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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-09-006    Date:  Sept/Oct 2009
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-09-006
Issue No: Vol. 73 No. 2
Date: Sept/Oct 2009


Guest Editorial

Rising to the Safety Challenge

A photo of Joseph S. Toole, Associate Administrator for Safety Federal Highway Administration

On July 2, 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) announced that the number of traffic fatalities reported in 2008 hit their lowest level since 1961, a trend that appears likely to continue into 2009. This issue of Public Roads presents some of the programs that are helping make that happen. These programs take advantage of cutting-edge technologies and use the expertise of multidisciplinary teams, including both safety and design experts, to drive the fatality numbers down.

Although the Nation is making real progress, the fact remains that 37,261 people lost their lives on U.S. roads last year. As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood noted during the July 2 announcement, "while the number of highway deaths in America has decreased, we still have a long way to go."

For example, during the period when most crash numbers were dropping, the number of motorcycle fatalities grew 2.2 percent. With 5,290 fatalities in 2008, motorcycle deaths now account for 14 percent of all highway fatalities. In addition, the fatal and serious crashes on rural roads still constitute the majority of deaths on U.S. highways, especially for younger drivers.

Addressing these challenges will take the transportation community's best thinking and the deepest commitment as a Nation. Each year, literally thousands of highway safety activities occur around the country, including educational programs, emergency medical services responses, roadway improvements, and traffic enforcement. Because safety is so encompassing, it is extremely important that the transportation community take a comprehensive, strategic view that brings together a focus on the driver, the vehicle, and the roadway. As Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez has said, "Safety is the umbrella under which all of our actions must fall. It is and must continue to be our first concern and our first priority."

Fortunately, the State highway safety plans (SHSPs) already provide a foundation to build upon. The development of SHSPs has demonstrated the tremendous benefits that emerge when safety partners work together and take a data-driven approach to defining strategies to address their most serious safety concerns. At the national level, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) developed a Strategic Safety Plan nearly a decade ago with participation from more than 30 partners. This plan contains 22 specific safety focus areas and has served as a framework for dozens of individual actions.

With a new administration, new authorization legislation on the horizon, and new technologies emerging, the time is ripe to take a fresh look at how to further strengthen the Nation's strategic focus on reducing deaths and serious injuries on U.S. roadways. Doing this will require the contributions and participation of a broad range of stakeholders and partners in identifying where to best focus the collective energy of the Nation, and then developing a roadmap to get there. To begin this process, USDOT and AASHTO recently began soliciting ideas for a national strategic highway safety plan, how it should be developed, and, ultimately, what it needs to address. Opportunities to participate in this process will be announced over the next year.

There is still much to be done to significantly reduce the suffering caused by crashes on U.S. roads. The Federal Highway Administration is ready to work with States, local governments, and the public to rise to the challenge of improving safety, knowing that everyone has a role to play in making America's roads safer.

Joseph S. Toole

Associate Administrator for Safety

Federal Highway Administration



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