Federal Traffic Safety Programs: In Brief
This pdf document outlines previous and potential traffic safety measures on the Federal level in the following areas.
- Encouraging Safer Driving Behavior
- Vehicle Safety Improvements
- Roadway Safety Improvements
- Commercial Transportation Safety
- Options for Congress
State of Traffic Safety in America
Driving is one of the riskiest activities the average American engages in. Deaths and serious injuries resulting from motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of preventable deaths. In 2018, 36,560 people were killed in police-reported motor vehicle crashes in the United States,
and an estimated 2.7 million people were injured. Many of the people who die in traffic crashes are relatively young and otherwise healthy (motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 17 and 23). As a result, while traffic crashes are now the 13th
leading cause of death overall, they rank seventh among causes of years of life lost (i.e., the difference between the age at death and life expectancy).
In addition to the emotional toll exacted by these deaths and injuries, traffic crashes impose a significant economic toll. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) estimated that the annual cost of motor vehicle crashes in 2010 was $242 billion in direct costs and $836 billion when the impact on quality of life of those killed and injured was included. About one-third of the direct cost came from the lost productivity of those killed and injured; about one-third from property damage; 10% from present and future medical costs; 12% from time lost due to congestion caused by crashes; and the remainder from the costs of insurance administration, legal services, workplace costs, and emergency services.
Federal Efforts to Improve Traffic Safety
Federal traffic safety programs are administered by three separate agencies within DOT. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has responsibility for programs targeting driver behavior and regulates safety-related aspects of vehicle design. The safety of roads falls within the purview of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) manages a separate set of programs focusing on the safety of commercial drivers and vehicles.
Congress typically amends federal traffic safety programs in the periodic reauthorization of federal surface transportation programs. Recent reauthorizations were enacted in 2012 and 2015; the current authorization expires at the end of FY2020. Occasionally, changes are made in standalone legislation or as part of other legislation such as the DOT appropriations act.
R43026 // Updated 6 April 2020 // Prepared for members and committees of Congress // David Randall Peterman, Analyst in Transportation Policy // Congressional Research Service