Guest Op-Ed: America Needs to Invest in Universal Road User Education
As we continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and over 800,000 lives lost in the U.S., the number of road user deaths could easily be overlooked. However, it is a crisis of its own with over 38,000 lives lost in 2020 and over 20,000 deaths in the first half of 2021. The Biden Administration, to their credit, mentioned that the United States “had one of the highest road fatality rates in the industrialized world” in the White House fact sheet outlining the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The law itself allocates approximately $11 billion of the $1.2 trillion in funding solely to safety efforts. Our federal government first had to admit we had a safety problem before it could devote resources to solve it. However, for all the billions of dollars that will be spent to modernize America’s roads for greater safety, resiliency, and equity, there is a glaring omission: the lack of a universal road user education program.
Road user education in the United States is most commonly thought of as driver education, but it is that word “driver” that automatically makes it inequitable and insufficient at the start. Those that are physically unable, choose not to, or cannot afford to drive a motor vehicle are automatically excluded from the education given to these users. For those states and municipalities that do not offer public driver education, income can also be a barrier because of the cost of private instruction. According to the CDC, this exclusion also breaks down by race as well as income.
Additionally, only 32 states currently require formal driver education to be a licensed driver, which means that 18 states have users who may receive little to no formal education about road usage and safety. For these remaining 32 states, existing programs are hardly examples of a universal road safety education. When we look at how glaring the lack of driver education is in the U.S. and how limited existing driver education is in providing all users the opportunity to understand road user safety, and most importantly user vulnerability, it should not be surprising that the U.S. has such a poor safety record.
One method to see what impact a universal road user education program could have is to compare the safety record of countries like Norway or the Netherlands to the United States. Both of those European countries have committed to lifelong road user education starting in their elementary schools through adulthood. While the United States had a road user death rate of 12.67 fatalities per 100,000 population in 2019, Norway and the Netherlands had far lower fatality rates of 2.12 and 3.98, respectively. Admittedly, it is difficult to isolate what reduction factor their road user education had alone, but the differences in those education programs and efforts compared to those in the United States are quite stark.
For example, in its latest National Plan of Action for Road Safety from 2018-2021, the Norwegian government targeted children aged 0-14 with 19 different measures. One would have kindergarten teachers receive training from the Norwegian Council for Road Safety (NCRS) at all campuses with kindergarten teaching programs. Furthermore, the NCRS would develop an integrated traffic education curriculum for all elementary school grades in collaboration with multiple national agencies and provide courses to those pursuing education to teach higher grades.
Imagine the closest American counterpart, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), developing a road user safety curriculum for prospective elementary school teachers to be taught in colleges and universities for use when they begin teaching. It would be unheard of to have a federal government agency have so much influence in student curricula, but there is such a significant difference that could be made in children’s knowledge of road usage even before they can operate a motor vehicle. Imagine also the equity of road usage knowledge that all children would have, even if they could not afford to operate a motor vehicle or chose not to when they were teenagers. This knowledge would also be with them as they progressed through their adult life.
Instead, we now have either individual states or the non-profit American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association (ADTSEA) setting the curriculum for teenagers to be taught either publicly or privately with no requirements of road user safety knowledge before taking a driver education course. The ADTSEA curriculum also costs $350 to access and membership with ADTSEA is required to purchase that access.
Even if NHTSA does not create the curriculum, we can certainly improve on this current practice with a national curriculum of road user education, freely accessible to all, and that is taught in all schools from kindergarten through high school.
While it is still important to recognize that the investments that are being made to solve road user safety in the United States are extraordinary compared to past practices, we must start making significant progress toward zero deaths. While engineers can use the funding to design many innovative solutions to improve road user safety, the U.S. cannot engineer its way out of an education problem. Instead, for just a small fraction of the expense of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we can develop our own universal road user education program, so eventually all users can travel safely throughout the country, regardless of mode or economic status because of the knowledge they have gained.
It is that investment in universal road user education, in addition to the current and continued infrastructure investments for safety, which will finally allow the United States to become one of the leaders of the industrialized world for road user safety instead of constantly following behind.