The key to solving complex challenges, like climate change, is to try a lot of solutions, simultaneously.

Energy Blog: How to Solve Big Problems: Road Safety Success Stories

Nov 5, 2019

by Michael E. Webber

Climate Change. Healthcare. Gun violence. Some complex, systems-level problems look so difficult to solve that we just give up. Is there a way to fix such broken systems?

The successful history of improving transportation safety may serve as a model of how to do it.

There is a bit of cultural amnesia about just how dangerous road transportation once was in the United States. Road accidents were responsible for more than 50,000 deaths per year in the 1960s and 1970s when the U.S. population and the number of vehicle miles traveled was much lower than today. In 1969, the fatality rate was 26.42 deaths per 100,000 people, which would be more than 86,000 per year if that rate had held to 2018. If the fatality rate of 5.04 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled had held constant, the number of road deaths in 2018 would be a staggering 160,000.

Instead, the number of road fatalities in 2018 was 36,750.

How was such a dramatic drop possible? The solution was to tackle road safety with every idea we had. 

Extensive research identified myriad ways to improve transportation safety. Cars were made safer with the inclusion of anti-lock brakes, additional brake lights, collapsible steering columns, tempered glass, crumple zones, better seatbelts, and airbags. Roads were made safer with better paving to reduce potholes, better striping, abundant reflectors, guardrails, and better signage. Emergency rooms and trauma centers improved their response time and capabilities such that when accidents occurred, injured auto occupants could be saved—an injury that would have led to certain death decades ago today is treatable through better surgical procedures and medical interventions.

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The most important contribution was a mixture of cultural forces and regulations that sought to make the drivers safer. With economic pressure from insurance companies and the threat of withheld federal dollars for highways, states, companies and families were looking for ways to reduce the impact of accidents. Seatbelt laws and comprehensive driver’s education became commonplace, helping to make drivers better prepared for the responsibility of managing a vehicle that has the capability to kill and safer in the event that an accident happened anyway.

But the final element might have been an unstoppable force of nature: a cohort of well-organized and angry mothers who were tired of losing their children in accidents caused by drunk drivers. When Mothers Against Drunk Driving—MADD, for short—mobilized to toughen laws about driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, policymakers took action. Drunk driving laws were implemented nationwide, the drinking age was standardized to 21 years old, police departments actively enforced the rules, and fines were made stiffer.

Importantly, a public information campaign was launched about the importance of driving sober and cultural pressure helped create the concept of a designated driver. 

All of these different elements were necessary to transform transportation away from being one of our most dangerous daily activities. The fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled fell: From 5.04 in 1969 to 3.35 in 1980 to 2.08 in 1990 to just over 1.1 today.

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This history also provides the blueprint for what we should do moving forward.

Take climate change. Much of the debate today hinges around narrow, technocratic fault lines such as the fate of coal or whether nuclear has a role in the future energy mix.

But as history teaches us, we need many solutions implemented at the same time: Switching to fuels that emit less carbon pollution; Efficiency improvements for our power plants, autos, and appliances; Carbon capture for sites that can’t be readily converted to cleaner options; Direct air capture to scrub the atmosphere; Cultural shifts toward conservation to reduce our consumption by changing our work, travel, and eating habits; and Some adaptation to minimize the risks and damage from droughts and floods intensified by a warmer climate.

Seemingly unsolvable problems can be solved. But, because it takes years to see results, we should get started.

Michael E. Webber is the Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin and Chief Science and Technology Officer at ENGIE, a global energy company headquartered in Paris. His latest book, Power Trip: The Story of Energy, was published by Basic Books.