Tens of thousands of people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes every year. That’s tens of thousands of mothers and fathers and sisters and cousins, each mourned by countless family members.

It got worse during the pandemic, when the nation’s roadways became alarmingly more deadly. In 2019, 36,355 people died in crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That number increased to 39,000 in 2020, and to nearly 43,000 in 2001.

On Tuesday, officials gathered in Pittsburgh to discuss an effort to bring the number down to zero. They plan to use technology to reach that goal.

Key to that effort is a $20 million, five-year grant to establish a new national consortium, known as Safety21, to be led by Carnegie Mellon University. U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, announced news of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation grant during a news event at Mill 19, an old Jones & Laughlin steel mill building that’s been converted to a modern research and development hub in Hazelwood.

Members of the consortium will work together to develop and deploy technologies and systems that will make transportation safer for everyone. 

The dangers of roadway travel in the United States affect nearly everyone, Lee said.

“We have all witnessed the detrimental impact of transportation failures, on the news or on your way to work, or maybe you’ve even experienced it yourself,” she said. “Anyone driving a vehicle, a pedestrian or cyclist, a construction worker on the side of the road — we’re all at risk of these types of safety failures.”

Robert Hampshire, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of transportation for research and technology and a CMU alum, framed the issue in personal terms by describing the loss of a cousin.

“She was the same age as me,” he said. “It was at night, and she veered from her lane into oncoming traffic on a rural highway road. We know there are things such as lane departure assist that could have helped. There are technologies that this center is working on that really could have made the difference.”

Pittsburgh is uniquely situated to play a role in making roadways safer. The city is the birthplace of autonomous vehicle technology, explained Raj Rajkumar, a CMU professor who will lead Safety21. It’s a history that dates back to 1983. And even though fully autonomous vehicles are years from deployment, the technologies learned in their development can play a significant role in reducing accidents.

“We will not have autonomous vehicles for quite a while,” Rajkumar said. “But a pathway there will have a major impact. Maybe a driver is distracted, tired, fatigued, sleepy. Technology can keep the vehicle on the road, slow it down, take it down to a stop and save a life. Do not think of fully autonomous vehicles as the holy grail. There are multiple valuable milestones along the way. And that is what we are focusing on at CMU. This grant will go a long way toward making a road network that is safe for us all.”

In considering roadway safety, Rajkumar said developers need to think beyond the safety of drivers and passengers.

“We have to think about the differently abled, the elderly in wheelchairs, vulnerable kids crossing the road to get to school,” he said.

Both Lee and Rajkumar spoke at length about the grant’s potential impact on jobs and opportunities. Lee stated her goal of making certain that everyone has equal access and opportunity as the technology develops. 

Lee, who as a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee helped secure the grant, said a significant goal is to break down barriers that make it difficult for people in Black, brown, working-class and marginalized communities to enter STEM fields that are critical to innovation. The grant, she said, will position Western Pennsylvania as a leader in making “meaningful progress in closing the representation gap and making quality STEM education, training and jobs accessible for all.” 

Other schools in the consortium include Morgan State University, Ohio State University, University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Community College of Allegheny County and the Community College of Philadelphia will receive support for innovative workforce development programs.

Rajkumar said making Pittsburgh “the capital of the world in terms of pushing safe technology forward” will economically benefit the entire region. “Many jobs will be created. High-paying jobs all the way down to manufacturing.”

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.