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August 2014

Toward Zero Deaths, a national strategy on highway safety, has a vision of getting the annual number of highway deaths down to zero.

BY Jamie friedlander

Toward Zero Deaths, a national strategy on highway safety, has a vision of getting the annual number of highway deaths down to zero. Key stakeholders in the industry, including AAMVA, are working to support this vision. But can it be done?

In 2012 alone, there were 33,561 deaths and over 2.3 million injuries on U.S. roads. That death toll is roughly the size of the entire Boston University student body. During the six years leading up to 2012, however, driving fatalities had decreased by 26 percent. The recent uptick in deaths and injuries has led key stakeholders in the industry—including government agencies, members of the private sector and associations such as AAMVA—to take a stand and create the Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) National Strategy on Highway Safety.

The TZD strategy has a vision of driving the number of highway fatalities down to zero through various short-, mid- and long-term strategies. It may take decades to achieve, but many believe it can be done.

“Toward Zero Deaths is really a terrific program for states, and safety organizations within states, to rally around,” says Mark Lowe, director of the Iowa Division of Motor Vehicles and incoming AAMVA Chair of the Board. “You can say that zero deaths is an audacious goal, but when you ask people what they think is an acceptable number of deaths for their family members, the answer is always zero. No death is acceptable.”

The Vision

Though many in the industry have developed their own individual efforts to promote safe driving, no single strategy had been in place before TZD. Various agencies, organizations and companies have come together to participate in this one collaborative effort. In addition to implementing a number of strategies, TZD hopes to both create a cultural change in members of the driving public and create an environment focused on safety.

“Toward Zero Deaths highlights the concept that every crash is preventable—that there are no accidents,” says Patrick Fernan, administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles. “We can all work together, whether in engineering, enforcement, education or emergency response, to help eliminate serious crashes and fatalities. The benefits to society from that effort are enormous.”

A Steering Committee involving many industry associations and committees created the TZD National Strategy on Highway Safety. Steve Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) and a member of the Steering Committee, emphasizes that the TZD vision should not be taken lightly. “It’s important that we have a strong vision, and it’s important that we have strategies that make sense,” he says. “It’s important that we measure our progress, and it’s important we evolve those strategies with the changing times.”

The Working Parts

TZD zeros in on a handful of specific areas, including safer drivers, safer passengers, safer vulnerable users (pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists), safer vehicles, safer infrastructure, enhanced emergency medical response (EMS) services and improved safety management and data processes. Through short-term strategies (implemented within five years), mid-term strategies (implemented in five to 15 years) and long-term strategies (implemented in 15-plus years), industry members hope to see improvement in all of these focus areas.

The safer drivers and passengers areas will focus on increased seatbelt use and reduction in impaired driving, among other initiatives. Safer vehicles will focus on improved technology systems and accident prevention in vehicle manufacturing. Enhanced EMS services will improve incident detection, 911 access and 911 system capabilities.

Dia Gainor, the executive director of the National Association of State Emergency Medical Services Officials (NASEMSO), emphasizes the role EMS plays in the TZD strategy. “EMS is the safety net for the traditional 3Es, in the event that engineering, enforcement and education efforts fail,” says Gainor. “But one point we’ve been making to all our partners is that EMS should not be an afterthought.”

The Drivers

The Steering Committee leads the National Strategy on Highway Safety. In addition to government agencies, private industry members and safety advocates, associations such as AAMVA sit on the Steering Committee. Other associations on the Steering Committee include the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) and the National Association of State Emergency Medical Service Officials (NASEMSO), among others.

“Speaking from the law enforcement side, AAMVA plays a key role [in TZD] in that with licensing drivers and registering vehicles, we certainly want a partnership with AAMVA in any public safety initiative,” adds Ron Replogle, the superintendent of the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the law enforcement representative on the AAMVA board. “[AAMVA is] a perfect partner for the Toward Zero Deaths campaign.”

The Roadblocks

With a strategy as big as TZD come challenges just as big. The sheer size of the U.S. roadway system, the increasingly large number of highway users, the complexity of the driving task, an aging driving population and funding issues will all be challenges TZD faces over the coming decades.

Kelly Hardy, program manager for safety at AASHTO, believes funding will be an issue. “Moving forward, one of the big challenges America faces will be to find the resources needed to invest in the safety programs and personnel we’re going to need in the future,” she says.

Replogle sees the biggest challenge as being something less tangible. “The biggest challenge is probably going to be cultural change,” he says. “Just keeping everybody aware that this is a huge problem in our country and keeping it on the front burner is going to be a challenge. You’re having over 30,000 highway deaths in your nation, and that is way too many people losing their lives on our roadways.”

The Progress

Already, small steps are being taken toward improving highway safety through TZD.

“Toward Zero Deaths is a powerful message to carry because people can understand and grasp why we should take every measure we can,” says Lowe. “In Iowa, we take a multiagency approach and currently are working on educational and innovative strategies. Part of our strategy is to not only use traditional means of education and information, but also reach out with products.”

One product Iowa has been working on is a mobile app to curb texting while driving. The app, TXTL8R, will temporarily disable text and phone capabilities once a speed of 15 mph is reached. Those who text the driver will receive a text message saying that the driver is unable to respond and will reply once he or she has reached a destination. The app is expected to be available in November 2014 and will be offered to all Iowa drivers on a voluntary basis. The Iowa DOT will be covering the cost of the app for drivers ages 14 to 17 to promote safe driving.

In New Orleans, 43 colonels stood up this year as part of The Drive to Save Lives, pledging their support in reducing nationwide highway deaths by 15 percent during the 2014 calendar year, according to Replogle. “Hopefully that campaign for this calendar year will help, and we’ll see greatly reduced numbers by the end of this year,” he says. So far, highway deaths are down between eight and nine percent in the first quarter of 2014.

According to Tony Dorsey, media relations manager at AASHTO, one key to future success for TZD is taking advantage of emerging technologies. “At one time, the seatbelt and windshield wipers were considered advanced technology,” he says. “Now, we’ve got rear-view cameras that can show the driver what’s happening below the bumper and cars that stop automatically in the event that there is an imminent collision. Technology continues to evolve in small and big ways.”

The Reality

Though getting the number of highway deaths down to zero is a vision that could take decades to unfold, many involved in the strategy see it as a reality.

“When we have over 30,000 traffic fatalities in our country every year, that is too many,” says Replogle. “Many people ask: ‘what is an acceptable number?’ And when you personalize that—what is an acceptable number for you, your circle of friends and your family—I think everyone would answer that question as being zero. So that should be the acceptable number for us as a nation and in the public safety community: zero. Is that an attainable goal? Maybe not, but it certainly should be the goal that we’ll strive to obtain. One is too many.”

Hardy echoes Replogle’s sentiment, suggesting that despite reductions in fatalities occurring over the last decade, we shouldn’t lose sight of the true problem at hand.

“For six years in a row, the overall number of motor vehicle fatalities in the United States has declined,” she says. “When you look at those numbers and that decrease, it’s a significant stride in safety. However, when you just look at the raw numbers [of deaths], that’s still a huge number. And that’s why campaigns like Toward Zero Deaths are so important. They get everyone working off of the same page and moving in the right direction.”