In the stretch of just one week earlier this month, the driver of a tractor-trailer crashed into a 5-year-old girl in Andover, killing her as she was crossing the street with her family; three motorcycle drivers died in crashes in Amesbury, Brewster, and Weymouth; a 15-year-old Middleborough High School freshman died in the hospital days after being hit by a car as he was crossing the street near a grocery store; and a 30-year-old died after crashing his truck into a tree in Rehoboth, according to the state’s crash database and news reports.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Massachusetts, and the United States, have seen traffic deaths climb since 2019, while similarly developed countries around the world have been steadily reducing road carnage among drivers, passengers, pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists for decades. Safety advocates in Massachusetts have long been fighting to curb the problem with strategies that have been proven to work elsewhere, but the state has been slow to act, they say.
Elsewhere, automatic enforcement cameras hold speeders accountable. Cars are rated for how safe they keep people outside the car, not only passengers and drivers. And roads are increasingly designed with more space for walking and biking, and less space for cars. That discourages people from purchasing larger ones, like the pick-up trucks and SUVs most popular in the United States that are more likely to kill those walking and biking in the event of a crash.
Leaders in Massachusetts “don’t understand that this is a crisis,” said Brendan Kearney, deputy director of the advocacy group WalkMassachusetts, whose recent report found 35 percent more pedestrians died in 2022 compared to the previous year, totaling 101 people.
“There had never been over 100 pedestrian deaths since 2002. It’s unconscionable. How are we letting this happen?”
Places that aren’t letting it happen as much include the United Kingdom, where residents were more than five times less likely to die in a traffic crash than in the United States in 2021, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Canada, Australia, and France, where residents were around three times less likely to die this way. Nearly 43,000 people died in traffic crashes in the US in 2021, and 439 people died in Massachusetts in 2022, according to the most recent government data available.
Getting people to drive less and opt for walking, biking, and public transit instead would certainly help, but it won’t fix the US traffic death crisis, advocates say. Researchers at the Urban Institute compared traffic deaths per miles traveled and found that French people were 40 percent less likely to die in a car crash than people in the United States, where roads are usually built to move cars around as quickly as possible, not as safely as possible.
“We have got to start acknowledging the fact that the purchase of large trucks and SUVs is causing a major public health crisis on our roads,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “We need a massive and immediate investment in safer street designs that reduce the exposure of pedestrians to fatalities.”
Proven solutions have taken years of advocacy for the notoriously slow-moving Massachusetts Legislature to act on, and some are still stalled.
Last year the Legislature passed a bill requiring trucks to have side guards to help prevent cyclists and pedestrians from being run over. But the requirement only applies to trucks owned or contracted by the state, making up a fraction of those on the road.
The state prohibits local governments from using automated enforcement for speeding and red-light running. But those measures are badly needed, along with reducing driver cell phone use, to reverse the deadly trend in the United States, said Said Dahdah, global lead for road safety at the World Bank.
“Unfortunately, this situation has taken a very bad turn over the last few years,” Dahdah said at the annual International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany, on Wednesday. “Enforcement has to be tightened.”
Already, city and local governments in at least 22 states and the District of Columbia use red-light cameras, and communities in at least 16 states and the District of Columbia currently have speed camera programs in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation said in a report published late last year that it will aim to better manage vehicle speeds through a variety of measures. Spokesperson Kristen Pennucci said in an e-mail the agency will be working on an “action plan” for such initiatives this year.
The federal government is slow moving, too, but that is changing, Carlos Monje, an undersecretary at the US Department of Transportation, said in Leipzig on Thursday.
For decades, the European Union has been taking into account pedestrian safety when evaluating new cars in its safety rating process, and the United States announced this week that it is considering starting to do the same. New funds are available to states and municipalities through the federal infrastructure law for road redesigns that slow car speeds and public transit improvements and expansions, Monje said.
“The goal that we’ve set is zero [fatalities], which is every trip, every mode, you should get to where you’re going and do it safely,” he said. “For a long time, we’ve built our communities around the car, as opposed to around the people, the person, and the solution for that isn’t to force or mandate anything, it’s to invest in any infrastructure that gives people better options.”
While the federal government doesn’t have final numbers for last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the “dramatic increases” in fatalities since 2019 may have finally flattened.
Boston, in contrast to Massachusetts as a whole, may be trending in the right direction; last year there were fewer traffic fatalities in the city than in 2021, according to the city’s database.
“We are holding steady, which, relative to what’s happening around us, is a measure of success, but not good enough,” said Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge.
Earlier this week, Franklin-Hodge and Mayor Michelle Wu unveiled plans to introduce more speed humps, redesign intersections, and implement new traffic signal guidelines to slow down cars on residential streets.
In many cases, cars are traveling far faster than the street’s posted speed limit because the street’s design encourages speed, Franklin-Hodge said, so much of the city’s work is focused on giving more space and protection to pedestrians and cyclists with changes like raised and shortened crosswalks and protected bike lanes.
But more policies are needed, Franklin-Hodge said. He encouraged the Legislature to allow for municipalities like Boston to implement automated enforcement cameras. In the past, lawmakers have resisted allowing automated enforcement because of concerns about personal privacy.
“It’s abundantly clear we need to do more, and we need more tools in the toolkit,” he said. “We should not wait another 2, 4, 10 years because lives will be saved.”