Safety is our #1 priority here at the U.S. Department of Transportation. We work on improving safety every day and approach it from every angle – including infrastructure design and funding, vehicle design and operating standards. Across all our modes we strive to address the leading cause of transportation injuries and fatalities: human error.
This week, NHTSA released the 2017 Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data. The 1.8% decrease in fatalities compared to 2016 was welcome news. But 37,133 people died in 2017 in motor vehicle traffic crashes – most of which involved human error. This is tragic and unacceptable.
On September 17, I attended NHTSA’s Drug-Impaired Driving Public Meeting near Baltimore and listened to speakers, including the U.S. Attorney General and the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, outline the terrible menace of illegal drugs. And it is not just illegal drugs making America’s roads less safe, side effects related to over-the-counter medications and legalized marijuana are also causing drivers to make fatal mistakes. In my remarks, I relayed the Governors Highway Safety Association report findings that 44% of drivers killed in crashes in 2016 tested positive for illegal, prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Drug-impairment can have lethal consequences across all modes of transportation. It breaks your heart that these fatalities and injuries are so preventable.
September 23-29 was Rail Safety Week, a public awareness campaign that NHTSA, FRA, railroads and others launched to persuade people to be more careful at railroad grade crossings. Nearly 300 people a year are dying at railroad grade crossings – often because they don’t see a train coming or misjudged its distance, speed and ability to stop. Some drivers (and bicyclists and pedestrians) race trains to crossings or go around lowered gates. Again, better decisions could have prevented many of these tragedies.
Child Passenger Safety Week was September 23-29 to address the fact that, on average, two children under age 13 were killed every day in 2016 while riding in vehicles. Many of these tragedies could have been prevented by proper use of seat belts, car seats and boosters. NHTSA and its safety partners are working to save children’s lives and to save their families from a lifetime of grief. National Teen Driver Safety Week is October 17-25. Speed was a factor in 32% of teenage driver fatalities in 2016. Nearly 20% of teen drivers involved in fatal crashes had been drinking. Distracted driving can also result in fatalities or life-altering injuries. Research has found that dialing a phone number while driving increases a teen's risk of crashing by six times, and texting while driving increases the risk by 23 times.
That so many transportation fatalities and injuries are preventable motivates us at USDOT to be even more creative and persistent in our efforts to promote safer behavior. We hope that more Americans will heed, and help us spread, these safety messages.