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Leon Kaye headshot

America’s Racial Disparity Reveals Itself in Traffic Deaths: Can the Private Sector Do Anything?

Traffic deaths for poor and Black Americans is increasing nationwide, with few solutions at hand. Could the private sector offer assistance on this front?
By Leon Kaye
traffic deaths

At last count, the U.S. lost almost 39,000 people to traffic deaths in 2020, the highest number since 2007. The reasons are all over the map. Predictably, the usual suspects caused many of these deaths: speeding, the consumption of alcohol and the failure to wear a seat belt.

Despite what our assumptions may have told us during the pandemic, traffic deaths still increased during that time, and poorer citizens and people of color shouldered the brunt of these tragedies. Quiet streets notwithstanding, the disruptions during pandemic life led to more drivers behaving badly, whether they engaged in impulsive behaviors such as speeding through headlights or driving while impaired by drugs and alcohol.

The result has been a spike in traffic-related deaths for poor and Black Americans. Compared to whites, Blacks in recent years have died at four times the rate while cycling, and twice as much while walking when compared to whites — activities any reasonable person would expect could be done leaving one’s home without risking ending up dead. Overall, even before the pandemic started, it turned out Black Americans were killed in traffic-related incidents at a much higher rate than that of whites.

The most effective solutions at hand for reducing such deaths, however, are the most expensive ones. So, could the private sector do anything?

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According to the New York Times, the most impactful solutions to curbing traffic deaths are relatively simple. To start, law enforcement can bolster support for laws already on the books that are related to drunk driving, speed limits and seatbelt laws. But considering the mood in this country, doubts arise whether various police departments can tackle these problems when it’s long been documented that communities of color too often witness their neighbors experience getting pulled over for a broken tail light or expired registration tags. A culture of trust between communities and law enforcement would have to occur first. Blanket announcements of "we're going to increase the number of speed tickets!" won't fly.

Other tactics are more expensive: Cities and towns would need to improve their designs of streets, bike lanes and sidewalks — and not only bright green bike lanes in wealthier neighborhoods — as well as ramp up investments in public transit. Further answers are up to the automakers, such as adding features like sensors or automated breaking that can improve vehicles’ safety.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) says it has a plan to take on these mounting traffic deaths, but so far, they involve a few pilot programs: brighter lighting at a mass transit center here, newer sidewalks there, or an elevated walking paths in a busy city neighborhood.

Here’s where industries such as engineering and construction can step up. More leaders within these sectors are interested in showcasing their environmental and social sustainability chops; the challenge, however, lies in where to begin

Federal legislation such as Build Back Better and the Inflation Reduction Act offer a start to transforming our cities and towns, but resources will still be scarce. Plus, there’s the added problem of municipalities’ project review timelines — nothing gets built overnight. Public-private partnerships could help on this front, and in fact, last fall’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) tucked in some provisions that would allow community projects to attractive private capital.

Therein lies a gateway to do community good: Investments in pedestrian bridges near schools, better lighting at bus stops and spend on all-way crossings at busy intersections are among the ways companies and communities can work together to decrease traffic deaths. If a company provides the funds, let it put a logo on the project for all we care: Any increase in lives saved will be worth it.

Image credit: Mark Boss via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye