Building a Traffic Safety Culture - Part 2 - The Culture of Safety

In 2006, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety made safety culture one of four long-term research and education focus areas. The goal was to get behind the statistics and figure out why people behaved the way they do on the road, what fuels those actions, and most importantly, what could be done to change the situation.

Despite the effort of a dedicated traffic safety community, what we generally saw was that motorists, elected officials, and society as a whole had become extremely complacent toward the staggering roadway death toll. While the numbers of deaths should have caused red flags to be waved demanding action, instead it appears we have been waving the white flag of surrender, tacitly accepting these preventable deaths as the cost of the mobility we enjoy.

In light of this, the Foundation published its first-annual, Traffic Safety Culture Index in 2008, a nationwide survey analyzing the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of motorists and non-motorists alike across the country.
I referenced some of the findings in an earlier post.

The results were both alarming and telling. Motorists condone the very actions that they abhor, demonstrating a “do as I say, not as I do” culture.

For instance, over 80 percent of respondents rated distracted driving as a serious problem, yet over half admitted to talking on a cell phone while driving in the past month. Three in four drivers rated speeding as a serious problem, but 40 percent of those same drivers admitted to driving at least 15 mph over the speed limit on highways. And if that wasn’t enough, three in four respondents claimed to be “more careful than others” behind the wheel.

However, at the same time, over 60 percent of the respondents rated road safety as a serious national problem — admittedly below gas prices, but ahead of global warming. This is an encouraging number for the traffic safety community, and one that hints of added support for tackling this epidemic.

Organizations such as the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Transportation Research Board, in conjunction with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, have published comprehensive guidance and reference materials documenting dozens of known countermeasures. Most traffic safety professionals believe that deaths and serious injuries could be reduced by as much as 50 percent if known solutions were implemented.

In the Foundation’s Index, only 33 percent of respondents believed the government could substantially improve traffic safety. And, although it is difficult to identify exactly why people felt that way, it is safe to assume that part of the reason is due to years of “over promising and under producing” by government agencies. They have promised congestion relief, but none has occurred, and they have promised enhanced traffic safety, but we’ve seen little substantive change in deaths and serious injuries over the last decade.

However, with new emphasis on enhanced communications, collaborations, and a reinvigorated culture, the vision of safer drivers, in safer vehicles, on safety roads could become a reality.