Culture change needed to combat highway fatalities

Reducing fatalities and serious injuries on Idaho highways will take more than infrastructure improvements and more than the traditional focus on engineering, education, enforcement and emergency responses.

Saving lives will require a cultural shift - a fundamental change in driver behavior, insists Joe Toole, Federal Highway Administration's associate administrator for safety. He was among the authorities who spoke Wednesday at the annual Idaho Traffic Safety Commission meeting in Boise.

Toole compared the cultural/behavioral emphasis to the change in smoking since the 1970s -  a time when smoking was heavily promoted and socially accepted. A major shift occurred with a report to the surgeon general and the addition of warning labels to cigarette packages.

Sweeping change also is needed to curb the loss of 40,000 people who die annually on America's highways, Toole suggested. Change cannot be mandated from Washington D.C.; it must begin at the grassroots level. And it must start with drivers who, along with highway conditions and vehicles, are three major factors in crashes.

"It's going to take all of us," he said. The loss of 1.3 million people worldwide makes highway safety a global issue; beginning to change it is a local issue.

Toole said Idaho has all the ingredients to reduce highway fatalities, and in fact, realized a 23 percent decline in fatalities from 2008 to 2009. But tragically, there still are too many lives lost in traffic crashes, he emphasized.

A primary seat belt law is one tool lacking in Idaho. Passage of a mandatory seat belt law would give the state access to an additional $4.3 million in federal funds to combat highway fatalities, the FHWA official added.

He complimented Idaho for its revised traffic safety plan and suggested the state use every resource available to combat highway deaths.

Highway safety is the Idaho Transportation Department's highest priority, said Deputy Director Scott Stokes. He said the department has built a strong coalition of traffic safety partners who have the expertise and will to move toward "zero deaths."

Although Idaho needs to build highways that are more "forgiving," the greatest factor affecting the state's traffic fatality rate is driver behavior, according to Stokes. He said the safety commission and ITD's Office of Highway Operations and Safety formed 12 specialty teams to address crash causes.

Representatives from half of those teams attended the safety commission meeting to explain the emphasis areas:

  • Aggressive Driving, Sgt. Ted Pinche, Lewiston Police Department and chairman of the Law Enforcement Liaison (LEL) program
  • Lane departures, John Perry, Federal Highway Administration
  • Safety restraints, Boise police officer Kyle Wills
  • Seat belt demonstration, Lance Johnson, FHWA
  • Distracted driving, Phil Liggins, Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston
  • Impaired driving, Jared Olson, Idaho's traffic safety resource prosecutor

Pam Holt, a trauma prevention services coordinator from Missouri, delivered one of the most poignant presentations at the joint meeting of the safety commission and Idaho Transportation Board.

The injury prevention coordinator for St. John's Regional Medical Center in St. Louis described the effects of a severe car crash on the human body, effects she and her colleagues deal with on a daily basis.

A vehicle collision results in three crashes, she explains: initial impact of a vehicle when it comes to a sudden stop; the crash of a body inside the vehicle, often with a dashboard or windshield; and the crash of internal organs (including the brain) within an individual's body.

Holt provided first-hand accounts of patients who were not restrained by seat belts and the painful decisions family members sometimes had to make about life support after crashes.

To put annual fatalities into perspective, Holt compared the average of 40,000 highway deaths with the number of baseball fans who typically turn out for a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game -- that's how many people perish each year on U.S. highways, she said.

Holt also explained the cost to society by showing the difference in hospitalization time and length of intensive care unit treatment required for crash victims who wore seat belts compared to those who did not. The difference in costs is born by social service agencies, health care institutions, insurance companies and other motorists (in the form of higher insurance premiums).

From a cost standpoint alone, it makes sense to enact and enforce tough seat belt laws, she suggested. And from a personal perspective, seat belt use could make her job a lot less traumatic.

Published 10-22-2010