Pete Buttigieg on how to improve the deadly track record of US drivers

The stats are grim. What can we do about all the traffic fatalities in America?
In 2021, there were 42,915 traffic fatalities in the US. The number hadn't been that high since 2005. Photo by Chris Linnett on Unsplash

Something remarkable has happened in Hoboken, New Jersey over the past six years: No one has died in a traffic crash since early January, 2017

But Hoboken, with a population of some 60,000 people, unfortunately is not representative of the United States as a whole, where traffic deaths have risen since the beginning of the pandemic. In 2020, more than 38,800 people died because of traffic crashes, a nearly 7 percent increase from the year before. And then they climbed again in 2021, up by more than 10 percent compared to 2020 and hitting nearly 43,000. 

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg draws a comparison between this problem and casualties from firearms. “Most Americans know that there’s a difference between the rate of gun death in the US and in most developed countries. I’m not sure most Americans know that something similar is going on with roadway deaths,” Buttigieg tells PopSci. “Not the same disparity—but a comparable pattern, where a lot of other places that also have cars and drivers and advanced economies don’t have the level of carnage that we do.” 

That carnage has continued into 2022, although initial data from the first nine months of that year suggest that traffic deaths may have declined a tiny amount compared to the same time frame in 2021. But pedestrian and cyclist deaths still continued to climb last year, as they have throughout the pandemic—vulnerable people on the roads are being killed by vehicles, and in climbing numbers. 

Here’s why experts think it’s been happening, how technology can help (even as it also causes problems), and what to know about the simple changes that Hoboken has made to try to make its streets safer. 

Why did traffic deaths spike as the pandemic began?

“One prevailing theory is that you saw less traffic, higher speeds, and the crashes that happened were more likely to be fatal,” Buttigieg says. 

That’s a big piece of the equation, says Leah Shahum, the director of the Vision Zero Network, a nonprofit that aims to help connect communities with one another to fight traffic deaths. Another underlying issue is that “we’ve supersized our roads,” she says, allowing people to speed when congestion is absent. “And then secondly, our vehicles are getting a lot bigger.” 

Buttigieg also notes that in general, the tech inside some vehicles right now acts as a double-edged sword. 

He mentions in-car systems where the vehicle might track your eyes to see if you’re paying attention while cruise control is engaged. “What that means is that we have some technologies that are being developed to protect you from over-reliance on some of the other technologies that are being developed,” he says. “And it just shows you what a complicated and sensitive time we’re in.” 

Complicating the landscape are terms like “Autopilot,” the Tesla feature whose name alone implies that the vehicle is on a type of autopilot, like an aircraft. “There is no commercially available technology that doesn’t require that you be paying attention and driving,” Buttigieg says. “Words like ‘autopilot’ I think are extremely problematic.” 

[Related: What can ‘smart intersections’ do for a city? Chattanooga aims to find out.]

Tesla is in the crosshairs of the Justice Department and reportedly the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a part of the DOT. (Meanwhile, an option from Mercedes-Benz called Drive Pilot achieves what’s known as Level 3 autonomy, but is only legal in Nevada and comes with a speed restriction.) 

“I think we also need to recognize the responsibility that exists outside of just the technical design of the vehicle, to how you market, how you talk about it, and what expectations you create for drivers,” Buttigieg says.

How do you protect against ‘murderous’ human drivers? 

Advanced driver assistance tech can be a benefit, too, he argues. “I think we need to be very thoughtful about emerging technologies because they hold huge promise,” Buttigieg adds. “The track record of human drivers is borderline murderous.” 

He says that there is potential for in-vehicle tech to help improve the situation, arguing that it could “represent a major safety” improvement. But there are also low-tech changes that cities can make to their streetscape that can protect people from driving machines made of metal, glass, and plastic. 

Hoboken holds clues. The current mayor, Ravinder Bhalla, says that when he was a council member, an 89-year-old woman, Agnes Acerra, was killed in 2015 while crossing Washington Street after being struck by a vehicle. Bhalla attended Acerra’s funeral and wake. “That’s when it really hit home for me,” he says. “In the years that have passed, we’ve made multiple improvements that could have avoided that crash.” 

These curb extensions also have plants to absorb rain water. City of Hoboken

One of those, he says, are curb extensions. A curb extension, as the name implies, extends the sidewalk space out into the street to about the width of a car. “It reduces the distance that someone like Agnes would have to cross the street, thereby reducing the possibility of being hit by a vehicle,” Bhalla says. “It increases the visibility for both pedestrians and drivers” because the curb extension makes it harder for a vehicle to park right next to the crosswalk. 

They’ve also reduced the speed limit to 20 mph in the city. Shahum, of the Vision Zero Network, says that changes like these are important. “Most importantly, at the local level at least, it really is about redesigning streets—it really is about slowing drivers down so that there’s more safe, comfortable, shared space,” she says. 

[Related: It’s an especially dangerous time to be a pedestrian in America]

Bhalla says that they have made a tweak to the way the signals work when pedestrians cross, too. “Pedestrians have 30 seconds to cross Washington Street,” he says. Baked into that time is a “pedestrian-only interval” that lasts seven seconds. “All traffic lights are red, and only pedestrians can cross the street” during that time, he says. 

Bhalla’s advice to other cities is to move both slowly and quickly, depending on the issue. The slow approach refers to routine street maintenance, and using that moment to make safety tweaks. “We do that on an incremental, block-by-block basis, and I think over time, in the aggregate, the data shows positive results,” he says. The fast approach refers to acting when something urgently needs a change, like examining areas with high accidents. 

It’s not copy-paste from place to place, though. “Find out what works well in your own community, and do those things as well as possible,” he says. 

Can you change culture? 

Pedestrian deaths in the first three-quarters of 2022 climbed by 2 percent, and cyclists deaths by 8 percent, even as the total traffic fatalities declined a tiny bit. In 2020, more than 6,500 pedestrians were killed because of traffic crashes, and some groups are much more vulnerable than others: the DOT reports in the Safety Strategy they released last year that people who are American Indian or Alaskan Native, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders are all more likely to be killed as pedestrians. 

“There are a lot of measures that we can take that make a difference” with the pedestrian and cyclist fatality problem, Buttigieg says. That involves “making sure that we have more separated bike lanes, making sure that we have better lighting—basically reducing the frequency and the severity of situations where a pedestrian or bike and a vehicle can cross each other’s paths to begin with.”

[Related: US pedestrian deaths are reaching a new high]

“Part of it also I think though, beyond the physics of it, is frankly the culture—making sure that drivers are aware,” he adds. 

So how does one go about changing culture, and trying to get drivers to pay attention? He points out that street engineering can play a role in how people act. “We know that if the road is designed a certain way, it can force you to pay attention at a complex intersection, or nudge you toward driving at a safe speed,” he says, “and so these are among the things that I’m eager to see developed through the hundreds of planning grants that we’re supporting in different communities around the country.” 

Those grants total hundreds of millions of dollars and were announced on Wednesday. For example, they include $9 million for a “Complete Streets Project” on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles that will “include new pedestrian crosswalks and signals.” On the other coast, a project in Boston is also getting $9 million for changes like “raised crosswalks, pedestrian island refuges, street right-sizing, curb extensions,” and more. Here’s the list

The cultural issue is on Bhalla’s mind, too. “There is a certain culture and cultural adaptation that’s occurring in Hoboken,” he says. “We’ve come to realize that everyone is a pedestrian at some point, even if you’re a motorist.” After all, he says, drivers have to walk to their cars to get in them in the first place.