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Public Roads - May/June 2005

May/June 2005
Issue No:
Vol. 68 No. 6
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

On The Road to Safer Roads

by Erin Kenley

South Dakota completes a realistic and attainable strategic plan for reducing highway fatalities.

South Dakota's fatality rate over the last 5 years is one of the highest in the country, with the number of fatalities steadily increasing from 1.84 to 2.41 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Despite ongoing efforts to reduce fatalities, South Dakota has seen a 5-year average between 1999 and 2003 of 175 motor vehicle crash fatalities per year, costing the State more than $700 million annually.

With 175 fatalities per year in vehicle crashes like this involving a sedan, South Dakota has one of the highest fatality rates in the country.

With traffic-related fatalities on the rise, South Dakota responded by developing a usable safety plan with realistic goals. The overall objective is to focus energy and resources toward minimizing the human loss and economic impacts of traffic fatalities.

"This simple yet overarching plan created by a wide cross section of agencies will guide the further management and prioritization of the State's existing safety programs," says Director Michael L. Halladay, Office of Program Integration and Delivery in the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Office of Safety. "It is the right thing to do at the right time for the right reasons."

The Champions

With the support of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and FHWA, the now-retired South Dakota Department of Transportation's (SDDOT) Secretary Dennis Landguth initiated the South Dakota Strategic Highway Safety Plan. FHWA hosted an initial safety meeting with representatives from SDDOT, the South Dakota Department of Public Safety (SDDPS), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

To further promote this effort, the FHWA South Dakota Division Administrator John Rohlf held a subsequent meeting with former SDDPS Secretary Tom Dravland and SDDOT Secretary Landguth. With this high-level support to draw on, SDDOT Traffic and Safety Engineer Cliff Reuer, SDDPS Director of the Office of Highway Safety Roy Meyer, and FHWA Division Safety and Traffic Engineer Sharon Johnson joined forces to champion the development of a comprehensive and data-driven safety plan.

The three safety champions—Reuer, Meyer, and Johnson—managed the planning, arranged and facilitated the meetings, and were ultimately responsible for delivery of the final highway safety plan. They led the coalition and proactively maintained a cohesive, focused, and effective highway safety advisory committee and subcommittees. They helped sustain the group's interest and momentum, and they reached out to engage the entire South Dakota safety community in the development of the safety plan.

The Plan

South Dakota's new comprehensive and integrated plan incorporates the critical elements necessary for a complete highway safety strategy. Starting with a mission/vision statement, the plan seeks "to enable local/State agencies, and nonprofit organizations to develop and implement traffic safety programs that reduce motor vehicle crashes, fatalities, and injuries as much as is realistically possible, thus minimizing the economic and human loss of motor vehicle crashes."

The South Dakota plan has an overall goal of reducing vehicle crashes by 5 percent annually, representing a decrease in South Dakota's fatality rate to 1.5 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 2010—a realistic and attainable goal. The plan identifies 11 problem areas and integrates the four E's (engineering, enforcement, education, and emergency medical/management services) into life-saving countermeasures. The problem areas include targets with success indicators and time frames that are measurable.

The Process

After drafting the mission statement, the three champions—Reuer, Meyer, and Johnson—organized a highway safety advisory committee by initially contacting selected members from prior safety committees. The three champions emphasized from the beginning that drafting the safety plan was not the project of any single agency, but rather an endeavor of the entire community of organizations with interests in roadway safety and crash reduction. The promise of shared ownership was instrumental in gaining commitment. In a collaborative effort, the champions said, the entire safety community would develop the plan, commit resources, and conduct the implementation.


Through the SDDPS Secretary, the Office of the Governor indicated a strong commitment to improving roadway safety in South Dakota and addressing the backlog of unused safety funds. This enthusiasm spread, and the effort eventually involved more than 60 safety partners ranging from AARP and the South Dakota Retailers Association to The University of South Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. The three plan champions kept the plan committee at a manageable size, with the norm being one representative per agency. During meetings, the three champions served as facilitators to keep the group focused and on track as the members discussed overall issues.

Starting with accurate and complete existing crash data, the committee members identified the 11 problem areas. From there, they assigned members to 11 subcommittees with the intent of having a representative from each of the four E disciplines on each subcommittee. Given the number of subcommittees, the partnership grew to almost 140 members.

The next step was to convene subcommittee meetings, and the champions served as coordinators and conveners of each group to maintain momentum, energy, consistency, and interest. The subcommittees each held a 1-day meeting with the day divided into two sessions. In the morning, each subcommittee assessed and evaluated its problem. The driver education subcommittee, for instance, identified the issue that driver education and awareness needs to be a continuing process throughout the life of a motorist. The subcommittee members also determined that in the past 5 years, South Dakota drivers under the age of 21 represented 11.2 percent of the licensed drivers but 25.1 percent of the drivers involved in all fatal and injury crashes, 19.3 percent of the drinking drivers in fatal and injury crashes, and 37.4 percent of the drivers in speed-related fatality and injury crashes.


In the afternoon, the subcommittees developed strategies to counter the issues identified in the morning session. In the driver education subcommittee, the strategies include evaluating and enhancing the effectiveness of the graduated driver's licensing program; providing education to enhance public awareness concerning the dangers of aggressive, impaired, fatigued, and inattentive driving; increasing media exposure to heighten awareness of the problem of distracted and incompetent drivers; enhancing visibility of safety strategies and promoting safety mobilization campaigns; targeting high-risk populations with specific programming; and increasing enforcement of all traffic laws.

Elements of a Successful Safety Plan

  • Vision and mission statements
  • Data driven
  • Integrated and comprehensive (four E's)
  • Goals and targets
  • Measurable success factors and time frames

The subcommittee compiled the minutes for each meeting into summary problem area drafts. Once the drafts for the 11 problem areas were ready, the highway safety advisory committee met again. Subsequent subcommittee meetings further refined the drafts.

Following these meetings and discussions with the full committee, the three champions consolidated the problem area drafts into one complete plan. Their efforts yielded a 45-page plan, beginning with a detailed list of all the agencies that participated in the committee, followed by the mission statement and an executive summary that concisely describes current fatality statistics and the problem areas.

A background section discusses how the State receives its funding and the agencies that are responsible for managing safety funds and programs. This section also breaks down the State fatality statistics in a way that personalizes traffic crashes so that the numbers may mean more to readers in South Dakota and nationwide: "On average, a traffic crash occurred every 28 minutes, more than one injury every hour and a death every 50 hours on South Dakota's roadways."

The plan goes on to describe each problem area in detail. These sections describe the history of the problem, provide supporting data, show the data in graph form, catalog the strategies that will be used to counter the problem, and list targets for evaluating the effectiveness of the strategies. The driver education problem area, for example, will contribute to the overall goal of 1.5 fatalities per 100 million VMT by 2010 by setting evaluation measurements to be achieved by the end of fiscal year 2005. These measurements include reducing the percentage of alcohol- and speed-related fatal and injury crashes by 5 percent in targeted age groups, which when achieved, will move the SDDOT closer toward its goal.

One of the three safety champions, Roy Meyer, SDDPS director of the South Dakota Office of Highway Safety, addresses the Roadway Safety Committee.


South Dakota's Identified Problem Areas

  • Commercial Motor Vehicles
  • Data and Technology
  • Driver Education
  • Enforcement
  • Emergency Response Services
  • Alcohol and Drugs
  • Media
  • Motorcycle Safety
  • Safe Communities
  • Engineering
  • Occupant Protection

Critical Elements

Three critical elements led to the successful development of the safety plan: (1) the support of the safety community's leadership, (2) the determination and commitment of the three champions, and (3) the existing strong partnerships among public agencies and the partnerships between public agencies and private interest groups.

Support from USDOT leadership, former SDDOT Secretary Landguth, and SDDPS Secretary Dravland was critical in empowering the champions to start the process of defining a draft mission statement and goals. Leadership support also gave the champions the authority to form the highway safety advisory committee and convene a safety summit. The safety summit would serve as the forum for high-level safety partners from various agencies to gather and discuss the roadway safety problems facing South Dakota and agree how to proceed in the development of the State's highway safety plan.

The champions were determined to complete a plan that would be valued and implemented by the entire safety community. SDDPS's Meyer says, "I had implementation in mind from the beginning, and we were not going to waste the time of the safety partners on a plan that would just be put on a shelf to collect dust."

He adds that drive, determination, and support for one another helped the group persevere. Having more than one champion was especially useful. "It is not uncommon during difficult times for champions to rhetorically ask themselves whether this effort really is worth it," says Meyer. "Yes it is, but sometimes you need to hear it from someone else."

Highway Safety Advisory Committee Representation

  • Transportation/Highway Agencies
  • Governor's Highway Safety Agencies
  • Law Enforcement Agencies
  • Health Agencies
  • Judiciary Agencies
  • Driver's Licensing/Registration Agencies
  • Education/Academic Agencies

In addition, the champions kept the committee and subcommittees motivated by regular contact with each group, periodic updates on the overall progress, and information sharing.

The value of the third critical element—a professional network of partnerships—cannot be overemphasized. According to SDDOT's Reuer, "The solution to reducing the rising fatality rates is not to do more of what we already do. It is to do what we already do better and in partnership." The task of reducing fatalities statewide is too serious and urgent to be taken on by one agency alone. FHWA's Johnson adds, "The existing relationships and good partnerships of the stakeholders were crucial elements in being able to bring together such a large group."

Trouble Shooting

All States are likely to encounter challenges when developing a highway safety plan. South Dakota was no exception. The biggest challenge was gaining agency recognition that the plan would not be just another safety plan meant to serve the needs of one agency alone. It was to be a plan for all stakeholders and one that would be implemented. Given that many of the agencies were already stretching their resources to implement their own safety programs, they needed to be convinced and reassured that the purpose was not to create new programs but to use existing ones better. This plan would seek to incorporate old programs and expand upon them.

"Individual transportation safety organizations still need to do what they do best, but we will need to work more closely to make a real difference," says FHWA's former Associate Administrator for Safety George Ostensen. "When agencies work collaboratively, they will find that they have common goals allowing them to work together to share information and leverage their resources to make better use of limited funds."

Next Steps

South Dakota looks forward to implementing the new safety plan. SDDPS's Meyer expects that the plan will change the way SDDOT's Office of Highway Safety does business and interacts with the safety community. "I expect that the plan will allow the safety community's resources to be leveraged more effectively," he adds.

The highway safety advisory committee will monitor progress and the effectiveness of the plan's recommended countermeasures. As interim goals are reached, targets can be updated and the plan further refined.

"Leadership at the South Dakota Department of Public Safety and at the South Dakota Department of Transportation has taken a personal interest in setting this process into motion and in making sure that it will result in safety benefits to roadway users in the State," says FHWA South Dakota Division Administrator Rohlf. "They are committed to this comprehensive approach to highway safety and are working in cooperation with several State agencies, as well as local agencies and others, to champion the effort."

Erin Kenley works at FHWA's Office of Safety Programs in Washington, DC, where she coordinates and conducts workshops nationwide on Human Factors for Transportation Engineers. Her other responsibilities include nationwide support in comprehensive planning. She is involved in FHWA's Focused Approach to Safety initiative. She also tracks States' progress on comprehensive highway safety plans (CHSP) and assists States in drafting preliminary plans by facilitating safety summits. Before joining FHWA, Kenley worked for civil engineering consultants in Arizona, primarily serving the needs of ADOT. Her background includes highway design and plan, specification, and estimate production. She has a B.S.E. degree in civil engineering from Arizona State University.

For more information, contact Erin Kenley at 202–366–8556 or