Road Safety and Society – Environmental Considerations

Last week, the United States declined to sign the “Stockholm Declaration,” an international agreement to set targets for reducing road fatalities. The reason given for not signing the declaration was the U.S.’s objection to items within the document that referenced climate change, equity, gender equality, and other issues. For context, here is the paragraph they are referencing:

[Signatories resolve to] “[a]ddress the connections between road safety, mental and physical health, development, education, equity, gender equality, sustainable cities, environment and climate change, as well as the social determinants of safety and the interdependence between the different [Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”)], recalling that the SDGs and targets are integrated and indivisible;”

This is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the American government, and ignores the real social, economic, and climate issues that are deeply tied to transportation. This piece is the first in a series, in which I will touch on how transportation, especially the emerging mobility technologies we usually cover, are entwined with issues that the current Administration sees as beyond the scope of road safety. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a few examples offered as proof of the complexity of the issues. For today we’ll consider the environmental issues that are tied to road safety.

Road Safety and the Environment

Much has been made of how CAVs and other new mobility technologies can reduce greenhouse emissions via electrification of transportation and gained efficiencies through coordination between vehicles and infrastructure. The pursuit of safer roads via CAV deployment is also the pursuit of “greener” roads. This is especially important in the face of a recent study that found the use of rideshares like Lyft and Uber are increasing emissions – by an estimated 69%. The study found that rideshare usage shifted trips that would have been undertaken by mass transit, biking, or walking. Any discussion of the future of road safety, especially in cities, will have to include discussions of ridesharing, and how to better integrate biking, walking, and things like micro-mobility services into our streets, an integration that has important environmental implications.

The deployment of electric vehicles, something that appears to be a goal of major auto manufacturers, is another area in which road safety and the environment meet. To start with, these vehicles reduce overall vehicle emissions, which themselves are a health hazard. While not traditionally part of the road safety discussion, recent studies have shown that outdoor air pollution reduces the average life expectancy world-wide by almost 3 years. Including emissions in the safety conversation is especially important as vehicles are now the largest carbon producers.

Electric vehicles have other positive safety features – their large batteries, for example, make them less likely to roll over in an accident. On the other hand, electric vehicles traveling at low speeds can be harder for pedestrians and others to hear. In response, NHTSA has now mandated that EVs be equipped to generate artificial sound to warn those around them.

These are just a few ways in which environmental issues cross over into road safety, as recognized by the signatories to the Stockholm Declaration, and it is imperative the U.S. government take them into consideration rather than dismissing them outright.