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Biden’s plan to energize last-mile road safety

Safety group predicts 2021 to be year “roadway digitization” gains spotlight through priority funding that could boost last-mile freight

Biden prioritizing last-mile freight infrastructure. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves and the White House)

When President Joe Biden unveiled his $1.3 trillion, 10-year infrastructure plan during the 2020 presidential campaign, he emphasized technologies that could be used by state and local governments to reduce accidents, such as vehicle-to-infrastructure communication and connected intersections. He also vowed to work with Congress to increase federal funding for safety initiatives like the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP).

Now that Pete Buttigieg has been confirmed as secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) — and is expected to be the leading force within the administration to push Biden’s infrastructure agenda — expectation is high there will be a breakthrough on road safety at the local level, where the profile of last-mile delivery has risen over the past year.

“Investment in federal highways is one part of Biden’s plan within the overall surface transportation supply chain,” David Braunstein, president of global NGO Together for Safer Roads (TSR), told FreightWaves.

“But 77% of the roads in this country are overseen by local authorities, and last-mile freight delivery has undergone a major change over the last year due to the pandemic, and is now a massive part of the consumer community. Based on Biden’s pledge to increase federal funding for key safety initiatives on the local level, we’re predicting 2021 will be the year that roadway digitization receives more spotlight and funding.”

Digitizing roads

Roadway digitization, Braunstein explained, is taking the knowledge and insight about road configurations that exist in analogue (drawing designs on paper, for example) form or the actual built environment and “unleashing it” through mobility-related software. “This means that mobility decisions based on digital information now have more precise data to make the safest decisions – such as near-miss data, which can be a leading indicator for vehicle crashes,” he said. “Roadway digitization sets the foundation for understanding of road designs so that they work better.”

TSR, which brings together private companies and local government agencies to encourage data sharing in the interest of improving safety, has partnered with New York City, Houston and Bellevue, Washington. “We ended up doing the first wide-scale analysis of near misses across the whole city” of Bellevue, he said.

“Our city partners are able to tap into the private sector’s knowledge, data, technology and global networks and prioritize evidence-based mobility approaches that save lives in their communities,” Braunstein said. “We use this to measure changes in road user behavior, which can be scaled to create road safety best practices that can reduce crashes, fatalities and serious injuries.”

Reportable commercial vehicle accident fatalities per month (subject to revision by DOT), June 2019 – June 2020.
Source: SONAR, U.S. DOT

Braunstein thought it particularly important that Biden’s proposal specifically calls out the HSIP for increased funding. HSIP is a federal aid program, administered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), an agency within DOT, with the goal of significantly reducing traffic fatalities and serious injuries on all public roads. “The HSIP requires a data-driven, strategic approach to improving highway safety on all public roads with a focus on performance,” according to FHWA.

DOT showing support

Such data could prove valuable in Buttigieg’s DOT. Last year the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), another DOT agency, announced it would be calling on nine companies that have large fleets of vehicles weighing 6,001 to 10,000 pounds — including Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) — to get a better sense of their safety management practices within last-mile delivery.

“It’s really been a revelation about how little we know about what’s going on” with these types of vehicles, said FMCSA Associate Administrator for Policy Larry Minor at the time.

“Even though we may not have any regulatory authority over them, there’s a safety conversation to be had to make sure we have the best available information, and that those who are operating them have the best possible safety practices to ensure that their time on the roadway doesn’t decrease safety.”

FHWA has already started supporting last-mile safety under the Biden administration. The agency’s deputy administrator, Stephanie Pollack, announced on Wednesday that at the requests of local agencies, including the New York City Department of Transportation, it was extending the comment period for revisions to its “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices” by 60 days to May 14. It is the first major update of the manual in more than 10 years.

“This important document will set the tone for the future of our transportation system for the years ahead,” Pollack said. “We want to ensure our stakeholders have ample opportunity to address the diverse needs of travelers nationwide.”

Aligning safety goals

Braunstein said he looks forward to seeing how effective Buttigieg can be in spearheading Biden’s ambitious transportation policy goals, including making streets smarter and safer for last-mile delivery.

“The president saw an alignment in Buttigieg’s philosophy with [Biden’s] policies,” Braunstein said. [Buttigieg] might not be steeped in transportation policy background, but he strikes me as someone who is comfortable in dealing with actionable data, which is a good sign. And I credit the administration for adding some real transportation planning pros.”

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.