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Can Autonomous Vehicles Support the Safe System Approach to Traffic Safety?

March 21, 2022

Partnered with Governors Highway Safety Association

Waymo Vehicle

Traffic fatalities have risen in the United States during the pandemic, and data points to contributing factors from speeding to impaired and distracted driving. Those fatalities also include an increasing number of pedestrians.

To address the problem, US safety experts are implementing an approach that comprehensively aims to address the many factors that lead to risks on the road and move the country to Vision Zero, with the goal of no more traffic fatalities. This method is called the Safe System approach. 

The Safe System approach and the US Department of Transportation’s National Roadway Safety Strategy

In January 2022, the US Department of Transportation released the National Roadway Safety Strategy, which highlights how the Safe System approach can reduce the rate of transportation deaths in the United States. 

In his Letter from the Secretary, a section included in the National Roadway Safety Strategy, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg emphasizes that many roadway deaths are preventable and can be addressed through proactive policies like the Safe System approach. 

“Bold cities in the United States, and countries abroad, have achieved tremendous reductions in roadway deaths,” stated Buttigieg. 

Buttigieg has pointed to Hoboken as an example of a city that has successfully reduced road deaths. Hoboken has a Vision Zero plan that uses data collection to identify and mitigate risks. Last summer marked three years of zero traffic deaths in the New Jersey city.

Pillars of the Safe System approach

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has outlined six principles that form the basis of the Safe System approach: “deaths and serious injuries are unacceptable, humans make mistakes, humans are vulnerable, responsibility is shared, safety is proactive, and redundancy is crucial."

In addition, FHWA highlights five main pillars of the Safe System approach:

  1. Safe road users
  2. Safe vehicles
  3. Safe speeds
  4. Safe roads
  5. Post crash care

According to the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), the Safe System approach is a shift to looking at traffic safety holistically, taking human error into account. It anticipates that human driver error, such as speeding, distracted driving, and drunk driving, will happen, and proactively puts duplicative safeguards in place that reduce critical injuries and fatalities from crashes that may occur.

How can autonomous driving technology support the Safe System approach?

Waymo’s autonomous driving technology could support the Safe System approach in several ways, especially as it relates to the pillars of safe road users and safe speeds.

Waymo's fully autonomous driving technology has accumulated more than 20 million miles of real world driving and more than 20 billion miles in simulation, and the technology is designed to be a safe, cautious, and defensive driver

“Autonomous vehicles will play an important role in driving down the number of crashes, injuries and deaths on U.S. roads,” said Russ Martin, Senior Director of Policy and Government Relations of Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). “Widespread deployment of technological advancements like the Waymo Driver can directly address key aspects of the Safe System approach – safer vehicles, safer speeds and safer road users. Putting more safe, autonomous vehicles on the road will be a key piece of the traffic safety puzzle.”

Waymo’s fully autonomous driving technology is designed to perceive and identify other road users, such as other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, and even anticipate what they may do next to help make safe decisions for itself on the road.

Waymo vehicles also have built-in redundancies to handle the unexpected, including backup power, computing, brakes and steering. If an issue is detected on the road, these redundant systems can help the vehicle get to its destination safely, or bring the vehicle to a safe stop, if needed.

Waymo’s technology is tested and designed to avoid and mitigate what the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) deemed the most common crash scenarios. In fact, Waymo has also released a unique scenario-based study showing how its technology is able to avoid or mitigate the kinds of scenarios that lead to fatal crashes by human drivers in real life. 

When it comes to the Safe System approach, fully autonomous driving technology like Waymo’s could complement its method as a technology that is intentionally designed to prioritize the safety of its passengers and everyone on the road. 

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