Momentum Issue #146 – A Proactive Approach to Transportation Safety

Written By: Laura Chace, President and CEO

A Proactive Approach to Transportation Safety 
June is National Safety Month, a time when we focus on ways we can be more cognizant of the safety of those around us and ourselves, in our homes, cars, and everywhere else our daily life takes us. 
That is why it is fitting that two weeks ago Tuesday, I appeared before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, Maritime, Freight, and Ports at a hearing “Examining the Roadway Safety Crisis and Highlighting Community Solutions.”   

We know that our transportation crisis continues to outpace our actions. Instead of taking proactive steps to use all our tools to prevent crashes, we continue to be reactive to a world where over 40,000 people die on our roads each year. We must address our roadway safety crisis with a comprehensive approach that will lower fatalities. Without addressing and proactively deploying the array of technology solutions available to us today, National Safety Month is rhetoric without action.   

I believe the path to a safer transportation system relies on three vital points: 

We must embrace a mindset shift. 

  • The status quo approach to addressing transportation safety is insufficient. Doing the same thing we have always done will yield only incremental results. We need a mindset shift to address the over 40,000 transportation fatalities each year. We must embrace a comprehensive, all-of-the-above approach to improving safety on our roadways which includes fully leveraging technology solutions available today. These solutions, including digital infrastructure, artificial intelligence, V2X communications and automation, are essential to improving safety and meeting our goals of Vision Zero.    

We must take a proactive approach to safety. 

  • The U.S. needs to adopt a proactive approach to improving safety, rather than the often-standard approach of reacting to tragic events that could have been prevented. To be proactive, we must move from focusing solely on physical assets, such as roads, bridges, guardrails, and speed bumps, to harnessing the power of innovation, data, and technology to improve safety. Technology can take us from a reactive system to a proactive system that addresses issues before they result in a death. Fully deploying a layered approach of both physical and digital infrastructure assets is the only way we will achieve Vision Zero.  

We must dedicate more funding to technology deployment. 

  • The U.S. spends billions of dollars every year on transportation and infrastructure, yet we do not see real progress on meaningfully lowering traffic fatalities. Of the $673 billion in spending in IIJA, only $800 million was dedicated specifically for technology deployment, totaling around one-tenth of one percent of total infrastructure funding, even though technology investments can often provide more cost-effective solutions. Clearly, the amount of funding currently directed towards transportation technology is inadequate.  

How do we get there?  

ITS America and its members are leading the way in offering a proactive approach to safety that holistically incorporates technology into our transportation system to save lives and reduce crashes. This is not just about the technology, but about how we plan, fund and invest in our infrastructure in a different way to realize better outcomes, including meaningful advancements in improving safety in our transportation system. This approach recognizes the importance of investing in tools that help us gather information about our transportation system and infrastructure, communicate safety critical information in real time, and process and derive insights from that information at speed, providing agencies with crucial tools to make planning decisions, enact safety countermeasures, and monitor the status of their system. The good news is that there are many actions we can advocate for in the short term to set us on a better path, including:  

  1. Release of USDOT’s Final National V2X Deployment Plan to help advance this lifesaving technology at speed and scale;  
  1. Prioritizing the inclusion of technology into USDOT policy and guidance, including the Safe Systems Approach, Complete Streets, New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), and more;  
  1. Prioritizing technology deployment under discretionary grants beyond SMART and ATTAIN, such as Safe Streets and Roads for All, PROTECT and RAISE.  
  1. Expansion of the IIJA created Smart Community Resource Center to support much-needed technical resources for states and localities looking to deploy technologies. 
  1. Adoption of a national regulatory environment for AVs and education on the difference between AVs and driver-assist technologies.  NHTSA must fully implement a national framework, such as AV Step, and educate consumers on the capabilities and benefits of ADAS technologies in all communities. 
  1. Development of a national vision and framework for digital infrastructure to advance interoperable systems that bring benefits to all communities.   
Reimagine the Future of Transportation Technology

In the long term, to fully access these benefits and realize a safer, greener, and smarter transportation system, Federal transportation policy needs to be modernized to include transportation technology at every step of the process, from planning to construction to operations. Technology cannot be a “nice to have” and must be holistically incorporated into transportation budgets and operations. This requires a fundamental shift in our approach to how we plan, fund, and procure infrastructure and technology. From the policymaker to traffic engineer to the traveling public, this calls for a different mindset on how we approach infrastructure and prioritize safety. 

ITS deployers at the state and local level need substantial and certain funding for technology, and that funding needs to be incorporated at the beginning of a project’s lifecycle, not as an afterthought. Current technology funding primarily comes from limited discretionary grant programs, which are insufficient to achieve the scale of deployment needed to make a measurable impact on the country’s transportation system. If we are to truly reap the safety benefits of transportation technology, we must move beyond pilots and demonstrations. 

As we approach the next transportation reauthorization, ITS America is working to develop policy that will adequately consider the procurement, maintenance, and operations needs of a technology-inclusive infrastructure system so that we can scale the benefits of ITS. 

As I said in my Senate testimony, as the leader of ITS America and as a mother, I see many opportunities to make transportation safer so that kids going to school, parents returning home, and a routine trip to the grocery store doesn’t end in tragedy.  I long for the day when I don’t have to say to my children “call me when you get there safely”. We can make that day a reality faster by leveraging technology in a more holistic way.