Last week, transportation leaders from 140 countries meeting in Stockholm as part of a road safety summit drew up an ambitious global agreement to completely eliminate traffic deaths worldwide by 2050. All the countries in attendance endorsed the declaration—except one: The U.S. delegation refused to sign it.
Over the last half-century, traffic fatalities have morphed into a global epidemic that impacts the most vulnerable street users worldwide. Approximately 1.35 million people die on roadways every year, according to the United Nations’ World Health Organization, making it the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5 to 29 years. People who are not using cars—pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists—make up over half of those killed.
For the past three years, the Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety, an initiative of WHO, has gathered advocates and policymakers in an effort to address the crisis. This year’s agreement, known as the Stockholm Declaration, aims to reduce traffic fatalities by at least 50 percent over the next ten years, with the goal of eradicating roadway deaths and serious injuries by 2050.
“It is an unacceptable price to pay for mobility,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the conference opening, where 3,700 pairs of shoes were placed on the ground to illustrate the number of lives lost each day to crashes globally.
The conference was particularly timely this year, as Oslo and Helsinki both saw zero pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in 2019, down from 40 annual deaths in the 1970s, largely thanks to the elimination of on-street parking, expansion of sidewalks and bike lanes, and a dramatic reduction in speed limits.
The recommendations in the Stockholm Declaration mirror actions that Oslo and Helsinki have taken, including prioritizing the safety of children and young adults, redesigning streets, reducing speeds to 20 mph in cities, shifting more trips to public transit, and providing high-quality medical support for survivors and the families of victims. It’s estimated that 20 to 50 million people each year are seriously injured in car crashes worldwide.
The declaration also includes this recommendation, which draws a clear connection between protecting vulnerable road users and reducing carbon emissions: “Shift toward safer, cleaner, more energy efficient and affordable modes of transport and promote higher levels of physical activity such as walking and cycling as well as integrating these modes with the use of public transport to achieve sustainability.”
Over 1,700 delegates from six continents signed on to the declaration, sending it to the United Nations General Assembly for endorsement.
But the U.S. issued a uncredited statement on behalf of its delegates that dissociates the country from the declaration, saying it would “muddle our focus and detract attention from data driven scientific policies and programs that have successfully reduced fatalities on roadways.”
In a country with nearly 40,000 roadway deaths each year, most safety experts don’t agree that the U.S. efforts to reduce fatalities have been successful.
The letter claims that the U.S. has been a leader in reducing traffic deaths, achieving a 31 percent decrease in fatalities per mile driven over the last 50 years. But other wealthy countries have been able to reduce their traffic deaths much more significantly, according to WHO.
In a 2018 study that compared mortality rates for 20 wealthy countries from 2000 to 2011, the U.S. only reduced total road fatalities by 23 percent, while the other 19 countries reduced road fatalities by 26 to 64 percent over the same period. From the same study, a child living in the U.S. is twice as likely to die in a car crash as a child living in a similarly wealthy nation. According to a 2016 CDC report, if the U.S. had the same crash death rate as Sweden, about 24,000 fewer lives per year would be lost.
In fact, the U.S.’s per-capita road fatality rate is higher than any other member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a coalition of 36 nations considered to be the U.S.’s economic peers, says Mário Alves, secretary general of the International Federation of Pedestrians, an global consortium of advocates, who calls the move by the U.S. delegation to the Stockholm conference “disappointing.”
“The U.S. has not implemented safety strategies that are known to reduce pedestrian deaths, such as pedestrian-friendly vehicle designs and 20 mph speeds in populated areas,” he says. “Despite their rejection of the declaration, we hope that the United States will take aggressive new steps to reduce their traffic death rate, especially for pedestrians, to that currently achieved by the best OECD countries.”
The reasoning for dissociating from the agreement echoes the Trump administration’s 2017 decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. The language used is not only strikingly similar in tone, but the decision could also have similar implications to affect policymaking on a global scale. In 2018, after withdrawing from the Paris agreement, the U.S. partnered with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait to successfully block the adoption of an influential UN climate report.
Much like the Paris climate accord, which was signed by more than 190 nations in 2015, the Stockholm Declaration is a nonbinding agreement that sets a shared goal and creates a framework of best practices to achieve that goal. And, in fact, the Stockholm Declaration is intertwined with the Paris agreement, as it notes that increasing road safety to prioritize the low-carbon movement of pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists will help achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals to reduce emissions, which were updated during an October 2019 summit in New York.
But even that claim was refuted by the letter from the U.S. delegation, which argues “climate change, gender equality, reduced inequalities, [and] responsible consumption and production” are not related to road safety—even as reports presented at the conference showed otherwise, including one by the U.S.’s Vision Zero Network.
It wasn’t just the connection to climate change that the U.S. delegation gave as a reason for dissociating from the declaration. The U.S. letter inaccurately insists that vehicle technologies like driver assistance systems and emergency braking features are an effective way of reducing traffic deaths—which is only true for people traveling inside the new model cars that have those features. While the number of traffic fatalities dropped slightly over the past year, pedestrian and cyclist deaths have gone up dramatically over the past decade. In 2018, the most recent year for which federal data is available, the country saw the highest number of pedestrian deaths since 1990.
The U.S. letter also includes the dubious claim that the imminent deployment of autonomous vehicles—the testing of which has been heavily criticized by safety advocates for lack of federal oversight, even after Uber’s self-driving vehicle killed a pedestrian—will save lives:
Further, our country is on the verge of one of the most exciting and important innovations in transportation history— the development of Automated Driving Systems (ADSs), commonly referred to as automated or self-driving vehicles. This new technology can lead to a future in which vehicles increasingly help drivers avoid crashes. And, especially important, it’s a future in which highway fatalities and injuries are significantly reduced.
If autonomous vehicles were indeed the solution to eliminating traffic deaths, surely every country attending the road safety summit would be moving towards their rapid implementation. But the words “autonomous,” “automated,” or “self-driving” are not found anywhere in the Stockholm Declaration.
The U.S. response was particularly frustrating to advocates who have confronted the country’s road safety crisis firsthand, like Amy Cohen, co-founder of Families for Safe Streets, a nationwide group of people who have lost family members to car crashes.
“Traffic violence is a preventable epidemic that our country has failed to even acknowledge, let alone implement the proven solutions that save lives,” says Cohen, who noted that Families for Safe Streets sent delegates to the summit. “Nearly 100 Americans are killed every single day in traffic crashes. That means 100 families every single day… experience the horror that my family suffered when my 12-year-old son was killed.”
The U.S. government, she notes, has allowed states to raise speed limits, provided incentives to built wider roads that are more dangerous, and rebuffed efforts to create national road safety mandates, while ignoring calls from crash victims and their families for more effective action, essentially writing a “blank check to each state every year for road transportation”—with no consequences.
In the hours after the Trump administration announced withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, mayors of dozens of cities began speaking out on social media, condemning the decision. Within a few weeks, over 400 more city leaders had joined the “climate mayors,” pledging to double down on their own commitments to reduce emissions.
Yet there’s been no response yet this week from the dozens of mayors who have made Vision Zero pledges—most of whom also are part of that same coalition of climate mayors. Nor have there been any public statements from the authors of the Vision Zero Act, proposed last year in Congress to fund improvements for safer streets, or from any of the presidential candidates.
As both safety and climate experts have said, and as the Stockholm Declaration so clearly spells out, eliminating road deaths and eliminating emissions are part of the same goal. The deadlines set forth by these agreements are similarly aligned—reduce by half by 2030, and eliminate entirely by 2050.
While the response from the Trump administration to the Stockholm Declaration might not be surprising, neither is the silence from the leaders across the country who have supposedly pledged to eliminate traffic deaths.
“While advocates and communities across the U.S. work tirelessly to make changes to create safer streets for people who walk and bike, leadership has too often failed to adequately address the over 6,000 lives lost on our streets each year while walking,” says Heidi Simon, deputy director of America Walks.
“We know how to address this epidemic—with improved street design, reduced speeds, and systemic changes to address a legacy of car-centric planning,” she says. “We lack the courage and political will to do so.”