Feds set goal: No traffic deaths within 30 years

ARLINGTON, Va.—The Obama administration on Wednesday committed to a goal of eliminating traffic deaths within 30 years, setting a timeline for the first time on an ambitious agenda that relies heavily on the auto industry's development of self-driving cars.

The Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other agencies committed to the objective after a sharp uptick in roadway deaths.

2015 marked the deadliest year on American roads since 2008, an unsettling revelation that renewed efforts to combat distracted driving and encourage the development of safety systems. In the first half of 2016, deaths spiked 10.4% to 17,775, compared to a year earlier, according to preliminary NHTSA estimatesreleased Wednesday.

"All of a sudden we're losing ground," NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind said at an event in Arlington, Va. "We have an immediate crisis on our hands and we also have a long-term challenge."

Although U.S. auto-safety regulators had previously said their goal was to someday eliminate road fatalities altogether, Wednesday's announcement marks the first time they've identified a specific timeline.

NHTSA is scrambling to determine the exact reasons for the recent spike in deaths, though regulators suspect that distracted driving and an increase in overall miles traveled, which is directly connected with low gasoline prices, are partially to blame.

"All this death and injury is avoidable," Transportation Deputy Secretary Victor Mendez told supporters and journalists. "We simply have to remain focused and not let up on this."

For starters, NHTSA, Federal Highway AdministrationFederal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and National Safety Council will coordinate efforts to promote safe driving through a campaign called Road to Zero, which will include marketing efforts and the installation of basic safety infrastructure such as rumble strips. TheTransportation Department will spend $1 million per year for the next three years on grants.

But those baby steps belie what will become a much more substantive push to promote the development of self-driving cars, road infrastructure that can communicate with vehicles and advanced safety systems in vehicles.

It's an especially ambitious goal — some might say unrealistic — especially considering that the number of people killed on the road in the U.S. soared 7.2% to 35,092 in 2015, marking the deadliest year on the road since 2008.

What's more, self-driving cars are making advancements but are nowhere near ready to take over the road. For now, the only autonomous vehicle technology available to consumers is limited automated steering, braking and accelerating on the highway in luxury models such as Tesla Motors electric vehicles.

Rosekind called the plan "achievable and feasible," though the Transportation Department said details on reaching the goal remain in development.

“Reaching zero deaths will be difficult, will take time and will require significant effort from all of us but it is the only acceptable vision,” FHWA Deputy Administrator David Kim said in a statement. “We're not at zero yet, but by working together, the day will come when there are no fatalities on the nation's roadways, sidewalks or bicycle paths."


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