Pete Buttigieg Thinks He Can Eliminate Traffic Deaths

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg tours the closed Hernando De Soto bridge in Memphis, Tenn., June 3, 2021.
(Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal/Pool via Reuters)

The Department of Transportation has unveiled a “zero-fatality road safety strategy.” According to transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg, “We cannot tolerate the continuing crisis of roadway deaths in America. . . . These deaths are preventable, and that’s why we’re launching the National Roadway Safety Strategy today — a bold, comprehensive plan, with significant new funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

Strictly speaking, Buttigieg is correct. All roadway deaths are preventable, but you don’t need a comprehensive strategy to eliminate them. Just put governors in the engine of every car that prevent the speed from exceeding five miles per hour. Economist Gordon Tullock facetiously suggested installing a spike in the center of every steering wheel as a way to solve reckless driving. If everyone knew they’d be impaled for braking too hard, everyone would drive very carefully, and deaths would plummet.

Of course, those aren’t serious ideas, but then again, neither are Buttigieg’s. The DOT’s National Roadway Safety Strategy is based on a “Safe System Approach” that has five objectives: “safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds, and post-crash care” (it’s a real shame they couldn’t work “safer” into that last one). “Zero is the only acceptable number of deaths and serious injuries on our roadways,” said Buttigieg in a letter. “We will launch new programs, coordinate and improve existing programs, and adopt a foundational set of principles to guide this strategy.”

The idea that a federal government department can strategize its way to zero roadway deaths through consultant-speak is no less ridiculous than putting a spike on every steering wheel. Yet Gordon Tullock’s idea is merely a provocative thought experiment, and Pete Buttigieg’s ideas are actual government policy.

Buttigieg isn’t alone on this. Growing up in Wisconsin, I remember the state DOT’s advertising campaigns to eliminate traffic deaths: “Zero in Wisconsin: A vision we can all live with.” (You can almost hear the consultants who came up with that saying, “Get it? Zero deaths? All live with?”) If the goal was to get the phrase stuck in my head, it worked, but you’d be hard-pressed to find significant numbers of people who drive differently because they saw a government-made commercial.

Instead of trying to reach an unattainable goal through repeated incantations, it would be more useful to give an accurate picture of the progress that has already been made and think about ways to make improvements. Calling traffic fatalities a “crisis” suggests there’s something unusual going on. The government has been tracking motor vehicle fatalities since 1899, and the number of traffic deaths peaked in 1972 at 54,589. It has been below 40,000 every year since 2008.

More important than the absolute number of deaths is the rate at which fatalities occur. More people drive more miles today than they did in the ’70s, and when you look at the fatality rates, you get a much more consistent downward trend over time. (The government only started tracking vehicle miles traveled in 1921, so there’s no data on this graph for 1899–1920.) The fatality rate has been below 1.5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled since 2002. And to put 100 million miles into perspective, assuming the average American drives 15,000 miles per year, it would take 6,667 years to drive 100 million miles.

That graph does not show a crisis. If you squint, you will notice that the preliminary data for 2020 show a relatively significant increase in the fatality rate, from 1.11 per 100 million VMT in 2019 to 1.37. At this point, researchers aren’t really sure what accounts for the increase. Certainly the pandemic has had something to do with it, but exactly how is unclear.

But don’t worry: Pete Buttigieg is going to use his expanded bureaucracy to spend $14 billion of federal money on road safety. Extrapolating from the DOT’s estimate that the $26.5 billion Bridge Formula Program will help repair 15,000 bridges, another $14 billion could have repaired roughly 8,000 more bridges, which is supposed to be what the “hard” infrastructure bill was about. Instead, it will be spent so DOT bureaucrats can pursue an unattainable goal through increased rulemaking and oversight — all while Pete Buttigieg entertains the absurd notion that he can end traffic deaths.

Dominic Pino is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review Institute.