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Highway safety report: ‘Disturbing trends emerge in 2020’

Jan. 14, 2021
Highway safety advocates say speeding is a culprit for the surge in traffic fatality rates. Among other recommendations for passenger vehicles, advocates are urging federal lawmakers to implement safety devices like speed limiters on heavy trucks.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety released the 18th edition of the annual Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws report, which highlights a surge in traffic fatality rates. And due to pandemic-induced stay-at-home orders, roads emptied, and “drivers put the pedal to the metal at high speeds,” Catherine Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, emphasized.

In 2020, impaired and distracted driving increased, while seat belt use decreased, contributing to a higher overall fatality rate in the first half of the year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In its report, Advocates urge states to “Change this Picture in 2021,” by enacting 16 recommended highway safety laws on occupant protection, child passenger safety, graduated driver licensing (GDL), impaired driving, and distracted driving.

The report also points out recommended changes for the heavy-duty truck sector. According to the report, in 2019 crashes involving large trucks killed more than 5,000 people, a 48% increase since a low in 2009. In addition, 159,000 people were injured in large truck crashes in 2019 and injuries of large truck occupants increased by 18%.

Advocates highlight several safety improvements on large trucks that would curb these crashes. The report suggests the widespread implementation of safety technologies such as automatic emergency braking and speed limiting devices as standard equipment.

“Further, numerous other lifesaving truck safety advances have been ignored by DOT for years including effective underride guards, adequate entry-level driver training, and screening for obstructive sleep apnea,” the report states.

Trucking industry analysts project that speed limiters and upgraded rear trailer underride guards and side guards will get serious consideration under the incoming Biden administration. Rear impact guards have been required on most commercial vehicles for nearly 70 years, but they are not included on the list of components to be checked in the required annual vehicle inspection. On Dec. 29, FMCSA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to address the matter.

The major concern for the trucking industry is whether the Biden-led DOT would issue regulations to upgrade the standard for the rear underride guard, as well as put in a new rule to put side underride guards on trailers. Historically, the industry has pushed back because of the weight and cost-benefit analysis.

Advocates cite opportunities for improvement in 2021

In September 2021, the current surface transportation authorization expires. The previous bill, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, expired on Sept. 30, 2020, but was extended for one year as part of a continuing resolution funding bill. Prior to that extension, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Moving Forward Act, but that bill was dead on arrival at the Senate.

The Advocates’ report gives every state and Washington, D.C. a rating in five categories (Occupant Protection, Child Passenger Safety, Teen Driving, Impaired Driving, and Distracted Driving) as well as an overall grade of: Green (good); Yellow (caution); and Red (danger). This year, New York joined the list of seven other states (Rhode Island, Washington, Delaware, Maine, Oregon, California, Louisiana) and Washington, D.C. receiving green ratings. New York’s rating upgrade comes following the state’s enactment of an all-occupant seat belt requirement in 2020. Thirty states received a yellow rating indicating the need for improvement. Twelve states earned a red rating for “lagging dangerously behind” in the adoption of Advocates’ recommended laws (Missouri, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, Florida, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia).

“As our nation continues to cope with the devastating, wide-ranging ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are offering the 2021 Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws to spur action to implement proven solutions to keep motorists and road users safe – and out of the over-extended emergency rooms,” Chase said. “During the nearly two decades we’ve been issuing the Roadmap Report, nearly 600,000 people have been killed on our nation’s roads and over 40 million more have been injured. This public health toll is significant, staggering, and deserving of swift action and serious attention. In addition to advancing state laws identified in the report, verified vehicle safety technologies can prevent and mitigate numerous crashes. We call on the new Congress and the incoming administration to prioritize requiring technologies such as automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and blind-spot detection in all new vehicles. With these strategies at the state and federal levels, we can ‘change the picture’ in 2021 and beyond.”

Advocates recommend that states adopt 390 laws to mitigate the trends that have emerged on the nation’s roadways. The Roadmap Report outlines solutions to reverse those trends and target additional crash factors in 2021. 

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

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