In 2016 alone, more than 40,000 people died on U.S. roads, a number that saw a 6 percent increase from 2015 and a 14 percent increase from 2014, according to the National Safety Council. This increase is the highest in more than five decades. On top of that, more than 4.5 million motor vehicle injuries were reported in 2016.
A new initiative launched by the U.S. federal government, Road to Zero, is on a mission to lower the number of U.S. roadway deaths to zero within the next three decades. It might seem like a lofty goal, but key stakeholders and members of the coalition’s Steering Committee—including AAMVA—think it’s possible.
“The aim of Road to Zero is to get to zero deaths in the next 30 years,” says Debbie Hersman, the president and CEO of the National Safety Council, the lead on the Road to Zero initiative. “That’s the goal. We’ve done this with aviation—there have been several years with zero deaths in commercial aviation—and a lot of people thought that was impossible. We’re really focused on incorporating all of the initiatives that we’ve seen through Toward Zero Deaths, Vision Zero and a number of different groups to get to zero.”
Road to Zero was established in October 2016 by the U.S. Department of Transportation. While U.S. roadway safety initiatives, such as Vision Zero Network and Toward Zero Deaths, already exist, Road to Zero serves as an overarching program. Toward Zero Deaths primarily focuses on supporting state initiatives, while Vision Zero Network focuses mainly on urban efforts. Road to Zero brings these efforts and others together in a national initiative.
The concept of trying to achieve zero roadway deaths originated in Sweden in the late 1990s in its Vision Zero program. The world took note, and various other countries have since adopted similar plans and models for eliminating roadway fatalities. Leah Shahum, the founder and director of Vision Zero Network and a member of the Road to Zero Steering Committee, says Sweden has been able to lower roadway deaths at a much quicker rate than other countries around the world, including the United States, which sees roughly 11 deaths per 100,000 people while Sweden sees around 2.5 per 100,000.
Shahum thinks the key to achieving the same success as Sweden lies in changing our mindset and approach. “For too long, traffic deaths have been almost unconsciously accepted in our society,” she says. “It’s almost as if, societally, we’ve been conditioned to believe that there’s this trade-off, an unavoidable cost of doing business that to live in a modern society, you’re going to have these terrible accidents. What Vision Zero says is, these aren’t accidents. We can manage these. These are largely predictable and we can change outcomes by making decisions about the built environment and policies and technology that support safety. These are decisions we can make to result in safer conditions and behaviors.”
Getting roadway deaths down to zero in 30 years will require a combined effort from government agencies, members of the private sector and associations such as AAMVA to combat everything from pedestrian safety and speeding to impaired driving and texting while driving. Hersman says all aspects of roadway safety are being addressed as part of Road to Zero, including the promise technology holds.