Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s first words as she accepted her new post this past week struck a welcome tone of respect.

In an email to staff sent immediately following her confirmation, Secretary Chao voiced a commitment to the department’s mission and gratitude for the career professionals who fulfill that mission. Her statement offers hope that she will be a thoughtful leader who builds from the department’s strengths. And the focus of her note—that she “look(s) forward to working … to ensure that the safety and efficiency of our country’s transportation systems are second to none”—offers a glimpse into priorities she may set. 


Safety—a priority she raised throughout her confirmation process as well—could not be more critical.

In August, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted a sharp increase in traffic fatalities in 2015, ending a five-year decline—more than 35,000 people died in traffic-related incidents, an increase of more than 7 percent. The last time we saw such a sharp increase in traffic fatalities was in 1966. While an increase in driving undoubtedly contributed to the spike, deaths per mile driven also increased, underscoring the severity of the situation.

With resolve to reverse such unacceptable results, the Department of Transportation committed in 2016 to the vision of eliminating fatalities and serious injuries on our nation's roadways. This vision extends the department’s strategic plan, which articulates the goal of “working toward no fatalities across all modes of travel,” and creates a foundation for a transportation system that provides safety for everyone who uses it.

For Secretary Chao to see this commitment through, she will need to follow the data and foster creativity in solving problems. She will need to apply her leadership skills to push the department in new directions. For example, the most notable trend in traffic fatality data is growth in deaths among pedestrians and bicyclists, who now account for 18 percent of all traffic fatalities, rising more steeply over the past decade than any other category. Secretary Chao must focus on curbing deaths among pedestrians and bicyclists in order to be successful in driving down overall fatalities. 

Yet, solving the problem of pedestrian and bicyclist safety goes beyond the traditional strengths of NHTSA, the agency with safety oversight that emphasizes vehicle safety technologies to reduce fatalities among vehicle occupants. Eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries will require more cross-agency collaboration to address broader issues like community design.

To provide for pedestrian and bicyclist safety, Secretary Chao will need to take specific action. First, she should redouble efforts to provide safe walking and biking routes that work for everyone, including those who cannot drive like the young, the elderly and people with disabilities. Trails, sidewalks and complete streets do more than keep people safe—they align with other Trump administration priorities by providing a high return on investment in terms of mobility, economic development and public health.

Second, she needs to pursue the department’s Vision Zero commitment by developing and implementing a comprehensive federal strategy that incentivizes safety at all levels of government and among all modes of transportation. And third, the proliferation of autonomous vehicle technologies demands a plan to ensure that fatalities and serious injuries to all road users, particularly pedestrians and bicyclists, will be systematically reduced and eliminated as these technologies are deployed.

Those of us in the active transportation world will be engaging Secretary Chao and tracking her leadership, her progress—and her promise—toward a safe transportation system. We know that active transportation—trails, biking and walking—are key to this future. What we need are strong leadership and comprehensive strategies to support safe routes to everywhere for everyone. 

Kevin Mills is the senior vice president of policy at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the nation’s largest trails and active transportation advocacy organization, and founder of the Partnership for Active Transportation.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.