Watch for Me
North Carolina has established a promising program to reduce the number of bicyclists and pedestrians hit by automobiles. Could your State try something like this?
During the 5 years from 2010 to 2014, drivers on North Carolina roads were involved in an annual average of 2,623 pedestrian and 931 bicyclist crashes, and an average of 174 pedestrians and 22 bicyclists per year were killed. During the first half of 2016, automobiles were involved in crashes that resulted in 96 pedestrian fatalities, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. These kind of numbers make North Carolina “one of the least safe States in the U.S. for walking and bicycling,” according to the Web site of the program formed to help counter these grim statistics.
Given this critical need to address pedestrian and bicyclist deaths and injuries on the State’s roads, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), in partnership with local governments and community groups, developed a comprehensive safety awareness campaign. Called Watch for Me NC (the “NC” is part of the official name), the program is geared toward pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and police officers. Held annually, the Watch for Me program involves two key elements: (1) safety and educational messages directed toward drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists; and (2) high-visibility enforcement by police to crack down on violations of traffic safety laws.
How Does It Work?
Each year, NCDOT invites selected communities to participate in the Watch for Me program. The initiative has expanded gradually, as funding permits, starting with a small pilot in 2012 and then adding approximately four communities annually. By 2016, a total of 25 towns and cities took part statewide.
“This is a long-term effort,” says Laura Sandt, Ph.D., manager of the Watch for Me program and senior research associate with the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, which administers Watch for Me. “The participating communities usually spend their first year establishing partnerships and conducting training for law enforcement officers. Then their programs take root and become more comprehensive over time.”
Typically, municipal, county, or regional government staff lead their community’s Watch for Me program. They partner with bicyclist and pedestrian advocates, city planners, law enforcement agencies, local engineering departments, public health professionals, school administrators, elected officials, and the local media.
The participating communities sponsor local events, such as giveaways of bicyclists’ reflective gear at community festivals. The Watch for Me program provides safety messages at those local events and through areawide media campaigns. In addition to radio public service announcements, examples include bumper stickers reading “I brake for people”; internal bus ads to remind disembarking passengers, “Watch for turning cars”; and external bus ads for nearby drivers, “Yield to people in crosswalks.”
The media campaigns are complemented by police training and then targeted law enforcement at high-risk locations, such as pedestrian crosswalks. In 2015, Watch for Me communities held more than 120 local events and 97 enforcement operations, directly reaching thousands of community members with safety messages.
Together, the various partner organizations apply some or all of the four E’s during the Watch for Me programs: engineering, education, enforcement, and evaluation.
Engineering: Staff from police departments and engineers from local highway departments in the participating communities engage in activities such as conducting field checks at safety hotspots or sharing data. In addition, staff at the university’s Highway Safety Research Center analyze data from crashes that involve pedestrians or bicyclists. The program also includes low-cost engineering improvements, such as signage and pavement markings, at selected high-crash crossings.
Education: Community partners provide educational and safety information to the public through articles and advertisements in local media and through social media and event-based outreach. The Watch for Me program supplies printed educational materials, which are funded by NCDOT. The program also developed the training courses for police. Officers in communities that are new to Watch for Me attend a full 1-day training session. Half-day refreshers are offered to police from communities that have continued to be active in Watch for Me.
Enforcement: During this phase of Watch for Me, law enforcement officers issue warnings and citations to drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists who fail to follow the laws. In the process, the police educate these various users about safety on the roads.
Evaluation: NCDOT and the Watch for Me administrators, along with each participating community, conduct qualitative evaluations every year and quantitative evaluations occasionally. The program has recently received approval from NCDOT to conduct a crash-based evaluation, with the results anticipated by the fall of 2018.
Analysis of Crashes in the Triangle Region,
So far, before-and-after preliminary crash data analyses are available only for the three counties (Durham, Orange, and Wake) that participated in the initial pilot program. The reduction in the crash rate (per 10,000 people) for pedestrians and bicyclists hit by vehicles in those counties was 5 percent, although the preliminary analysis has not yet accounted for other factors that might have increased or decreased crash rates during that time period. The pilot participants continued in the program, and from 2012 to 2015, researchers observed a total 32 percent increase in the rate of drivers yielding to pedestrians at crosswalks, on average, at the sites monitored. In addition, Watch for Me has produced a number of other benefits, some quite surprising (detailed later).
Funding Watch for Me
The Watch for Me program is a partnership between NCDOT, the university’s Highway Safety Research Center, and local communities. The program originated in 2009 with funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The initial years were spent conducting crash analyses and field investigations, developing partnerships, and establishing a stakeholders group that designed the program’s logo, developed educational materials, and created the training course for law enforcement officers.
Currently, NCDOT and the Governor’s Highway Safety Program provide the funding for Watch for Me. Additional funds for training materials and media purchases are contributed by the Federal Highway Administration’s Safe Routes to School initiative.
“The North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program supports the Watch for Me initiative because it goes beyond the conventional educational efforts of many safety programs,” says Don Nail, former director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. “Watch for Me educates law enforcement officers, along with the public, on how to remain safe on roadways. Many officers require additional training on bicyclist and pedestrian issues so that they are completely comfortable when sharing their knowledge with motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists, and also while enforcing the laws. The goal is to have Watch for Meimplemented and practiced in each community in North Carolina, resulting in a safer environment for everyone involved.”
Watch for Me Pilot
In 2012, Watch for Me initiated the pilot program in the Triangle region, which encompasses the four cities of Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh in Orange, Durham, and Wake counties near the center of the State. In addition, the Triangle cities completed a program in each subsequent year from 2013 to 2016.
“As a result of the Watch for Me NC 2012–2013 campaign, we are seeing improvements at our new pedestrian islands and crosswalks with more motorists stopping, as required by law, and more pedestrians taking the care and caution necessary to pass through safely,” says Chris Blue, police chief, Chapel Hill Police Department. “The campaign has helped familiarize residents with State laws for walking across the street, including the special care required at crosswalks, as well as safety messages that pertain to cyclists and motorists.”
Highlights from the 2007–2012 crash data in the Triangle area indicated that bicyclist and pedestrian crashes with vehicles occur most often at intersections. The pilot determined that the largest percentage of pedestrian crashes (26percent) occurred among persons ages 40–59, followed closely by those ages 20–29 (23 percent).
Watch for Me: A Mountain Community
Since the pilot, the program has provided assistance to more than 28 communities.
One new participant, Transylvania County, a small rural county in western North Carolina with approximately 33,000 full-time residents, became a Watch for Me partner in 2016, in collaboration with the county seat, the city of Brevard. The county and city are beginning an active enforcement phase.
According to Joy Fields, the county planner, participation in Watch for Me is facilitating communication between the city and the county’s planning departments, the sheriff’s office, and the city’s police department.
“Our outreach partners have also included the Brevard College bicycle team, Blue Ridge Bicycle Club, and bicycle retailers throughout the county,” says Fields. “We look forward to continuing our bicycle safety education and outreach efforts as we begin developing a countywide comprehensive bicycle plan made possible through a planning grant from NCDOT.”
Mark Burrows, director of the county’s planning and community development office, worked with Fields to prepare the application for the Watch for Me grant. When he started, he did not realize that he would become so personally involved.
“Last February, I was walking back to my office from a meeting at City Hall, and as I was crossing South Broad Street at Morgan, I was hit from behind by an SUV making a left turn,” Burrows recalls. “Had the vehicle been traveling faster or 3 inches [8 centimeters] further out, it could have been all over.” Burrows was taken to the emergency room with minor injuries.
When Burrows completed the Watch for Me grant application and conveyed it to NCDOT, he noted that he had done some personal research on the need for this type of program in Brevard. He recalls, “The [joking] response back was, ‘That wasn’t necessary.’”
Building Successful Watch for Me Programs
The program’s success depends on coordination and cooperation across multiple government agencies, local institutions, interested organizations, and advocates. Public support for the program hinges on the effectiveness of coordination among those participants.
The communities vary in the intensity of their programs. A small beach community might hold a single event, whereas a city like Charlotte might do several. And communities vary in the timing of their programs. Peak months for most places start in August when school begins and run through October. For beach towns, the peak starts in May and June when the tourists begin to arrive.
The beach towns face the challenge of reaching populations that have a constant turnover. Collaborations with hotels and tourist organizations have produced creative communications and outreach strategies such as tabletop safety displays in restaurants and refrigerator magnets in rental houses.
To support the initiative, NCDOT’s safety awareness campaign includes advertising. During the peak 3 months of the 2015 program, the media buying company hired by NCDOT estimated that the campaign’s ads were viewed more than 51.5 million times across the State. The advertising included billboards, ads on buses, radio spots, and even giant helium balloons.
“Many people have seen the signs on the buses and are aware of the placards and banners around town,” says Seth LaJeunesse, former chair of the Carrboro Transportation Advisory Board. “More people in the last year have brought up pedestrian safety as a concern to the Board of Aldermen. The general sentiment is that Carrboro citizens are aware that pedestrian safety is a concern, and they are glad to see something being done about it.”
As the program kicked off its sixth year in 2017, it did not start from scratch. Rather, the initiative built on the experiences of previous community participants, along with program outcomes and lessons learned. Thus the 2017 program year began with a wealth of knowledge, including do’s and don’ts, although each program is tailored to the individual community.
Examples of the lessons learned include obtaining community buy-in through public education and outreach. Enforcement in the absence of targeted outreach and education can bring about false impressions, including tension between police and community members. This effect can be mitigated if residents are directly engaged in the program, understand its goals, and can share their own concerns about pedestrian and bicyclist safety.
Program leaders therefore suggest that communities start gradually and ease into enforcement. Police officers, after themselves receiving training and education, should consider issuing warnings, along with education about what a violator has done wrong, prior to issuing citations.
Overall, it has been suggested that the program consider increasing the intensity and visibility of officer training, improving awareness of child safety through walk/bike-to-school events, and creating a peer-to-peer program during which participating communities exchange information. Watch for Me offers sharing meetings and listservs for exchanging lessons learned.
Reactions From Two Citizens
Durham Police Officer Douglas Beckett reported the following encounters with the public that took place on June 29, 2015:
“I was on W. Main Street, outside of Brightleaf Square at around 4:30 a.m. I saw a gentleman riding a bicycle without any lights on, so I pulled up next to him and asked if he could pull over to the sidewalk, which he did. I started my conversation by explaining that he was not in any trouble, but he needed to have lights on his bicycle. He explained that he was on his way to work on Hillsborough Road, and he asked me if I was going to give him a citation, so I replied that I was not, but I did need to give him a gift. He looked surprised when I got front and rear bicycle lights out of my car. I spent some time showing him how they work, how to replace the batteries, and I then installed them on his bicycle. We shook hands and he thanked me. As he started to ride away, I heard him say ‘Wow, wow, wow.’
“About 10 minutes later, I was on Morris Street, and I saw a man jogging in the street, wearing a dark t-shirt and black shorts, he was very hard to see. I pulled up next to him and said ‘Good morning sir, are you having a good workout?’ He looked
a little defensive and said ‘Yes, I’m having a good workout, just working out.’ I asked if I could have a quick word, and he agreed. I explained that I was proud of him for jogging, but he was very hard to see in the dark. I asked if I could give him something to help, and he said yes. I gave him one of the armbands, and I showed him the key holder pouch. He totally changed from defensive to ecstatic and said that he was meaning to look for some safety gear but had never got around to buying any. I helped him adjust it to his arm and thanked him for stopping to talk to me. He thanked me several times, took my name and badge number, and said that he would be writing in about me.
“From a patrol officer’s viewpoint, these encounters really were the highlights of my shift. Everything we do on patrol helps somebody at some point, but it is rare that we get to see such positive results so quickly. I got great satisfaction from knowing that by those small gestures, two citizens were a lot safer now and also that they had a great experience with the police department. Please pass on my thanks to whoever provides the lights and arm bands.”
Watch for Me Successes
The program has generated a number of safety-related and sometimes surprising outcomes. In some communities, Watch for Me helped to increase public awareness through police giveaways of bicycle lights in lieu of handing out citations for riding at night without a light. In other communities, bicycle shops and bicycle clubs provide rules-of-the-road training.
Among the outcomes, one town–Greensboro–has added information about Watch for Me to its transportation plans–safety information that otherwise might not have been part of the plans.
In a town in the Triangle area, Carrboro, the police department increased its pedestrian safety operations at certain targeted crosswalks from one to two per month, and began providing public recognition to bicyclists who obey the laws and cycle safely.
Some cities, notably Greenville, have incorporated a “good ticket” initiative in which police reward pedestrians for using crosswalks properly. The police partner with local businesses that provide the good tickets–coupons–for free coffee or other items.
Many participants reported that as a result of participation in the Watch for Me program, law enforcement officers have more clarity on bicyclist and pedestrian rules and regulations, and are better able to conduct enforcement. From 2012 to 2016, 37 police departments and more than 450 officers participated in Watch for Me training. They have gone on to conduct 360 targeted safety operations, resulting in 805 citations and more than 4,970 warnings. Participating officers have reported that they have not had any trouble with traffic citations being upheld consistently in court.
From 2012 to 2015, seven sites monitored in the Triangle area saw a 27-percent average increase in drivers yielding to staged pedestrians (members of the research team crossing marked crosswalks), and a 32-percent average increase in drivers yielding to actual pedestrians.
Continued community engagement combined with enforcement activities appears to be essential to success. Watch for Me is not a one-time venture; it requires ongoing outreach and community involvement, as well as continued enforcement by police. Because there are more citizens with eyes on the road than there are law enforcement officers, continuing to include the public in the process can be very beneficial.
Because both communities and law enforcement agencies in North Carolina have received Watch for Me favorably, the program warrants review and consideration by other States.
“Transportation professionals most often look for an engineering solution to reduce motor vehicle incidents with bicyclists and pedestrians,” says John F. Sullivan III, administrator of FHWA’s North Carolina Division. “However,the Watch for Me program offers a viable solution that addresses the behavior of all road users. The program educates bicyclists, pedestrians, drivers, and law enforcement officers on the rules of the road and the improved safety benefits of having more informed users.”
Loretta W. Barren is a transportation planner in FHWA’s North Carolina Division Office, which she joined in 2002. Before that, she worked as a transportation and land use planner for Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, NC, and as secretary for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Metropolitan Planning Organization. Barren graduated with a B.S. in business administration from Appalachian State University.
Norah Davis is the editor of PublicRoads.