U.S. roads are getting deadlier. Here’s how to make them safer.

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Since the start of the pandemic, the United States has experienced a troubling trend of rising traffic deaths even though Americans have been driving less. An estimated 38,680 people died in crashes in 2020, a significant spike from the previous year, which the government has mostly attributed to unsafe driving on wide-open roads during last year’s extended lockdown periods.

That surge continued in the first half of 2021, despite traffic patterns picking up toward pre-COVID levels. If that trend holds through the rest of the year, 2021 will be the deadliest year on America’s highways since the mid-2000s.

“This is a crisis,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said when the 2021 data was released in October. “We cannot and should not accept these fatalities as simply a part of everyday life in America.”

The high rate of traffic deaths in the U.S. is not entirely tied to the pandemic. Though the numbers are still down significantly from their peak in the 1970s — when more than 56,000 people died in crashes in a single year — traffic fatalities have been gradually ticking upwards over the past decade. During that same period, some of America’s peer nations in Europe and East Asia have cut their rate of deadly crashes in half. By certain measures, the U.S. has the highest per capita rate of traffic fatalities of any developed country.

Why there’s debate

The National Transportation Safety Agency says that reckless driving is the primary reason for the spike in traffic deaths. “All of us must work together to stop aggressive, dangerous driving and help prevent fatal crashes,” the agency’s acting administrator said. Many have also called for an increase in traffic enforcement to help rein in unsafe drivers.

But many safety experts argue that the U.S. needs to stop blaming all crashes on individuals. The NTSA has said that 94 percent of serious accidents are caused by human error. That attitude, critics argue, ignores the ways the nation can make roads less dangerous through safety-minded design and better laws. Those methods include lower speed limits, incentives for people to buy smaller vehicles, roads designed to prevent high-speed driving and better infrastructure for alternative transportation options.

What’s next

Buttigieg recently announced that the Transportation Department is developing a new national roadway safety strategy that experts say may lead to a pivot away from the conventional wisdom about crashes being a result of human error and include recommendations for systemic changes to reduce traffic deaths. That report is expected early next year.

Perspectives

Curbing unsafe driving speeds is the best way to save lives

“Controlling speeds on roads is the most important goal of any car safety strategy. There are two main ways to do that: change the physical design of the road with ‘traffic calming’ measures that encourage slower driving, like narrowing lanes and adding speed bumps, or change the legal speed limit, which is easier and inexpensive but less effective.” — Marina Bolotnikova, Vox

We must stop blaming individuals for the ways our systems make roads unsafe

“What we need most is a reexamination of how carmakers, traffic engineers, and community members—as well as the traveling public—together bear responsibility for saving some of the thousands of lives lost annually on American roadways. Blaming human error alone is convenient, but it places all Americans in greater danger.” — David Zipper, The Atlantic

The U.S. must stop treating all of these unnecessary deaths as part of everyday life

“If a hundred people die in a plane crash, we go nuts. ... But if they die on our roads we see it as the cost of doing business.” — Jim Cameron, Connecticut Mirror

Individuals do have a major part to play in reducing road deaths

“While there is no one causative factor, the reckless behavior is likely the confluence of increased drug and alcohol use, lack of safety constraints (like seat belts and texting), and greater opportunities for speeding and reckless driving given still fewer cars on the road, which is linked to feelings of liberation.” — Health researcher Karl Minges to NBC News

There needs to be better, more aggressive enforcement of traffic safety laws

“When you can carry an illegal gun with impunity, you can also speed with impunity, drive while high on drugs with impunity, drive the wrong way down one-way street with impunity.” — Nicole Gelinas, New York Post

Crashes are one of many reasons the U.S. needs to reduce its reliance on cars

“Driving creates an atmosphere of perpetual fear for everyone outside of the car. It undermines urban design, which ends up encouraging more driving instead of encouraging cycling, walking or riding the bus. It prevents non-drivers from the freedom to live the lives they want to live. It deprives kids of the opportunity to travel freely and gain independence.” — Gersh Kuntzman, Daily News

Americans’ entire attitude toward driving needs to change

“We often call these terrible tragedies ‘accidents,’ as though they were acts of God or random events that could not be avoided. They are not. ... They are all too often the result of a mind-set that continues to prioritize cars over human life. It permits drivers to ignore known hazards and make excuse after excuse for rule-breaking — until something fatal occurs. It almost seems as if we love cars more than ourselves.” — Helaine Olen, Washington Post

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images

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