live a healthier life with more active transportation. It would help everyone.

Q: How did you decide to spend decades working on this problem?

A: I entered from the side of the vehicle, frankly. Like many people, I have always loved cars. I’m drawn to cars – I also love bicycles and motorbikes – but cars have always been a priority. I would like to see us use these things I love more responsibly so we can continue to do so. If we don’t, we will literally come to a crashing end. And we’re going to have to react in a way that I don’t like that much.

Q: We haven’t talked about climate. But some of what you say echoes similar arguments about trying to maintain the advantage of cars without the disadvantages of climate and pollution. Others see the cars themselves as the problem.

A: I don’t disagree with those who argue for a car-free society. I think that’s a long-term aspiration that we should share. At the same time, I love cars.

Q: What do you like about them?

A: The American ideal is that the car is freedom, and so on. I’m sure that applies to me too. But years ago, when I was a college student in Pennsylvania and California, I was an auto mechanic. I like to tinker. I spend as much time working on them as driving them.


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