Reports have indicated U.S. traffic deaths were down as much as 10 percent last year, due in part to higher gas prices that contributed to slower speeds and fewer cars on the roads. Now with gas prices lower, it's unclear what the long-term impact will be.
What if we could cut the number of fatalities in half or better?
Within 10 years, technology will allow cars to talk to one another and the road, sensing and reacting to red light warnings, lane departures, merging vehicles, and other seen and unseen dangers.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates such control systems could prevent nearly half of all rear-end collisions or one out of every eight crashes.
Imagine safer railroad crossings, where the railroad system transmits a signal warning drivers of approaching trains.
Advanced sensors also could provide continuous data on temperature, visibility and precipitation, improving responses by transportation departments. Today, 17 percent of all highway fatalities occur in adverse weather.
According to the Federal Highway Commission, substandard road and bridge design, pavement conditions and safety features contribute to about 30 percent of the nation's annual road deaths.
But the roads themselves can be made safer. New designs--including rumble strips, "forgiving" roadside guardrails and breakaway poles, bridge-monitoring systems, longer access and exit ramps and clearer signage--already are contributing to fewer accidents.
While the stimulus plan provides $27.5 billion for highways, a massive backlog of maintenance, inspection and repair projects remains. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates $61.4 billion is needed to improve highways and bridges.
As a nation, we need to reinvest in our most critical infrastructure. Our transportation system is the circulatory system that carries the lifeblood of the American economy. Only by deploying smarter infrastructure that leverages modern technologies will we be able to deliver the promise of increased safety, sustainability and growth for future generations.
You can let elected officials know your opinion regarding highway and bridge funding and safety at www.house.gov and www.senate.gov.
• Jason JonMichael is national technology leader with HNTB Corporation, an employee-owned infrastructure firm, and chair of the OmniAir Consortium, a nonprofit advancing the deployment of short-range communications technology for intelligent transportation systems.