Leading state and national transportation officials, researchers, policymakers, and professionals explored the connections between rural transportation safety and community health during the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety’s annual Summer Institute, held at the University of Vermont (UVM) in Burlington on July 30 and 31, 2007.
Presentations and the ensuing discussion incorporated a broad range of ideas, which converged around a common desire to drastically reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries due to crashes on rural roads.
Nationally, about 60 percent of traffic fatalities are rural, the majority of which occur on two-lane roads. The overall number of U.S. traffic fatalities has remained steady at more than 42,000 annually. According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study in 2002, health costs each year due to motor vehicle crashes have been estimated at $230 billion, or 2.3 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.
“Think about it. They’re your friends, they’re your co-workers, cousins, relatives—someone’s going to be touched by it,” said keynote speaker Anthony Kane, engineering and technical services director with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). “We need to get the political will and leadership to address it. Health care costs can be a vehicle to do it.”
Jean-Pascal Assailly, Thomas Horan, Benjamin Schooley, Sonja Forward, and Mick Rakauskas
Panel discussions at the Summer Institute addressed rural driving behavior, technological solutions for improving rural safety and community health, a community perspective on transportation, health, and safety, and innovative national policies for safety and health. CTS director Robert Johns served as master of ceremonies and also facilitated a free-flowing conversation among participants discussing rural transportation safety as a public health issue.
Speakers representing the University of Minnesota included Thomas Horan, CERS research director and visiting scholar at the Humphrey Institute, who shared the latest CERS research into the public health aspects of rural transportation safety; Max Donath, director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute, who described human-centered technologies for reducing fatalities and life-changing crashes; and Mick Rakauskas, a research fellow with the HumanFIRST Program at the ITS Institute, who discussed attitudes and behaviors associated with fatal crash risk in rural areas.
According to Horan and research assistant Benjamin Schooley, there is a significant disparity between the rural and urban drivers involved in fatalities on rural roads. The researchers used home zip codes and the location of deaths to map out the traveling distance of drivers. About 54 percent of drivers in the country involved in fatal rural crashes had a home address with an urban zip code. “Just because [a fatality is] on a rural road doesn’t mean it’s a rural driver,” Horan said. “It may occur in a rural area, but it’s not just a rural problem.” (For more about this research, see related story.)
Rakauskas also discussed the challenge of defining “rural,” and he pointed out that there is not one single rural culture in the United States. Rakauskas and an interdisciplinary team of researchers surveyed six Minnesota counties to better understand why rural areas experience more fatal crashes. They found that attitudinal differences among rural drivers—especially young males—toward alcohol use, speeding, and safety belts were major factors in rural traffic fatalities.
Donath, while advocating for intervention efforts focused on those drivers presenting the highest risk, questioned whether the 2 percent drop in the country’s highway fatalities and the resulting historic fatality rate last year was indicative of significant progress. “It is not a good picture,” Donath said. “We have not had any significant improvement. This culture of traffic safety in this country is abysmal.”
Developmental psychologist Jean-Pascal Assailly, research director for Paris-based INRETS, a public research institute under the auspices of the French ministries of research and transportation, provided another keynote, focusing on the causes of young driver crashes. Assailly, along with panelist Sonja Forward, a senior research fellow and psychologist with the Swedish Road and Transport Research Institute, contributed an international perspective to the Institute that reinforced the universal nature of rural transportation safety challenges as well as shared their research and policy successes.
“We have to understand the person, then understand why, then try to influence their behavior,” Forward said. “Human factors are the most important elements in accidents.”
NETI’s Matthew Coogan and UVM’s Lisa Aultman-Hall honor former U.S. Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont for helping create the new UVM Transportation Center.
In the end, most agreed that rural transportation safety is a public health issue in need of strong leadership, partnerships and collaboration, more behavioral research, and direct, personal, unvarnished communications campaigns to engage the public.
“If your director [of transportation] is not involved in your highway traffic safety program, you need to get he or she involved. And if your governor isn’t, you need to get your governor involved,” said Jim Lynch, director of the Montana Department of Transportation. “There is no goal line in highway safety. When we get to one, we’re not over. We’ve got to continue to work at keeping our highways safe.” (For more about Lynch’s presentation on leadership for highway safety, see related story.)
Bernie Arseneau, Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths Program co-chair and director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) Office of Traffic, Safety and Operations, helped conclude the event by summing up the information and ideas presented during the two days.
“It’s time that we as a nation adopt a “toward zero deaths’ vision,” Mn/DOT’s Arseneau said in conclusion, “By having that long-term goal, we’re able to continue our focus on our journey. Our journey is to reduce those deaths to zero.”
This was the second meeting of an annual Summer Institute held by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Excellence in Rural Safety (CERS). The two-day gathering, hosted this year in cooperation with the new UVM Transportation Center and the New England Transportation Institute (NETI), is aimed at sharing information, setting research priorities, and developing strategies for improving rural transportation safety.
CERS, which was established by the 2005 federal transportation act, is a program led by Lee Munnich of the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, in cooperation with the Center for Transportation Studies, and is sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration. Other partners include NETI and the School of Information Systems and Technology at Claremont Graduate University.
PDFs of the PowerPoint presentations by most 2007 CERS Summer Institute speakers are available with the program from the two-day event on the Program and Presentations page.
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