Guest Author – October 2022

Law Enforcement and the Safe System Approach
By National Transportation Safety Board Member Tom Chapman

Almost 43,000 deaths occurred on US roadways in 2021, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) preliminary data.  That’s a staggering figure we have not seen since 2005.  Instead of achieving zero traffic deaths, we are heading in the wrong direction.  We must redouble and rethink our efforts to improve road safety.  We at the National Transportation Safety Board advocate the Safe System Approach to address this public health crisis on our roads.

With this approach, we seek to eliminate death and serious injury and address road safety as a system, rather than focusing on individuals.  The Safe System Approach is built on the following key principles:

  • It assumes that humans make mistakes and promotes methods to prevent these mistakes from causing deaths or serious injuries.
  • It seeks to accommodate human vulnerabilities by managing kinetic energy, which is directly related to speed.
  • It emphasizes shared responsibility among all participants in the system, including road users, engineers, planners, law enforcement officers, and policy makers.
  • It highlights the need to be proactive, relying heavily on adequate investigations and high-quality data.
  • It stresses that redundancy is crucial in ensuring safety.

The Safe System Approach focuses on five elements – safe users, safe roads, safe vehicles, safe speed, and post-crash care.

In a safe system, we understand that even the most law-abiding road users will sometimes make mistakes.  So, we double down on what we know from experience will work—such as well-designed and properly worn seat belts for all seating positions.  We promote greater use of vehicle technologies that already exist, such as automatic emergency braking and lane departure technology.

Further, we should accelerate development and adoption of additional advanced driver assistance systems.  For instance, NTSB recently recommended that manufacturers accelerate development and prioritize deployment of advanced impaired driving prevention technology and seek innovative ways to adapt existing technologies, such as driver monitoring systems, to combat alcohol-impaired driving.  (See our Highway Investigation Report on a tragic crash resulting from alcohol impairment near Avenal, California.)

We know there are road designs that can create a safer environment for vulnerable road users—for example, separated bike lanes and separate traffic signal timing for pedestrians and motor vehicles.  Because we know that injury severity is tied to kinetic energy, we need to rethink speed management.  Our roadways are overdesigned to accommodate mobility, not safety.  It is crucial to move forward using roadway design to better manage drivers’ safe speed and to rethink how speed limits are set.

Key to the Safe System Approach is shared responsibility and redundancy.  Traffic safety tools available to us should be used in a comprehensive approach.  Along with other methods and strategies, fair enforcement of traffic laws remains an important tool.

There are three areas where the dedication and professionalism of law enforcement are critical.  First, high-quality crash investigations are an extremely important tool in a Safe System Approach.  NTSB investigations are thorough, comprehensive, and time consuming.  Consequently, we are only able to investigate a select few roadway crashes.  That is why crash investigations conducted by the law enforcement community are essential.  Although not all local crash investigations can be as comprehensive as those of NTSB, there are lessons to be gained from every investigation.

Second, crash data is a vital component in a Safe System Approach.  State and local data is rolled up from individual police crash reports and compiled on a national level.  Planners and policy makers need timely, complete, and high-quality data to make sound decisions.  Good data helps us be more proactive in tackling traffic safety issues.

Third, fair and equitable enforcement of traffic safety laws is one of the many tools in a Safe System Approach.  Despite decades of effort, impaired driving, speeding, and distracted driving remain among the greatest challenges to road safety.  Appropriate enforcement of traffic safety laws, as part of the Safe System Approach, can increase safety for all road users.

To achieve our goal of zero road deaths, we must adopt a Safe System Approach and a shared responsibility for road safety.  Government, auto makers, policy makers, planners, engineers, road users, and law enforcement all have a role to play in a safe system.


About the Author:

Thomas B. Chapman took the oath of office as the 46th Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on January 6, 2020. Member Chapman has spoken extensively on alcohol and drug impairment, rail worker and highway-rail grade crossing safety, and the Safe System Approach to highway traffic safety. 

Prior to joining the Board, Member Chapman served six years as minority counsel to the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation & Space. He engaged in a broad range of issues, including the bipartisan effort to pass comprehensive legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration, and the NTSB. In total, Member Chapman has four decades of experience in government, legislative, and regulatory affairs in the transportation industry.

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