Transportation Point

Implementing the safe system approach in Washington state

WSDOT realigns safety management strategy to advance zero fatalities goal

By Roger Millar, PE, FASCE, FAICP, Secretary of Transportation | Washington State Department of Transportation

Washington state has been a leader in traffic safety for decades. We were the first to establish a statewide traffic safety commission and the first to set the formal goal of zero driving-related deaths and serious injuries reflected in our Target Zero goal and plan. Among state DOTs, the Washington State Department of Transportation is a leader in adopting and advancing the Safe System Approach.

Making traffic safety a shared responsibility

Washington state’s commitment to a multiagency approach for making its roads safer dates back to 1967 when the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC) was created. The Commission is a board of agency leaders backed by subject matter experts who are working to create a positive traffic safety culture statewide. Creating social norms for safe driving increases our chances of achieving Target Zero.

The Commission, led by Gov. Jay Inslee, is a holistic, highly coordinated multiagency approach with members who have a vested interest in safe mobility, accessibility and land-use practices. They include the chief of the Washington State Patrol, as well as representatives of the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state departments of Health, Licensing, Transportation and Health Care Authority, the judicial system, cities and counties. The Commission also hosts advisory groups on walking and rolling safety, impaired driving prevention and speed management. This collaborative effort ensures that all partners are included in the decision-making process, fostering a sense of shared responsibility among decision-makers whose actions can support safe roads and a positive traffic safety culture that encourages good choices.

In 2000, the commission authored Washington state’s Target Zero Strategic Highway Safety Plan, a plan for ending driving-related deaths and serious injuries. Commission leaders update the plan on a regular cycle to reflect key learnings, the latest data on traffic safety, and cutting-edge thought leadership. They plan to release the next update in October 2024. The following are some of the innovative strategies we will carry forward, which together reflect our commitment to the Safe System Approach.

Mandating the Safe System Approach

In May 2024, state officials announced that Washington state experienced 810 traffic deaths in 2023 according to preliminary data collected by WSTC. This represents a 9% increase since 2022, and it is the largest number of traffic deaths in Washington since 1990. Our state is moving in the wrong direction — which is why implementing a Safe System Approach is imperative to reversing the trend.

We are updating the 2019 version of the Target Zero Plan according to the nationally- and internationally-recognized Safe System Approach. The Safe System Approach acknowledges road users are humans, prone to error and susceptible to injury, and that roads can be developed to support safe road use and behaviors. By doing so, those mistakes or behaviors that lead to serious crashes are reduced. The goal of “zero” in Target Zero is not to eliminate 100% of crashes, but to eliminate crashes that result in fatal and serious injuries.

To that end, we are designing new facilities and improving existing assets to reduce errors and keep crash forces on the human body within tolerable levels. For example, we have adopted a “roundabout first” policy when planning and designing intersections. Roundabouts change the angle of a vehicle’s approach, prompting the motorist to reduce speed. As a result, the hub-and-spoke configuration reduces motorists' collisions with each other by 90%, injury collisions by 75% and pedestrian-involved collisions by 40%. We install roadside safety devices in locations where driving errors are likely to occur to lessen potential injuries resulting from drivers running off the road. We’ve identified gaps in the pedestrian and bicyclist networks on the state system and will address those as we construct Complete Streets projects to reduce the vulnerability of people using active transportation.

The Safe System Approach is helping Washington state advance Target Zero by incorporating safety-first design cues that lead drivers to slow down, pay attention and be mindful of those who walk, bike and roll. These are sometimes labeled self-explaining or self-enforcing roads and they’re on the job 24/7.

Incorporating safe land use policies

Almost half the trips we take as individuals are less than five miles long, but many people who are able to will choose to drive short distances rather than bike or walk because they don’t feel they have sufficiently safe alternatives. We hope to change this paradigm by being the first state DOT to add a safe land-use policy to our Safe System Approach. Safer land use reduces exposure to crashes by shortening distances between where people live, learn, work and play so a vehicle does not have to be the default option for transportation, and so nondrivers have safe access to their destinations. WSDOT doesn’t make land-use decisions directly; we’re a partner in building awareness of how land use affects traffic safety and it’s important to have this concept in Target Zero as a plan for all agencies.

The need for achieving safer speeds

Injuries occur when crash forces exceed what the body can tolerate. Force is a function of the speed, mass of the vehicle and the angle in which a crash occurs. While the current safety mindset for some people is “a little speeding won’t matter,” the reality is a small speed change makes a big difference in injury outcomes. In a crash, the use of seatbelts, air bags and the vehicle around the occupants can help protect them. These same safety devices don’t exist for active transportation users, making them more vulnerable to injury.

In a safe system, we want to explicitly consider all road users in our design choices. Together with our partners, we developed injury minimization guidelines to increase recognition of speed management as an essential tool to reduce serious injuries and deaths. These guidelines recommend setting speed limits for a mix of people and uses and that often means lowering the speed limit in a population center, not raising it based on driver speeding behavior that’s responding to the existing designs. We’ve updated our design manual to consider road user mix in setting target speeds and we’re moving away from speed setting based solely on the 85% speed. As part of our safety action plan, I have directed a working group to implement these practices on state highways. The Legislature changed the law to allow speed safety cameras on state highways, which gives us another tool. WSDOT is also working with local agencies to allow for the lowering of speeds on city streets as part of state highways and providing safe mobility for all.

Making values-based decisions

Data doesn’t make decisions, people do. People base their decisions on their values. That is why WSDOT’s safety program is values-based first and data-informed second. For example, to understand and address the transportation equity issues in our system, we conducted a safety assessment of vulnerable road users. We learned neighborhoods with disparities in social vulnerability, poverty and health are experiencing a disproportionate increase in pedestrian and cyclist deaths and serious injuries compared to other neighborhoods.

Using only data-informed decision-making, we might attempt to deter people from walking and biking in those areas. However, our job is to make active transportation safer in these communities. These are often places where more people depend on walking, biking and transit for everyday transportation. With values-based decisions, we encourage people to leverage any and all modes of transportation that meet their needs and we work to create a safer environment for them to do so.

Grounded in the Safe System Approach, WSDOT’s active transportation plan won the America’s Transportation Awards People’s Choice Award in 2022.

Advocating for walkers, bikers and rollers

WSDOT is one of only two DOTs in the country with an active transportation division. When we created the division in 2017, we elevated its position within our organization to emphasize the importance of all transportation modes.

By 2025, we will invest nearly $150 million in infrastructure and programming through the Safe Routes to School and Pedestrian/Bicyclist Programs. These safety-oriented programs focus on reducing or eliminating serious and fatal crashes and increasing the number of people walking or biking.

The new Sandy Williams Connecting Communities Program focuses directly on active transportation gaps on current and former state highways and is investing another $25 million specifically in overburdened communities where environmental justice needs — and pedestrian/bicyclist crash rates — are highest. Both of these programs are wholly or funded in part by Washington’s Climate Commitment Act. The CCA supports Washington’s climate action efforts by putting cap-and-invest dollars to work reducing climate pollution, creating jobs and improving public health.

The Complete Streets Program, designed to provide space and separation for safer and more convenient travel on our network by all users, is another initiative under the Active Transportation Division’s leadership. According to state law, Complete Streets policies must be incorporated into any WSDOT project of half a million dollars or more, which means they will apply to most of our projects. Over multiple years, this will have a dramatic cumulative effect on safety.

Further, we are among only a few state DOTs measuring traffic stress on our active transportation corridors. We assess each corridor and assign a stress level number from one (facilities appropriate for all ages and abilities) to four (lacking facilities and likely to be used only out of necessity) based on how wide, fast and busy the segment is. The scores help us understand where to invest our resources to create the most significant safety effect for people walking, biking and rolling, which ultimately improves safety outcomes for everyone else on the road. Our goal is to provide facilities that align with the safety, connectivity and comfort associated with a level of traffic stress one or two.

These and many other active transportation initiatives are helping us increase the safety of all road users.

Taking ownership

When zero serious injuries and fatalities are the goal, philosophies that have underpinned traffic management for decades must change. WSDOT is leading the way in making that shift by sharing responsibility with all agencies who play a role on our streets, embracing the Safe System Approach, instituting safe land-use policies, making values-based decisions and ensuring safety for all road users with our innovative Active Transportation Division. That level of commitment is why Washington state continues to be a leader in traffic safety, and it’s why we will achieve our goal.


Roger Millar, PE, FASCE, FAICP,
Secretary of Transportation
Washington State Department of Transportation

Roger Millar is Washington state’s Secretary of Transportation. He oversees an agency responsible for a complex, multimodal transportation system and ensuring the safe, efficient movement of people and goods.