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Research Question

  1. How can the United States achieve zero roadway deaths by 2050?

Imagine that, in 2050, not a single person in the United States dies in a traffic crash. This is the scenario described in this report, in which RAND researchers set forth a vision and strategy for achieving zero roadway deaths by 2050.

The authors propose that a combination of three approaches can realize this scenario. The first is doubling down on programs and policies that have already been shown to be effective, including laws and enforcement, changes to roadway infrastructure designed to reduce traffic conflicts, reductions in speeds where crashes are likely, improvements to emergency response and trauma care, and more safety education and outreach. The second is accelerating advanced technology, beginning with advanced driver assistance systems (many of which are already in the market) and progressing up to fully automated vehicles. The third is prioritizing safety, which includes both (1) embracing a new safety culture that will lead Americans to think differently about our individual and collective choices and (2) widespread adoption of the "Safe System" approach, a paradigm shift in addressing the causes and prevention of roadway deaths and injuries.

The authors conclude with a list of actions that key stakeholders — including professional engineering and planning organizations, public-sector organizations, safety advocates, vehicle manufacturers, technology developers, public health, emergency medical and trauma care organizations, and law enforcement and judicial system representatives — can take to bring about the changes needed to achieve zero roadway deaths by 2050.

Key Findings

Roadway deaths: The scope of the problem today

  • More than 100 Americans die in motor vehicle crashes every day.
  • Crashes are the leading cause of death for people age 15 to 24.
  • For the past several decades, all the important measures of roadway deaths — the total number, the number per 100,000 population, the number per miles driven — were going down, but these trends began reversing in 2015, and got even worse in 2016. Pedestrian deaths have also increased dramatically in recent years.
  • Current vehicle and roadway designs require that drivers be constantly alert and vigilant. However, drivers predictably become distracted, inattentive, tired, or otherwise impaired.

What road safety could look like in the United States in 2050

  • Nearly all vehicles have some level of automation — they brake automatically, warn drivers about objects in their blind spots, park themselves, adjust their speed, and stay in their lanes. Highly automated vehicles, which largely drive themselves, are in widespread use, often as part of mobility service programs.
  • Roadways are designed to reduce speed in safety-critical areas and lessen the chances of the most severe crash types.
  • When crashes do occur, the likelihood of fatalities has been reduced through improvements in trauma care together with enhanced connectivity for faster crash notification.
  • As roadway deaths become less frequent, Americans start to view them as less acceptable. Safety features in cars become more popular, new safety regulations face less opposition, and road safety comes to be viewed as a shared responsibility among drivers, auto manufacturers, civic planners, and other groups.

Recommendations

  • Double down on what works: Significant improvements in road safety can be achieved through approaches that have already been shown to be effective, including laws and enforcement, changes to roadway infrastructure designed to reduce traffic conflicts, reductions in speeds where crashes are likely, improvements to emergency response and trauma care, and more safety education and outreach.
  • Accelerate advanced technology: Each year, advanced driver assistance systems are offered on a greater number of new vehicles and their safety performance improves. New partnerships among manufacturers, technology providers, emergency medical and trauma systems, public safety/health groups, and the public sector can accelerate the deployment of these technologies.
  • Prioritize safety. A pervasive safety culture can be nurtured through awareness, education, and constant reinforcement. Road safety can also be transformed through a Safe System approach — the view that drivers will occasionally, but inevitably, make mistakes and that the overall transportation system should be designed so that these mistakes do not lead to fatal outcomes.

The research described in this report was sponsored by the National Safety Council and conducted by the Science, Technology, and Policy Program within RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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