Treating Crises in Tandem: Create a Greener Future but Not at Mobility Safety’s Expense

While climate change is worthy of immediate action, combating this global crisis could inadvertently exacerbate a uniquely American issue: traffic violence.

Mark Chung
September 26, 2022

What future do we want for our children? This question seems to underpin much of the discussion around mobility lately — most recently and notably in the historic Inflation Reduction Act. This bill simultaneously took on some of the major crises threatening future generations, including climate and transportation, an obvious intersection for many reasons. While climate change is an issue worthy of immediate action and policy change, this funding is only another sign that combating this global crisis could inadvertently exacerbate a uniquely American issue: traffic violence.

Earlier this month, NHTSA confirmed what the National Safety Council suspected: Preventable traffic fatalities continue to rise rapidly across the U.S., our roads are the most dangerous they’ve been in 16 years and it’s taking a particular toll on our most vulnerable. Over the last decade, deaths among those on foot or riding a bike leapt 40%, and victims were disproportionately likely to be people of color. Other developed countries have far lower per capita death rates, and their rates are falling. It’s unacceptable for America to be in this position, and our country is in dire need of a swift response to reverse these trends.

The urgent nature of the roadway safety crisis cannot be swept aside for climate goals. The $80 billion authorized for transportation in the Inflation Reduction Act through measures such as rebates for electric cars and trucks, this legislation will transform our communities for decades to come. Yet, even if these roadway-related measures are meant to reduce emissions, they may do more harm than good for the issue of traffic violence. Larger vehicles, like SUVs, present a higher risk in a collision due to their size and weight, and EVs require bigger, heavier batteries, making them inherently deadlier. With U.S. streets designed for those in a vehicle, not outside of it, the last thing we need is more gigantic vehicles on the roadways.

The question is: What can be done to improve safety and accessibility while remaining committed to combating climate change? First, NHTSA could be working to make sure all vehicles, including electric ones, are as safe as possible by incorporating pedestrian crashworthiness into NCAP and requiring existing life-saving technology in all vehicles, as called for by NSC in a recent report, Mobility Technology and Safety: The Next 20 Years. In our new report, we point to how advanced driver assistance systems, like automatic emergency braking and blind spot monitoring, are essential in preventing crashes, especially for those walking and biking. These technologies can save lives if NHTSA takes its instruction from the National Roadway Safety Strategy and adopts strong performance standards. EVs overlooking this safety technology as standard may help the U.S. meet its climate goals but at the cost of perpetuating the national roadway safety crisis.

Of course, any legislation providing support only for EVs as a climate measure fails to consider simpler ways to achieve both climate and safety goals. An electric car is still a car, and America is reckoning with its legacy of auto-centric design and planning. U.S. communities need the infrastructure support and financial incentives to encourage less driving and more walking, biking and use of transit, which would save lives and create less emissions. If we are to leave our children a cleaner, safer world, we must leverage innovation to successfully tackle crises in tandem. Congress is right to focus on transportation as a way to address climate change, as it is the largest contributor of emissions in the U.S., but no one should have to choose between the livability of the planet and the livability of our streets.

Mark Chung

Mark Chung is vice president of the roadway practice area at the National Safety Council.

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