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How Pete Buttigieg wants to make America’s roads safer

Our roads are deadly. Here’s how the secretary of transportation says we can fix them.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg looks upward while speaking into a microphone.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg testifies during a House committee hearing on April 20, 2023.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Jonquilyn Hill is the host of The Weeds, Vox's podcast for politics and policy discussions. Prior to joining Vox she was a senior producer for WAMU and NPR’s 1A.

Transportation secretaries normally don’t get the attention that Pete Buttigieg does. The current secretary and former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has become somewhat of a political lightning rod ever since his 2020 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The status was made clearer after the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which led to calls that Buttigieg himself should be held accountable.

“Ordinarily, transportation secretaries don’t go to active sites of crash investigations because that’s for the NTSB to do,” he said on the most recent episode of The Weeds. “But I did go to East Palestine because the residents there were getting so much misinformation, and I think were really questioning whether the administration was there for them.”

Buttigieg’s department is also managing more everyday crises and disasters. Though it often fades to the background of our daily lives, access to transportation can be make-or-break for those striving to make their way out of poverty. According to the Urban Institute, only about 8 percent of Americans live near accessible public transportation. In 2016, 20 percent of those in poverty had no access to a car.

Meanwhile, American roads are getting more dangerous. And when cars are on the road, they often become deadly. Last year, nearly 43,000 people died in traffic accidents in the United States, a number comparable to the number of gun violence deaths in the same time frame.

“What I try to make sure of every day is that, if my profile is a little different than most transportation secretaries, that’s something that at the end of the day, we shape for the benefit of the agency’s ability to meet its mission,” Buttigieg said of the attention his tenure as head of the Department of Transportation has gotten.

“If we can attract more attention to the issue of roadway deaths, if we can really get some facts out there about electric vehicles, if we can have an honest conversation about disparities in our transportation system and what to do about them, then there’s a chance to do a lot of good. But you’re right. It would be naive to ignore the political noise around all of this.”

On this week’s episode of The Weeds, we sit down with Buttigieg in a wide-ranging interview on transportation in the US, including the future of public transportation and the policies that can curb traffic deaths.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. You can listen to The Weeds on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get podcasts.

Jonquilyn Hill

There’s this debate between people who want systems to spend money to make it cheaper. In Philadelphia, there’s a floated program for low-income people to ride free. In DC, we could all be riding the bus for free by the summer. And then there are those who argue that money should be used to improve service, making it more reliable, making it more frequent, rather than getting rid of fares altogether. Where do you stand when it comes to that conversation?

Secretary Pete Buttigieg

I think the honest answer to your question is the jury is still out a little bit. And what I mean by that is we need to see more of the data that comes back through some of these efforts for fare-free transit. There’s an active debate with a lot of really important points being made on both sides. Are you going to invest it in free fares or are you going to invest in some kind of service improvement? Now, that’s not always as straightforward as it sounds, because sometimes [when] you do the free fare, you get more ridership that actually leads to more revenue. Another way that some communities seek to split the atom is means testing, so that lowest-income riders can get free fares, but that can be complicated to implement.

This is the exact reason why we’re not trying to dictate any of that from here at the US DOT. We are closely watching these pilot programs, though, around fare-free transit to see what the results are and to see how that compares to the other strategies transit agencies are attempting.

Transit agencies are under huge pressure right now, post-Covid. Commuting still has not reached a stable, permanent new normal, in my view. We’ve seen a lot of recovery, but not back to what it was like in 2019. And yet we know that transit is more important than ever, especially for those who count on it every day. And whether you ride transit or not, you benefit from transit in every respect, from the essential workers who count on it, to the fact that if you’re driving a car on the road, every person who’s on transit means a car that’s not on the road and means less congestion for drivers. So it really is a win-win, to say nothing of the safety benefits, because transit ultimately has better safety.

Jonquilyn Hill

Even in cities, people don’t always have access to transit. Only about 8 percent of the US population lives near public transportation. And you can compare that with 20 percent of the population in France. What do you make of expansions in cities? Should that be one of the priorities that these municipalities are making?

Secretary Buttigieg

I think the right answer is going to look different from city to city. And some places it’s got more to do with making the service you’ve already got be more frequent and more reliable. But yeah, there are other places where expansion could make a huge difference.

I’ll give you just one example. In Chicago, there’s a neighborhood in South Chicago called Roseland, and that neighborhood within the city limits of Chicago has folks who [travel] almost an hour and a half to get to downtown Chicago to work. And the reason that stuck in my mind so strongly when I was there visiting with community leaders is that there is a town called Roseland, Indiana, close to South Bend, where I grew up, which is 90 miles east of Chicago. It takes about the same amount of time to get from Roseland, Indiana, to downtown Chicago if you do have a car as it does to get from the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago to downtown, if you don’t.

Jonquilyn Hill

You mentioned how mass transportation can help when it comes to road safety. And I briefly want to touch on that. Car crashes are a leading cause of death here in America. And last year they were up: over 9,500 people died in traffic crashes in the first quarter of the year alone. What are some policy solutions? How do we fix this other than say, “Hey everybody, drive better”?

Secretary Buttigieg

We should all be up in arms about roadway deaths in this country. As you said, about 10,000 people a quarter. That means about 40,000 people a year, which, by the way, is roughly equivalent to the number of lives we lose to gun violence in this country. And I think precisely because it happens so often, there is an attitude that it’s inevitable. It’s not.

Our strategy has five elements: safer roads, safer vehicles, safer drivers, safer speeds, and a better standard of post-crash care. So when you do have a crash, the emergency response is in a position to make it less likely to wind up as a fatality. And we have to do all five of those things ... Some of it is behavioral, for sure, the choices that the drivers make. But a lot of it is design, and good design recognizes that humans make mistakes, but prevents them from being fatal.

A good example to show you what’s possible here is our aviation system. We’re always making improvements to our aviation system. But think about the fact that we often have a year — more years than not — where the number of people killed in an airliner crash is zero. This is a form of transportation that has 16 million flights a year that involves people flying through the air at nearly the speed of sound. And almost every single time you have a perfectly safe arrival and return, in a way that is just completely different from what we have on our roadways. So we know that if we have the right attention and the right systems in place and the right safety checks, we could be saving so many lives. The recent rise [in deaths] appears to be plateauing. That’s what we’re seeing in the data that just came out. Stopping the rise is step one. But our goal, of course, is to reverse the rise.

Jonquilyn Hill

What’s caused that rise?

Secretary Buttigieg

Well, there are several factors that we think are at play. There was an unusual rise during the year of Covid, which is a bit counterintuitive because you’d think there was less driving going on, but with less driving, there were actually more opportunities for speeding on open roadways. What you often saw was people who were treating those freeways as railways. And so we need to have a future outlook where we have neither congestion nor danger on our roads. And that’s what we’re trying to design for. There are questions about the design of vehicles, vehicles that have technology on board that’s meant to benefit safety. But if you lean on it too much, it can have the opposite result.

Think about the lane assist technology, for example, and the kind of cruise control that actually knows how far away you are from the car in front of you. In theory, that’s a safety boon, but not if you get so comfortable with it that you take your eye off the road and check your email. There is no vehicle you can get on commercially today where it’s okay to not be paying attention to the road. It is especially important as you hear some of the marketing going on out there. Just to be really clear, some of these technologies are exciting, but none of them — at least nothing available today to people buying a car — permit you to stop having your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.