USA Banner

Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Summer 2018

Summer 2018
Issue No:
Vol. 82 No. 2
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Transportation Safety in Tribal Areas

by Adam Larsen

Native American and Alaska Native Tribes now have access to a plan with strategies and resources they can use to help save lives.


Tom Edwards, Cross Timbers Consulting, LLC

To advance transportation safety efforts in Tribal areas, the Federal Highway Administration awards grants for improvements through the Tribal Transportation Program. This separated pathway, constructed using funds awarded through the program, connects Citizen Potawatomi Nation to the city of Shawnee, OK, and increases safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.


Based on the available data, which are known to be underreported in Tribal areas, transportation-related injuries and fatalities occur at greater rates among Native American and Alaska Native populations than other demographic groups. Motor vehicle crashes cause an annual average of at least 655 fatalities in Tribal areas. For comparison, this exceeds the collective 611 annual average motor vehicle fatalities reported in the States of Idaho, Maine, North Dakota, and South Dakota for the same time. Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death from unintentional injuries for Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death for Native Americans and Alaska Natives ages 1 to 44 and the third-leading cause of death overall.

What causes fatal crashes to happen in Tribal areas? Many factors are involved in every crash, but which should be priorities for those who seek to improve transportation safety in Tribal areas? To answer these questions, the Tribal Transportation Safety Management System (SMS) Steering Committee was formed under the leadership of the Federal Highway Administration Office of Tribal Transportation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Division of Transportation. The committee consists of representatives from Federal agency offices and Tribal governments. The SMS Steering Committee researched 5 years of fatality data, transportation safety plans developed by Tribes, State strategic highway safety plans, and other data sources.

The committee used its analysis to identify seven topics to emphasize in a Tribal Transportation Strategic Safety Plan, which it published in August 2017. A report to Congress summarizing this safety plan followed in January 2018. Both documents are available at

Within each of the priority topics, the safety plan identifies overall data trends, which may help to guide national technical assistance efforts and be useful for State and Tribal planning efforts. However, the safety plan encourages each Tribal government to develop a local road safety plan that reflects local data analysis and safety priorities. For example, pedestrian safety is identified in the national safety plan based on fatal crash statistics from all Tribal areas. However, an analysis of the crash data for a specific Tribal area may prioritize another topic, such as roadway departure or intersection safety, in that Tribe’s transportation safety plan.

Priority Topics


The Tribal Transportation SMS Steering Committee identified seven topics as being of greatest concern in Tribal areas based on the available data and documentation. For each of the seven topics, the Tribal Transportation Strategic Safety Plan identifies websites, guidebooks, and funding sources. These and other resources are also available on the committee’s website at

Decisionmaking Process. A successful safety program must have clear direction. This topic encourages Tribes to develop strategic safety plans and to use those plans to manage a coordinated safety program.

Crash Data Availability and Limitations. Improvements in the quality and types of crash data collected are needed in many Tribal areas. Barriers to improving crash data collection in Tribal areas include a need for improved Tribal/State communication about crash data and standardized crash data collection by Tribal and Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement.

Occupant Protection/Child Passenger Seats. Over half of all victims of fatal crashes in the studied Tribal areas were not using safety restraints.

Roadway Departure. Errant drivers leaving the proper lane or roadway represent a large portion of fatal crashes in Tribal areas.

Impaired Driving. Opportunities exist to reduce fatal motor vehicle crashes involving driver impairment.

Pedestrian Safety. Many Native American communities have citizens walking greater distances on a regular basis, and most crashes involving vehicles and pedestrians in Tribal areas occur at a location other than an intersection or marked crosswalk. Pedestrian safety is a priority in many Tribal transportation safety plans as well as in the national transportation safety plan.

Availability of Public Safety Services. The severity of an injury often relates directly to the speed at which proper medical attention can be provided. The elapsed time from notification of emergency medical services to a crash victim’s arrival at a treatment facility is often greater than an hour in Tribal areas. Based on available data, the elapsed time is greater than an hour in 44 percent of crashes in Tribal areas, compared with 23 percent for the United States overall.


Mark Leary, Native Village of Napaimute

This vehicle helps to monitor thickness of an ice road near the Native Village of Napaimute in Alaska.


Steering Committee Support

At present, the SMS Steering Committee is identifying options for supporting Tribes in improving transportation safety, especially as it relates to these seven priority topics. These efforts may include a national Tribal safety conference, a webinar series dedicated to safety concerns within the focus areas, pilot projects, and case studies. In addition, the agencies represented on the committee will continue to provide technical assistance in the focus areas and other areas of concern as Tribes request support.

Additional resources and information, including a copy of the safety plan and a link to listen to live SMS meetings, are available at A mailing list is also available on the website for those interested in receiving regular updates on committee meetings, funding announcements, new publications, and other items of interest related to Tribal transportation safety.

Funding for Improvements

Each year under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, 2 percent (roughly $9 million) of the available Tribal Transportation Program funds are set aside to address transportation safety issues in Tribal areas. Funds are available to federally recognized Tribes through a competitive, discretionary program. Awarded annually, FHWA selects projects related to safety planning, data improvement, and infrastructure whose outcomes will address the prevention and reduction of death or serious injuries in transportation-related incidents.

This funding has resulted in about 60 percent of Tribes applying for and receiving funds to develop a transportation safety plan. Tribal Transportation Program Safety Funds have resulted in improvements to the collection, sharing, and use of crash data. In addition, Tribes have implemented many infrastructure improvements through this funding.

Some examples of successful safety infrastructure improvements funded by Tribal Transportation Program Safety Funds include realignment of hazardous horizontal and vertical curves by the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska; a separated pedestrian and bicycle pathway connecting Citizen Potawatomi Nation to the city of Shawnee, OK; intersection traffic control at U.S. Highway 62 and Cherokee Street/Coffee Hollow Road for the Cherokee Nation to provide controlled access into a Head Start center and a high school; and coordinated safety monitoring of ice roads along Alaska’s Kuskokwim River led by the Native Village of Napaimute.

Since the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act initiated the safety fund in 2013, FHWA has funded safety grants totaling more than $50 million. However, the need for safety projects greatly exceeds the available funding. In December 2017, FHWA received requests for $90 million in safety project funding (only $16 million was available). For more information about available funding, visit

“Tribal transportation is unique and complex within Tribal areas because most are remote, undeveloped, and in some cases, seasonal routes,” says Philip B. Manes, project analyst with the Cherokee Nation Department of Transportation and member of the Tribal Transportation SMS Steering Committee. “Transportation is a lifeline for emergency response, commerce, and education for tribes, and safety must be a top priority.”


Adam Larsen is the safety engineer for the Tribal Transportation Program in FHWA’s Office of Tribal Transportation in the Office of Federal Lands Highway. Larsen provides technical assistance on transportation safety efforts to Tribal governments and assists with the administration of the Tribal Transportation Program Safety Fund. He holds a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from Portland State University.

For more information, see or contact Adam Larsen at 360–619–7751 or