Federal Modal Leaders Share Transportation Safety Goals

Key Federal Highway Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and Federal Transit Administration officials shared their perspectives on ways to improve transportation safety during a panel discussion at the 2023 American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Washington Briefing, held February 28 through March 3 at the Hilton Washington D.C. Capitol Hill hotel.

[Above photo by AASHTO]

“Safety is where we start our day every day,” explained Shailen Bhatt, FHWA administrator. “And the American public doesn’t care about what different levels of government provide that road safety. For example, when you turn the water on, you do not care if it is flowing through a state, local, or federal pipe – you just want the water to flow. It’s the same for safety. People don’t care whether a road is under federal, state, or local jurisdiction. They just want it to be safe.”

Shailen Bhatt. Photo by AASHTO.

Bhatt is also a big believer in the ability of technology to make major improvements in roadway safety in line with the National Roadway Safety Strategy or NRSS unveiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation in January 2022.

“The FCC [Federal Communication Commission] will hopefully grant us a waiver to access the [wireless] safety spectrum in the next couple of months because connected vehicles really represent the next level of safety improvements,” he said. “We’ve been engineering a ton of safety into roads and vehicles; now we must use technology to connect them together. We have the technology; we should harness it.”

[Editor’s note: AASHTO and state departments of transportation have long made a similar point to the FCC, going so far as to file a lawsuit against the agency – one ultimately dismissed – to preserve wireless spectrum for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems.]

Jennifer Mitchell, deputy administrator of FRA, noted that her agency is trying to do a better job of reducing injuries and fatalities due to motor vehicle crashes at railroad grade crossings; crashes she said are largely due to unsafe driving behaviors.

Jennifer Mitchell. Photo by AASHTO.

“States and localities are responsible for grade crossing safety, not the railroads,” she said; pointing out that railroad grade crossing safety is a “particular problem” in rural areas.

“We need more resources in public education – way too many incidents of drivers trying to beat the [crossing guard] arms coming down,” Mitchell noted. “Drivers need to pay more attention and not do this.”

Robin Hutcheson, FMCSA administrator, added that – from her agency’s perspective overseeing commercial vehicle safety – “without focusing on prevention and driver issues, we will not achieve our safety goals.”

Robin Hutcheson. Photo by AASHTO.

By that Hutcheson said her agency seeks to go to the “headwaters” of roadway safety, which is – by and large – commercial motor vehicle operators. “We need to ask why a driver might become unsafe. Are they distracted? Tired? Stressed? Fatigued? Did they not get enough rest because they couldn’t find a place to park? You [state DOTs] are critical partners when it comes to solving truck parking issues,” she said.

Veronica Vanterpool, FTA’s deputy administrator, expanded on Hutcheson’s point by explaining that a major “shift in thinking” in American society is necessary to bring down roadway injury and fatality rates.

“We need a shift in thinking – that is what NRSS is all about,” she said. “We as a cultural prioritize speed in both language and in policy. So when we’re talking about a ‘shift’ it is to a human-centered instead of a policy-centered safety focus. That is a significant change in this country.”

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