Transportation Agencies Battle Spiking Highway Deaths

Thomas Mullen
June 25, 2015

For many Americans, summer is a time for rest and relaxation.

But to the agencies managing our nation’s highways, summer has a very different reputation — as the deadliest three months of the year. It’s an alarming and seemingly contradictory fact: twice the number of people die on America’s highways during the summer than during the rest of the year combined, as seeming benefits like dry roads and clear visibility are offset by factors such as heavy traffic (road trips, vacations, etc.) and a significantly higher number of intoxicated drivers. Of course these facts are well known to the nation’s safety and transportation planners, who find themselves in nothing short of a war with the rising tide of grim statistics, and are leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to reverse them. So as we yet again enter this paradoxical season of lowered inhibitions and heightened danger, SmartComment takes a break from public comment management and looks at how the problem is being tackled by those policing and protecting our country’s roadways. And when the task is convincing Americans to slow down and sober up, the transportation agency battle plans we found are marked by communication, humor, creativity – and even tragedy.


Perhaps the most visible effort to curb roadway fatalities is the popular “Zero Fatalities” campaign, a cooperative multi-state effort targeting the factors that can affect roadway deaths — from seatbelt use to drunk driving, to texting behind the wheel, drowsy driving and more. Rather than having individual states pour their money into the startup costs of an all-out marketing blitz, Zero Fatalities offers them a turnkey public awareness program that allows them to maximize and tailor their message as they see fit. So far, several states – including Nevada — have embraced the Zero Fatalities model, with each offering their own take on the project’s core elements. The Nevada Department of Transportation partnered with the state’s public safety department in its version of the Zero Fatalities campaign, complete with a splashy, infographic-laden website, a significant social media push, and even a YouTube channel consisting of both public service announcements and interviews about the topic with regular citizens. They also offer a payload of interactive materials, from a quiz about distracted driving to a humorous instructional booklet of funny faces that bored designated drivers can marker onto intoxicated friends at the end of the night. But for Nevada, this is no summer project. The Zero Fatalities effort dovetails with the larger Nevada Strategic Highway Safety Plan, which was devised in 2006 and aims to cut the annual traffic fatality rate in half by 2030. “The idea is to save lives,” Nevada DOT spokesman Tony Ilia told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.


In conjunction with the Zero Fatalities program, the Utah Department of Transportation is pushing its “100 Deadliest Days” campaign, which uses variable message signs above the state’s highways to make motorists aware of the heightened driving dangers between Memorial Day and Labor Day. On Mondays, the signs display a weekly safety message to engage the public on the importance of the issue. And each Friday, the giant overhead signs highlight the number of days during the past week the state actually achieved zero fatalities.

But Utah isn’t stopping with awareness. In addition to a new seatbelt law, the Utah Highway Patrol is also stepping up “saturation patrols” so they can quickly respond to highway incidents.

“When you consider the human cost of these near daily tragedies and their impact you begin to understand why we are doing everything we can to make our Zero Fatalities goal a reality, especially during these critical months of the year,” said Utah DOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras.


The Iowa Department of Transportation is a full year into its Zero Fatalities program, which it is undertaking in partnership with the state’s public health and safety agencies. Besides enlisting head coaches from the state’s two major universities for Zero Fatalities PSAs, the agencies are putting the stakes of their efforts in the starkest terms possible — on a monthly report card that keeps a running tally of the state’s road deaths and compares them in detailed fashion to results from the previous five years. The grim reminder is intended to underscore the importance of highway driving dangers. “We understand it’s a lofty goal,” Iowa DOT spokeswoman Andrea Henry told television station WQAD. “If you think about it, though, the goal for your family is to have zero fatalities when they’re on the road. We adopted that same goal for the state of Iowa.”


While Arizona’s participation in Zero Fatalities helped lead to a 9 percent drop in highway fatalities in 2014, the state is fighting another highway danger this summer: dust storms. The Arizona Department of Transportation and its state partners are kicking off their “Pull Aside, Stay Alive” campaign, designed to educate drivers about the threat presented by dust storms. While dust storms can occur year-round, they are closely associated with the state’s summer monsoon season and can strike out of nowhere, reducing motorist visibility to zero. “It’s better to alter travel plans rather than attempting to drive through dust storms,” said ADOT Director John Halikowski. The campaign is part of ADOT’s Arizona Monsoon Awareness Week, which features a social-media effort and even a contest challenging the public to write haikus focusing on dust storm driving tips.


For the Georgia Department of Transportation, the war against traffic fatalities got personal on April 22 when Emily Clark, the daughter of longtime Georgia DOT employee Kathy Clark, was one of five nursing students killed in a seven-vehicle crash on I-16 outside Savannah. Two weeks later, the Georgia DOT and other state agencies initiated a yearlong “Drive Alert. Arrive Alive.” safety campaign to turn the tide on the state’s traffic fatalities by reminding people to wear a seatbelt, and not to text, eat or use GPS behind the wheel. “For Emily’s Sake” became somewhat of an unofficial mantra for the campaign – a stark reminder of the personal toll behind the sometimes impersonal numbers of a traffic fatality count. Unfortunately, that number continues to rise as Georgia faces the possibility of its first yearly increase in highway fatalities in nine years. “These fatalities not only tear apart families, they devastate communities and break our hearts,” the Georgia DOT wrote in a blog. “We must all take responsibility and understand that the life we save just might be our own. Or that of someone we love.”


The Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan State Police continue to run their “Toward Zero Deaths” safety campaign, which in conjunction with its Strategic Highway Safety Plan, aims to cut traffic fatalities from 889 in 2011 to 750 in 2016. To get its message out, the Michigan DOT encourages businesses to incorporate the campaign logo in their communications, and is running the fatality count on highway message boards and on their website.

Other Initiatives

The New Mexico Department of Transportation features an inventive anti-underage drinking campaign on its main website where visitors can take part in a number of interactive videos, highlighted by a trouble-making vodka bottle that demonstrates how it can screw up a range of offered activities… Illinois, Missouri, Montana and Wisconsin have running tickers of their traffic fatalities on their main websites… Montana and Washington State are building wildlife over- and under-passes to reduce accidents involving animals… Washington is also experimenting with portable rumble strips that can be deployed to alert drivers of an upcoming work zone.