Fast Facts

Over 7,000 pedestrians and cyclists died in crashes with motor vehicles in the U.S. in 2019.

Reducing crash risk can involve changing behaviors. Some risks are well understood, like the danger of high driving speeds. Less is known about how other behaviors, like pedestrian distraction, affect crash risk.

States can take on projects like media campaigns to encourage safer behavior among drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. The Department of Transportation offers information on project options, but few are demonstrated to be effective. We recommended DOT analyze states' projects and share results to improve project effectiveness.

A woman holding a child's hand as they cross a street.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The behavior of drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists—including driving speed, impairment due to alcohol or drug use, and distracted driving—affect pedestrian and cyclist safety. Some aspects of these road users' behaviors are well understood. For example, higher driving speeds are linked to increased crash risk and severity. In 2019, over 80 percent of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities occurred where speed limits were 35 miles per hour or higher, according to GAO's analysis of Department of Transportation (DOT) data. Other aspects of road users' behaviors are less understood. For example, there is little research on how pedestrian and cyclist impairment affects crash risk, in part because impairment research has focused on drivers. DOT has several efforts under way to improve knowledge of these behavioral aspects of highway safety.

DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) provides grants and other support to help states implement projects, or countermeasures, to encourage safer behaviors. While NHTSA's Countermeasures That Work guide has useful information on a range of pedestrian and cyclist safety countermeasures, only 3 of 26 countermeasures were demonstrated to be effective (see figure). NHTSA has worked to advance research and monitor efforts to improve safety on a state-by-state basis, but has not analyzed information on states' use of countermeasures more broadly, such as by evaluating available information to identify national trends. Taking this step and sharing the results with states could help NHTSA and states identify promising efforts for study and advance knowledge of countermeasures' effectiveness.

Countermeasures Demonstrated to Be Effective in Improving Pedestrian and Cyclist Safety in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Guide

Countermeasures Demonstrated to Be Effective in Improving Pedestrian and Cyclist Safety in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Guide

DOT has not fully incorporated performance management practices into its pedestrian and cyclist safety efforts. These practices call for agencies to define goals and measure performance. DOT has established an overall departmental goal and an associated performance measure for pedestrian and cyclist safety. However, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) within DOT and NHTSA have not established performance measures to monitor their efforts to achieve DOT's pedestrian and cyclist safety goal. For example, DOT released a pedestrian safety plan in 2020 that lists 90 activities of FHWA and NHTSA but no performance measures to assess their progress. Performance measures at the FHWA and NHTSA level could help DOT understand how its different efforts are contributing to safety improvements, identify shortcomings, and make adjustments as warranted.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2019, over 7,000 pedestrians and cyclists—about 20 per day—died in collisions with motor vehicles in the United States, up from about 4,800 in 2009. Road users' behaviors can affect pedestrian and cyclist safety, along with other factors like vehicle and road design. NHTSA provides states with over $500 million annually to address the behavioral aspects of safety.

GAO was asked to review pedestrian and cyclist safety and road users' behaviors. This report examines: (1) what is known about how road users' behaviors affect pedestrian and cyclist safety; (2) the extent to which NHTSA's countermeasure guide provides information to help states select effective projects; and (3) the extent to which DOT has used key performance management practices to help ensure activities are improving safety. GAO analyzed pedestrian and cyclist fatality data, state safety plans, and relevant literature; interviewed researchers and officials from states selected based on recent fatality trends; and compared relevant DOT strategic plans and practices to standards for effective performance management.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that (1) NHTSA collect, analyze, and share information on states' pedestrian and cyclist safety behavioral countermeasures; and (2,3) FHWA and NHTSA develop and use performance measures to monitor pedestrian and cyclist safety efforts. DOT concurred with the first recommendation and partially concurred with the others. GAO believes DOT should fully implement all three recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 1. The NHTSA Administrator should take steps to collect information on the range of countermeasures implemented by states and analyze that information to help advance what is known about countermeasures' effectiveness and then share results with states. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In its written comments to our draft report, DOT concurred with our first recommendation and stated that FHWA and NHTSA will collect information on state and local use of countermeasures and assess smaller-scale changes in safety outcomes that could demonstrate the level of effectiveness. We are encouraged by this response, and note that by sharing the results of these analyses with states, as we have recommended, DOT could help states make more informed decisions to improve safety. We will continue to monitor NHTSA's efforts to address this recommendation.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2. The NHTSA Administrator should more fully use performance management practices to guide its pedestrian and cyclist safety activities, such as (1) by developing performance measures for NHTSA and the program offices responsible for implementing pedestrian and cyclist safety activities to demonstrate how these activities contribute to safety goals, and (2) by using performance information to make any necessary changes to advance pedestrian and cyclist safety efforts. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In its written comments to our report, DOT partially concurred with this recommendations and stated that that it will review available evaluation metrics and data and explore their use as part of a comprehensive performance management framework. According to DOT, this framework will consider output measures that are directly linked to DOT's national pedestrian and bicyclist safety efforts, and use safety outcome data to inform how to shape pedestrian and cyclist safety programs. We believe that DOT's stated plan could be a useful first step in developing performance measures that demonstrate how their activities contribute to safety goals. Without such measures, NHTSA will continue to lack performance information necessary to improve their efforts and ensure their various pedestrian and cyclist safety activities are resulting in expected improvements in safety. As such, we believe NHTSA should fully implement our recommendations, and we will continue to monitor its efforts to do so.
Federal Highway Administration 3. The FHWA Administrator should more fully use performance management practices to guide its pedestrian and cyclist safety activities, such as (1) by developing performance measures for FHWA and the program offices responsible for implementing pedestrian and cyclist safety activities to demonstrate how these activities contribute to safety goals, and (2) by using performance information to make any necessary changes to advance pedestrian and cyclist safety efforts. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In its written comments to our report, DOT partially concurred with this recommendations and stated that that it will review available evaluation metrics and data and explore their use as part of a comprehensive performance management framework. According to DOT, this framework will consider output measures that are directly linked to DOT's national pedestrian and bicyclist safety efforts, and use safety outcome data to inform how to shape pedestrian and cyclist safety programs. We believe that DOT's stated plan could be a useful first step in developing performance measures that demonstrate how their activities contribute to safety goals. Without such measures, FHWA will continue to lack performance information necessary to improve their efforts and ensure their various pedestrian and cyclist safety activities are resulting in expected improvements in safety. As such, we believe FHWA should fully implement our recommendation, and we will continue to monitor its efforts to do so.

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