Fixing our roads can—and will—save lives

This column published as "We Have the Tools Now" in 2019 Safety Today issue

Roger Wentz / June 05, 2019
Roger Wentz

Kudos to American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s President and CEO Dave Bauer for his recent Washington Post op-ed, which pointed out the need to fix our nation’s structurally deficient bridges and roadways.

The sad state of our roadway infrastructure, which received only a D+ rating from the American Society of Civil Engineers, results in longer travel times, unneeded wear and tear on people’s vehicles, and roads that do not benefit from today’s “best practices” for user safety.

Consider that from 2013 to 2017 nationwide roadway fatalities rose from 30,056 to 37,133, an increase of 23.5%. Data for the District of Columbia alone shows an increase of 55% (from 20 to 31 fatalities), while Maryland and Virginia increased 18.3% and 13.4% respectively. 

These statistics, taken from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) database administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, represent real people with families, friends, and colleagues who will forever miss their presence. One such real person was cycling advocate David Salovesh, who, as reported by the Post, was recently killed by a man driving a stolen van around 12th Street and Florida Avenue. D.C. officials have indicated that a reconstruction project in that area is a priority.

Fatalities for “vulnerable road users,” particularly cyclists and pedestrians, have increased at a faster rate than overall fatalities for several years in a row. Likewise, wrong-way driving also has been on the increase, often as the result of impaired driving. While the long-term goal is to eliminate all fatalities and bring everyone home safely every day, we have the tools to at least reduce the number of deaths on our roadways now. We just need the money to do it.

The federal-aid highway program includes specific funding for making our roadways safer for all road users—pedestrians and cyclists, as well as automobiles. About 7% of those funds go to the Highway Safety Improvement Program. These funds can be used to improve signs and markings, install crash cushions, guardrails, median barriers, wrong-way driving deterrents, and a host of other improvements that make roadways safer. 

We know that these devices save lives. Unfortunately, our statistical systems report only deaths and injuries. Just look at the guardrail as you drive on any interstate, and you will see places where it has been hit and dented. When a driver hits a guardrail or other safety device, he or she is unlikely to call police and self-report a crash. If the car still works, the driver will back up and drive on home, perhaps with a sigh of relief at still being alive. That is a life saved that does not become a statistic.

The FARS data also show that most drivers use their seat belts—93.6% in D.C., 92.1% in Maryland, and 85.3% in Virginia. Other “bad behaviors” such as texting are more difficult to measure, and we have all seen drivers and pedestrians distracted by their cell phones. 

However, the price of road user misbehavior should not be death—not their own and certainly not that of someone else, as was the case with Salovesh. 

We urge Congress to pass a robust infrastructure and roadway bill in the immediate future, and to ensure that a significant portion of those funds goes to making our roadways safer. Congressional members are road users, too. The lives saved may be theirs.


About the Author

Wentz is president and CEO of the American Traffic Safety Services Association.

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