Fight for Zero Road Fatalities, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy Urges

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy
“We’re fighting for the 43,000 people who die annually on our roads and the millions more who are injured,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy says. (Transportation Research Board)

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The rising number of people killed and injured in automobile accidents due to driving at high speeds is unacceptable, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said.

Delivering the keynote address at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting, Homendy said transportation officials believe it is possible to reach zero highway fatalities.

“We’re fighting for the 43,000 people who die annually on our roads and the millions more who are injured,” Homendy said. “Plenty of people think zero deaths is an unrealistic goal. Now, let me ask you: What’s an acceptable number of transportation deaths for your family? Zero just became real, didn’t it? There’s no acceptable amount of injury or death when it’s our colleague. Our best friend. Our partner. Our parent. Our son. Our daughter. When we say zero is impossible, there’s an unspoken caveat: as long as ‘my’ people are safe.”

Homendy said the increase in traffic deaths comes as vehicles have never been safer, with high-tech systems in place to avoid collisions and design changes in cars and trucks to make them more survivable in an accident.

TRB Annual Meeting 2023 logo

Federal and local agencies, too, are introducing technology to make roads less dangerous. Yet the death toll continues to rise. Traffic fatalities in the first half of 2022 rose compared to 2021, one of the worst years for deaths and injuries in decades. During the first half of 2022, NHTSA said 20,175 people died in traffic accidents.

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According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 42,915 people died on roadways in 2021, a 10.5% increase over 2020’s 38,824 deaths. That prompted Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to say America faces a “crisis” on its roads.

Homendy called on TRB delegates to take up the challenge.

“To take on a challenge as big as zero and succeed, we need more than smarts,” she said. “We need everyone in this fight. We need to be fearless, unafraid to open our hearts to the preventable pain of transportation disasters and to fearlessly pursue solutions. Fearless in refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Homendy said one factor that is increasing the severity of traffic accidents is that the largest passenger vehicles are getting bigger, and electric vehicles — including some trucks — are growing in size.

A GMC Hummer EV weighs more than 9,000 pounds, up from about 6,000. Its gross vehicle weight rating is 10,550 pounds. The battery pack alone weighs over 2,900 pounds, about the weight of a Honda Civic, she said.

GM Hummer EV with Honda Civic inset

A GMC Hummer EV's battery pack alone weighs about as much as a Honda Civic. (Transportation Research Board) 

The Ford F-150 Lightning is 2,000 to 3,000 pounds heavier than the nonelectric version.

“That has a significant impact on safety for all road users,” she said.

Partnering with the National Safety Council and its Road to Zero Coalition, the Biden administration has committed to reducing traffic fatalities to zero by 2050.

NSC has identified three main initiatives to reduce roadway fatalities:

  • Double down on what works through proven, evidence-based strategies
  • Advance life-saving technology in vehicles and infrastructure
  • Prioritize safety by adopting a safe systems approach and creating a positive safety culture.

“In 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth. His deadline? By the end of the decade — just 8 ½ years to make the impossible possible,” Homendy said. “You all know what happened next. We did put a man on the moon — two, in fact.”

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She added, “These are the people who do the impossible, who always have throughout human history and who always will. These are the people we need right now, in this moment. Because zero is our moonshot. That’s what we’re fighting for.”

Homendy says it will take a commitment by Americans to strive to lower the average 117 deaths per day. To get there, she and others said people need to stop driving while impaired, end texting and distracted driving, and obey rules of the road.

Homendy said she and the transportation safety community need motorists’ help if this goal is to be reached.

“Fight for their bereaved families. Fight for all the grieving families who’ve lost someone they love to a transportation disaster. Fight so your family is never one of them,” she said. “Most of all, be fearless. Fearlessly pursue zero as your only goal, in every mode of transportation.”

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