The Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s (TTI’s) 10th Traffic Safety Conference is historic in that it was the first time attendees helped shape the state’s latest Strategic Highway Safety Plan. It’s a federal requirement that all the nation’s state departments of transportation renew their plans every five years. Texas must submit its newest version of the state’s plan by August 1.
First responders, traffic safety researchers, educators, engineers and other transportation safety professionals spent the entire conference, held June 7–9 in Irving, prioritizing lifesaving countermeasures for Texas roadways.
The unique conference format comes at a time when traffic deaths in Texas reached a 13-year high in 2016. In 2010 (when the fewest fatalities occurred during that time period), 3,060 people died on our roadways. In 2016, 3,775 fatalities were reported — a 23 percent increase.
“I would call this a public health epidemic,” T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told conference-goers during her keynote speech. “Why has there been an increase, what is causing these deaths and what can we do about it?”
Attendees spent the conference studying the various strategies and potential countermeasures for seven problem, or emphasis, areas:
- Distracted driving.
- Intersection safety.
- Pedestrian safety.
- Impaired driving.
- Lane and roadway departure.
- Older system users.
Working in groups, but basing their recommendations on individual experiences and expertise, attendees selected the countermeasures and programs they felt could have the most impact on safety.
“We’re bringing people together from lots of different walks of life and lots of different disciplines and we’re putting them together in this safety conference to see if we can’t save lives and reduce injuries,” Robert Wunderlich, director of TTI’s Center for Transportation Safety and host of the conference, told the 275 attendees during the opening session. “This is the first step in the development of an action plan. We want you to be a part of the process and a contributor to it. The goal is to take your input and turn it into action.”
Wunderlich worked with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to develop a format for this year’s Traffic Safety Conference. Earlier in the year, TxDOT organized and conducted stakeholder and executive level team meetings that developed the emphasis areas and potential countermeasures. Conference-goers worked in teams to select their countermeasure choices. At the end, participants signed a pledge to help develop action plans in their communities.
“This was a very unique format that gave us some great ideas and a great start for an action plan,” explains Terry Pence, TxDOT Traffic Safety director. “It was interactive and people really got involved as they studied the targets, strategies and goals. This is the blueprint of what we are going to do on a local level.”
In order to make an impact on safety in the state of Texas, Pence emphasized that action plans must be developed in communities. “We have to get everyone engaged to make it work,” he says.
“Transportation has been intertwined with Texas history long before we became a state. Now, you will be shaping Texas history,” Dinn-Zarr said to conference goers. “Probably the most important part of Texas history is keeping people as safe as possible. You have really have given yourself a very challenging task; changing, developing and implementing the Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan.”