Road to Zero

May 2017

Road to Zero Initiative strives to zero out motor vehicle-related deaths in 30 years

In 2016 alone, more than 40,000 people died on U.S. roads, a number that saw a 6 percent increase over 2015 and a 14 percent increase from 2014, according to the National Safety Council. This increase is the highest in more than five decades. On top of that, more than 4.5 million motor vehicle injuries were reported in 2016.

A new initiative launched by the U.S. federal government, Road to Zero, is on a mission to lower the number of U.S. roadway deaths to zero within the next three decades. It might seem like a lofty goal, but key stakeholders and members of the coalition’s Steering Committee—including AAMVA—think it’s possible.

“The aim of Road to Zero is to get to zero deaths in the next 30 years,” says Debbie Hersman, the president and CEO of the National Safety Council, the lead on the Road to Zero initiative. “That’s the goal. We’ve done this with aviation—there have been several years with zero deaths in commercial aviation—and a lot of people thought that was impossible. We’re really focused on incorporating all of the initiatives that we’ve seen through Toward Zero Deaths, Vision Zero and a number of different groups to get to zero.”

A Collaborative and Comprehensive Plan

Road to Zero was established in October 2016 by the U.S. Department of Transportation (including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration) in conjunction with the NSC.

More than 225 organizations have joined the coalition since October, and more members are joining each day. The DOT has committed $1 million a year for three years to fund the various grants and organizations that will be part of the coalition.

Although U.S. roadway safety initiatives, such as Vision Zero Network and Toward Zero Deaths, already exist, Road to Zero serves as an overarching program. Toward Zero Deaths primarily focuses on supporting state initiatives, while Vision Zero Network focuses mainly on urban efforts. Road to Zero brings these efforts and others together into one streamlined initiative.

“The Road to Zero coalition is a comprehensive umbrella effort with a specific mission to end fatalities in 30 years,” says Ian Grossman, vice president of Member Services and Public Affairs for AAMVA. “It brings together different groups and individuals in the safety community that don’t always talk to each other to break down the silos and promote innovation on what’s really going to move the needle.”


Despite the increase in U.S. traffic fatalities over the past couple of years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded a number of lives saved thanks to restraint and helmet usage. The table below shows the number of lives saved by child restraints, seat belts, frontal air bags and motorcycle helmets in 2015 in the United States, broken down by AAMVA region.

AAMVA Region Lives Saved by Child Restraints, Ages 4 and Younger Lives Saved by Seat Belts, Ages 5 and Older Lives Saved by Frontal Air Bags, Ages 13 and Older Lives Saved by Motorcycle Helmets, All Ages
Region I 26 1,586 315 270
Region II 170 6,723 1,260 823
Region III 30 2,863 564 224
Region IV 38 2,829 451 465
All Regions 264 14,001 2,590 1,782


Getting roadway deaths down to zero in 30 years will require a combined effort from government agencies, members of the private sector and associations such as AAMVA to combat everything from pedestrian safety and speeding to impaired driving and texting while driving. Hersman says all aspects of roadway safety are being addressed as part of Road to Zero, including the promise technology holds.

“The Steering Committee and the coalition are looking at several different paths, including programs to look at pedestrian safety, commercial vehicle safety, teen driver safety, distracted driving and impaired driving,” she says. “All of those are conditional things. But technology and vehicle technology in particular hold the keys to the changes we haven’t seen. It holds the key to getting us to zero in a way we haven’t seen for many years.”

The Promise of Technology

Leah Shahum, the founder and director of Vision Zero Network and a member of the Road to Zero Steering Committee, believes the key to attaining the program’s goals lies in leveraging data to promote safety and taking a big-picture look at the current situation across the United States.

“The key to reaching the ultimate goal of zero traffic deaths is really about taking a ‘safe systems’ approach,” Shahum says. “We don’t think we’re going to get there just by doing more of the same or working harder or being more dedicated. That’s not going to do it. It’s really about questioning business as usual and saying, ‘OK, how do we approach this from a very data-driven level—a very measurable level, based on doing what we know works best?’”

Automated vehicle technology holds significant promise when it comes to eliminating traffic deaths. Hersman believes automated vehicle technology has the potential to save a tremendous number of lives, but that the transition from no automation to partial automation to full automation might be challenging. But once we do reach full automation, we will reap the rewards, she says.

“[Automated vehicles] are going to have the potential for 360-degree situational awareness in daytime and nighttime conditions,” Hersman says. “They’re not going to get drunk, drowsy, distracted or take drugs and be impaired when they’re behind the wheel. So vehicles have the potential to save a lot of lives when we see [what caused] the fatality numbers: 30 percent involved speed, 30 percent involved alcohol and impaired drivers, and we know distraction is an increasing problem.”

Hersman says AAMVA has played a crucial role in supporting policies surrounding technological advancements. “AAMVA members have been on the front lines of legislation, regulation and public policy when it comes to automation and vehicle technology,” she says. “Our cars can compensate for some of our human failings, and certainly we can embrace that, but we also want to make sure that we are protecting against risk that may not have been identified—unintended consequences that may come along with technology.”

A Shift in Perspective

The concept of trying to achieve zero roadway deaths originated in Sweden in the late 1990s in its Vision Zero program. The world took note, and various other countries have since adopted similar plans and models for eliminating roadway fatalities. Shahum says Sweden has been able to lower roadway deaths at a much quicker rate than other countries around the world, including the United States, which sees roughly 11 deaths per 100,000 people each year while Sweden sees around 2.5 per 100,000.

Shahum thinks the key to achieving the same success as Sweden lies in changing our mindset and approach. “For too long, traffic deaths have been almost unconsciously accepted in our society,” she says. “It’s almost as if, societally, we’ve been conditioned to believe that there’s this trade-off, an unavoidable cost of doing business that to live in a modern society, you’re going to have these terrible accidents. What Vision Zero says is, these aren’t accidents. We can manage these. These are largely predictable and we can change outcomes by making decisions about the built environment and policies and technology that support safety. These are decisions we can make to result in safer conditions and behaviors.”

AAMVA’s Crucial Role

AAMVA has been involved with Road to Zero from the very start, as the association has always been committed to improving roadway safety across North America. The DOT and NSC wanted to bring together key stakeholders to form the Steering Committee, and AAMVA was one of them, says Grossman.

“The members of the Steering Committee are guiding the efforts and providing the governance needed to structure and focus the coalition to be successful,” says Grossman.

Hersman says AAMVA has played an invaluable role on the Steering Committee. “AAMVA and state officials have done a fantastic job setting the standards when it comes to things like graduated driver’s licensing and expectations for drivers behind the wheel for decades,” she says. “The challenge going forward will be how do those leaders, at the [jurisdiction] level, continue to evolve to help drivers be even safer?”

March 2017 Road to Zero Coalition Meeting Part 1

March 2017 Road to Zero Coalition Meeting Part 2