Federal Highway Traffic Safety Policies: Impacts and Opportunities

The number of people killed in crashes has declined significantly over the past decade. The reasons for this sharp decline are not entirely clear. While traffic safety agencies have attributed it, at least in part, to their safety efforts, it is in line with a general trend: as measured by the number of miles people are driving, the rate at which people are killed in traffic crashes has been declining steadily since records began to be kept in 1929. Congress has played a role in improving highway safety. Making road travel safer was one of the responsibilities Congress gave to the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) when it created the department in 1966. Congress has directed DOT to improve the safety of automobile design and of road design, as well as to support programs to improve driver behavior. An oft-cited statistic in traffic safety is that as many as 90% of road deaths are due at least in part to driver error or misbehavior (such as driving too fast for conditions or driving while drunk or distracted). Driver behavior is a state, not federal, matter; in an effort to address it, Congress has enacted programs that encourage states to pass laws to promote safer driving. The role of driver behavior versus road design and traffic management is a subject of debate. Some analysts note that road designs and traffic management arrangements often allow, or even encourage, driver error and misbehavior, and so play a larger role in crashes than is often recognized. One of the core highway capital improvement programs Congress has authorized is intended to fund safety improvements to highway infrastructure. A federal study estimated that half of the improvement in highway fatality rates since 1960 was attributable to improvements in vehicle safety technologies, with social and demographic changes, driver behavior interventions, and improvements in road design playing smaller roles. Most of the vehicle safety technologies analyzed in the study increased the likelihood that vehicle occupants would survive a crash. More recently, technological development has focused on preventing crashes. While some crash-prevention technologies, such as automatic braking and lane departure warnings, are available now, others, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication and vehicles that can operate without human intervention, are not yet on the market. Given that most vehicles remain in use for many years, it may be a decade or more before the majority of cars on the road incorporate those new technologies. There is opportunity for further improvement: crash and injury rates are no longer declining, and preliminary estimates indicate the fatality rate increased significantly in the first nine months of 2015. Several other nations have significantly improved their highway safety rates in the past few decades, surpassing the U.S. rates. Policy options that might further reduce traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities include encouraging states to adopt stronger laws regarding use of seat belts and motorcycle helmets, encouraging the use of automated traffic enforcement to reduce speeding and failure to stop at red lights and stop signs, and accelerating the deployment of new vehicle safety technologies. Motorcycle helmet laws and automated traffic enforcement have encountered public opposition.


  • English

Media Info

  • Media Type: Digital/other
  • Features: Figures; References; Tables;
  • Pagination: 31p

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 01704698
  • Record Type: Publication
  • Report/Paper Numbers: R44394
  • Files: TRIS
  • Created Date: May 16 2019 11:12AM