Caltrans director’s policy commits to safe system approach to eliminate deaths and serious injuries on California roadways 

Building on its longstanding commitment to safety, Caltrans today is unveiling a new Director’s Policy on Road Safety that commits the department to the Safe System approach and reaffirms the vision of reaching zero fatalities and serious injuries on state highways by 2050.

“Caltrans is fully committing to a fundamental shift in road safety and is laying the framework for significant reductions in roadway deaths and injuries,” said Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin. “We play an important role in the building and maintaining of the state’s highways. With the numbers of serious injuries and deaths trending the wrong way, now is the time to focus even more on what we can do to save lives and work collaboratively with other stakeholders who play a role in roadway safety.”

California and the rest of the nation are seeing an increase in fatalities and serious injuries on the roadways. In California, more than 3,600 people die each year in traffic crashes and more than 13,000 people are severely injured. More than 3,200 people died on the state’s roadways in the first nine months of 2021 – a 17 percent increase from the previous year.

To address this trend, Caltrans is aligning departmental activities, as appropriate, with the Safe System approach, which identifies several interconnected elements to achieving a vision of zero fatalities and serious injuries – safe road users, safe roads, safe speeds, safe vehicles, and post-crash care. As part of this policy, Caltrans commits to:

Prioritizing “safety first” in highway planning, operation, construction and maintenance.

Focusing on eliminating the most serious crashes, rather than all crashes.

Eliminating race-, age-, ability- and transportation mode-based disparities in road safety outcomes by addressing historic and current barriers to transportation access and safety.

This policy takes steps to further institutionalize a shift that began in 2020, as state transportation leaders recognized a bolder and more focused approach was necessary to combat the troubling rise in fatalities and serious injuries on California roads. The state’s 2020-24 Strategic Highway Safety Plan – managed by Caltrans and involving more than 400 stakeholders – was updated to include the Safe System approach.

This policy also aligns with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Roadway Safety Strategy released in January, which set the first national goal of zero roadway fatalities and recognizes the Safe System approach as encompassing a range of roadway safety programs and stakeholders.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation has adopted the Safe System Approach that guides our safety actions within the recently announced National Roadway Safety Strategy to address the national crisis in roadway fatalities and serious injuries,” said Deputy Federal Highway Administrator Stephanie Pollack. “We commend Caltrans for adopting this approach and working to bend the curve on roadway fatalities to zero.”

The Safe System approach is based on the following principles:  
Eliminate death and serious injury: While no crashes are desirable, the Safe System approach prioritizes addressing crashes that result in death and serious injuries.

Humans make mistakes: People on the road will inevitably make mistakes that can lead to crashes. The transportation system is designed and operated to accommodate human mistakes and injury tolerances, and avoid deaths and serious injuries.

Humans are vulnerable: Crash forces contribute to deaths and serious injuries. Minimizing speeds and impact angles reduces the risk of death and serious injuries.

Responsibility is shared: All stakeholders, including road users, vehicle manufacturers, policy makers, law enforcement, licensing and education entities, those in road design and maintenance, and others must commit to working together to reduce fatal and serious injury crashes to zero. No one entity can achieve this goal alone, and it will take the coordinated effort of stakeholders working across a variety of disciplines to improve safety outcomes.

Redundancy is crucial: Reducing risk requires that all parts of the transportation system are strengthened, so that if one element fails, there are still multiple layers of protection.

Safety is proactive and reactive: Through both proactive and reactive safety efforts such as road safety audits, traffic investigations, road monitoring, flexible design, and others help identify potential areas for safety enhancement to reduce fatal and serious injury crashes.

Caltrans’ adoption of the Safe System approach builds on its ongoing work to improve safety on the state’s transportation system. In December, Caltrans adopted a new policy for all new transportation projects it funds or oversees to include “complete street” features that provide safe and accessible options for people walking, biking and taking transit.

For more information about Caltrans’ new safety guidelines, visit its Safety Program webpage.