In a recent editorial, David Harkey, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Highway Loss Data Institute makes a case for why America should apply the Safe System approach to one of our nation’s deadliest roadway problems: speed.
The Safe System approach — a framework that has been adopted by countries such as Australia, the Netherlands, and Sweden and was recently included in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Roadway Safety Strategy — has proven to be a simple but effective tactic.
At its core, the Safe System approach acknowledges that humans make mistakes and, when they do, the results should not be fatal. In this framework, redundancy is key; if one part of the system fails, others can still prevent crashes or mitigate the consequences.
Harkey believes the U.S. needs to apply this approach to reverse the tragic trend currently on our highways and byways.
Since 2014, when the U.S. had fewer than 33,000 roadway fatalities, the nation has experienced a 31% increase in lives lost on our roadways. In fact, an estimated 43,000 people died in motor vehicle collisions in 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
How do we implement a Safe System to tackle our crash crisis? Harkey says speed is a logical place to start, both because it is a huge part of what makes U.S. roads so dangerous and because we have an array of proven solutions to address it.
Consider, for example, speed limits in America. We know that higher speeds lead to worse crash outcomes. Yet states keep steadily raising speed limits on interstates and other freeways. Today, seven states have maximum speed limits of 80 mph; on one stretch of road in Texas you can legally drive 85.
Add to this the fact that many drivers refuse to stay within speed limits. More than a quarter of U.S. road fatalities are speeding-related, meaning a driver was exceeding the posted speed limit, driving too fast for conditions or racing.
Four Components to a Safe System Approach to Speed
A Safe System approach to speed would involve four key factors, notes Harkey. Specifically, these include setting appropriate limits, enforcing those limits consistently, implementing new vehicle technology, and modifying our road infrastructure. Here’s how the four-pronged strategy would work:
- Adjust speed limits to prioritize safety. By moving away from the conventional practice of pegging the limit to prevailing vehicle speeds, we can focus on preventing injury to all road users, including pedestrians and cyclists. Earlier this year, the District of Columbia became one of the latest major cities to lower permitted speeds, dropping the limit to 25 mph on some major corridors.
- Enforce the limits. Speed cameras are a proven strategy for this and can minimize encounters between police and violators. Fatalities have dropped by as much as 50% over the last decade in countries where they are widely used, yet few communities in the U.S. use them.
- Use vehicle technology. Many commercial fleets in the U.S. have speed limiters. But technology that prevents or discourages speeding has yet to be widely adopted in private passenger vehicles. Intelligent Speed Assistance, for example, which as of July is required on new vehicles in Europe, can keep track of speed limits and issue warnings to the driver or prevent the vehicle from exceeding the speed limit.
- Implement traffic-calming solutions. These include narrowing lanes, reducing their number, or installing speed humps which coax drivers into easing off the gas pedal.
Concerted, multipronged efforts are needed to make the Safe System commitment more than just words on paper. A Safe System requires input from all stakeholders — engineers, law enforcement, policymakers, legislators, community advocates, public health practitioners, road safety professionals, and the general public — as well as coordination among those groups.
And while we have many roadway challenges, tackling our speed addiction — with comprehensive plans designed and implemented at the local, state and federal levels — is the perfect place to start, says Harkey.