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Transcript: Secretary Buttigieg Remarks on National Roadway Safety Strategy

Thursday, January 27, 2022

This is a big day. We are here to talk about safety on America's roads, streets, and highways. 

And in giving remarks like this, it might be customary to begin by telling the story of a person whose life was cut short, or forever changed - to help people to picture the reality behind the statistics. But sadly, I think each of us can already think about the reality behind the statistics. I think every single one of us can close our eyes and picture people we've known - friends, family members, a high school teammate, a co-worker - someone whose life needlessly ended far too soon because of a crash on our roads.  

If you think about what that means, the fact that every single one of us can think of people we've lost - and speak of it as a sad but universal truth - it is as if we were living through a war. It is as if it were normal. 

Certainly, you see that in the kind of numbers that we live with. We have for years been averaging almost 3,000 deaths per month on our roads. Added up, in the last decade we've lost more than 350,000 lives on America's roadways.   

And things have gotten worse during recent years, as people drove at higher speeds, more recklessly, and more distracted. We’re going to be posting, as a Department, our official fatality data for the third quarter of 2022, and I need to tell you, looking at the preliminary numbers, it’s not good.  

This is a national crisis.  

When we look deeper at the numbers, we notice two things. 

One, it is disproportionately impacting some Americans more than others: people of color, Native Americans, low income communities, people in rural areas, [are] more likely to die on our roads.   

And yet, the other thing that we see is this crisis indeed affects everyone – claiming lives from people of every age, every race, every income level, in rural communities and big cities alike.   

We cannot and must not accept that these fatalities are somehow an inevitable part of life in America.  

Think about the fact when someone is about to get in a car and drive somewhere, we might say “drive safe.”   

We don’t do that with most other routine, everyday activities in civilian life - partly because we as a society have acted to make sure that more and more everyday activities are certain to be safe.  

When someone is headed to a restaurant we don’t say “eat safe” today, perhaps because food is far safer - thanks to the food safety laws of the early 20th century.   

We’ve acted to make American workplaces safer - realizing that on-the-job deaths are unacceptable. Of course there is more work to do in that area, but your workplace is one-fifth as likely to be deadly today as it was before OSHA took effect 50 years ago. 

When it comes to roadway deaths, we have a crisis that’s urgent, unacceptable - and preventable.   

We know roadway deaths are preventable because some places are doing a better job at preventing them than others. Canada’s traffic fatality rate is about half of what ours is. In Europe, it’s about a quarter.   

And it’s not like there’s something about Americans that causes this intrinsically, because we can look around our country and see that some places are doing better than others. Hoboken, New Jersey went more than 3 years without a traffic death... Fremont, California dramatically reduced their crash rates... and New York City saw steady, significant declines in deaths before COVID, as the Deputy Secretary mentioned. And these improvements of course didn’t come on their own; they happened after each of those places adopted new policies around traffic safety.    

We also know road deaths are preventable because across the U.S., roadway fatalities and the fatality rate declined consistently for around 30 years, before stalling during the last decade and now, as I mentioned, going back up in more recent years.  

I’ve spoken about roadway safety with everybody who will listen. Talked about it with the President, Vice President, leaders in Congress, state and local officials, advocates, car manufacturers, people of every political and professional background. And as we have spoken and as I have listened and learned from so many experts, one thing that’s very clear is a universal agreement that we should be doing something. The question is, what will it take?  

So let’s talk about what it will take, and what we’re going to do.  

The first thing it takes is a strategy, with the resources and programs to deliver on that strategy. That’s why today, we are proud to launch the National Roadway Safety Strategy, a true first. It represents a comprehensive plan to significantly reduce injuries and deaths on America’s roadways. And with America’s three principal roadway safety agencies aligned (Federal Highway Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration), we are embarking on a safe system approach. Experts embrace this approach to lowering risks by building multiple layers of protection: safer roads, safer people, safer vehicles, safer speeds, and better post-crash care.  

People make mistakes. But human mistakes don't always have to be lethal. And in a well-designed system, safety measures make sure that human fallibility does not lead to human fatalities. That's what we will be doing for America's roads with the National Roadway Safety Strategy and the safe system approach that it embraces.  

Now often, there’s a good strategy out there, but it’s limited by a lack of resources. That’s why we are so fortunate in this moment to be able to meet the moment with unprecedented safety funding, and vital new programs impacting safety, thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.  

That law creates a new Safe Streets and Roads for All program, providing $6 billion to help cities and towns deliver new, comprehensive safety strategies, as well as accelerate existing, successful safety initiatives. It will protect not only drivers but all road users, including people who walk, bike, or use a wheelchair. Pedestrian fatalities, as the Second Gentleman mentioned, have been increasing significantly faster than overall roadway fatalities, and we need to address the safety of those outside as well as inside the vehicle.    

The infrastructure law also increases funding for the Highway Safety Improvement Program by over $4 billion.  

And earlier this month, President Biden launched the biggest investment to fix our bridges since the Interstate Highway System, which will help make bridges safer for drivers, passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.  

The National Roadway Safety Strategy is not just new programs and funding. It also makes our existing safety programs more ambitious and more coordinated – tools like our vehicle ratings system, our guidance for design of roadways, and our requirements for state driver licensing agencies.  

Another thing that it’s going to take in order to change the trajectory of roadway safety in this country is a single, ambitious, shared goal. Today we commit that our goal is this: zero. Our goal is zero deaths; a country where, one day, nobody has to say goodbye to a loved one because of a traffic crash.  

I understand the scale of the challenge and the ambition represented by that goal. And I understand that we may not get there during my tenure as Secretary. But the decision - to commit to that goal in a serious way, at a national level - changes the way cities and towns design roads, it changes the ways companies build cars, and it changes the way people drive them. Jurisdictions and organizations that have adopted that goal have used it to save lives, and it is now our intention to do the same as a matter of national policy.   

So we have policies, we have programs, we have resources, we have a goal – and we have leaders. We are standing here in the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters, joined by the Second Gentleman of the United States of America, because this is a priority for the Department, for the Administration, and for the country. But we also need partners in state and local government, like our friends represented here, and outside of government, like the advocates here who have laid so much groundwork to bring America to this point; none of us can do this alone.  

We are going to team up with the governors, mayors, county executives, local leaders, the ones who actually design and maintain so much of America’s road systems.    

Our Strategy gives government at every level a shared roadmap. And we’re counting on their help, just as they can count on ours.   

We’re going to partner with advocates and philanthropies, working on ways to support communities that may not have had the expertise or staff to do this on their own.  

And we will be working with the technology and auto industries. To take one example, some of the most exciting material amid the work towards truly autonomous vehicles concerns the safety features being delivered along the way. Having your car alert you if you’re trying to change lanes and another vehicle is too close to you... that would have seemed far-fetched not long ago, but now it's standard in many new cars. We’re going to count on technology and auto companies to work with us to make driving safer, for those inside and outside the car.   

But it’s also clear that technology alone will not save us – certainly not on any acceptable timeline. So the final thing I want to address, maybe more important than any piece of technology or policy, is that we need a national change in mentality. It is time for a transformation in how people think about road safety.  

Together, we can act to change the culture and expectations. We are so accustomed to hazards on our roads that we sometimes behave as if the risks of today's roadways are inevitable. But they’re not. People should leave the house and know they’re going to get to their destination safely. Once we believe that, and believe in our ability to collectively make progress, once we demand better, we will see more positive changes cascading across governments and industry.   

And that culture change can also motivate change among drivers, who need to put down their phones, take their foot off the gas – and of course, drive sober.   

There is no vaccine to protect us from deadly car crashes today. And yet like a pandemic, it’s a case where we can only protect our loved ones by acting together. Through systems change - streets, laws, norms, manufacturers, technology, drivers, all at the same time - we will save lives.  

So we’re calling on all of America, every level of government, every insurance company, every motor carrier, every auto manufacturer, to embrace and commit to the specific actions for partners that we are releasing as a companion to the National Roadway Safety Strategy.  

Knowing that if we work together and do this right, we will save so many lives. The nature of good safety work is that we won't know the names of the people whose lives will be saved by these efforts. But we will know that so many Americans who might otherwise have been an empty seat at the dinner table will instead be right where they belong. And who knows - the lives that you act to help save just might include your own.   

I believe we are fully capable of meeting these goals by committing to these actions, and we know that with lives on the line, there is not a moment to lose. So let’s get started.  

Thank you, and congratulations again to everybody who delivered this extraordinary and important piece of work.