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After a deadly year on the roads, states push for safety over speed

Rachel Bluth, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

As more Americans start commuting to work and hitting the roads after a year indoors, they’ll be returning to streets that have gotten deadlier.

Last year, an estimated 42,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes and 4.8 million were injured. That represents an 8% increase over 2019, the largest year-over-year increase in nearly a century — even though the number of miles driven fell by 13%, according to the National Safety Council.

The emptier roads led to more speeding, which led to more fatalities, said Leah Shahum, executive director of the Vision Zero Network, a nonprofit organization that works on reducing traffic deaths. Ironically, congested traffic, the bane of car commuters everywhere, had been keeping people safer before the pandemic, Shahum said.

“This is a nationwide public health crisis,” said Laura Friedman, a California Assembly member who introduced a bill this year to reduce speed limits. “If we had 42,000 people dying every year in plane crashes, we would do a lot more about it, and yet we seem to have accepted this as collateral damage.”

California and other states are grappling with how to reduce traffic deaths, a problem that has worsened over the past 10 years but gained urgency since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers from coast to coast have introduced dozens of bills to lower speed limits, set up speed camera programs and promote pedestrian safety.

The proposals reflect shifting perspectives on how to manage traffic. Increasingly, transportation safety advocates and traffic engineers are calling for roads that get drivers where they’re going safely rather than as fast as possible.

 

Lawmakers are listening, though it’s too soon to tell which of the bills across the country will eventually become law, said Douglas Shinkle, who directs the transportation program at the National Conference of State Legislatures. But some trends are starting to emerge.

Some states want to boost the authority of localities to regulate traffic in their communities, such as giving cities and counties more control over speed limits, as legislators have proposed in Michigan, Nebraska and other states. Some want to let communities use speed cameras, which is under consideration in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida and elsewhere.

Connecticut is considering a pedestrian safety bill that incorporates multiple concepts, including giving localities greater authority to lower speeds, and letting some municipalities test speed cameras around schools, hospitals and work zones.

“For decades really we’ve been building roads and highways that are suitable and somewhat safe for motorists,” said Connecticut Democratic Sen. Will Haskell, who chairs the committee overseeing the bill. “We also have to recognize that some people in the state don’t own a car, and they have a right to move safely throughout their community.”

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