Pedestrian reminder (in Ojibwe) and well-worn footpath on MN-1, Red Lake Reservation, MN.

Pedestrian reminder (in Ojibwe) and well-worn footpath on MN-1,
Red Lake Reservation, MN. Photo credit: Guillermo Narváez

For American Indian communities, transportation safety is a high-stakes issue. Nationally, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of unintentional injury for American Indians aged 1 to 44, and their motor vehicle death rate is higher than for any other ethnic or racial group in the U.S. While most research into this issue examines sources of risk for the entire population, RSI researchers Kathryn Quick and Guillermo Narváez studied a previously unexplored aspect of the problem: roadway safety in American Indian reservations.

Kathryn Quick

Kathryn Quick

"Reservations are home to 22 percent of American Indians, so understanding this context is essential to improving their roadway safety," says Quick, an associate professor with the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "We collaborated with people who have direct knowledge of and responsibility for reservation roadway safety: tribal governments, and the local and state governments who also work on safety issues in reservations. We wanted to determine what is distinctive about roadway safety in reservations, how the relationships among agencies with overlapping responsibility for roadway safety in reservations affect safety, and how roadway safety in reservations can be improved."

The study generated extensive primary data through case studies of four reservations in Minnesota and national surveys. The case studies were conducted through partnerships with the tribal governments of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Data collection included 85 days of fieldwork observations, 102 interviews with key stakeholders, focus groups with expert drivers, and in-person surveys of 220 reservation residents. They then collaborated with the Federal Highway Administration to design and analyze results of the 2016 Tribal Transportation Safety Data Survey, a national online survey with responses from 151 representatives of tribal governments and 45 representatives of state governments.

"Our research methods created new data sources and facilitated in-depth analysis and problem-solving in particular reservations, while emphasizing the perspectives of people with the most direct, informed knowledge of reservation conditions," Quick says. "Through our analysis, we identified five high-priority reservation roadway safety concerns—pedestrians, road engineering and repair, reckless driving, seat belt and car seat use, and interjurisdictional coordination."

"Our findings challenge 'conventional wisdom' about drinking and driving or drug use as the sole explanation for high fatalities among American Indians or in reservations. We did not find that in the data." — Kathryn Quick

Uncovering the importance of pedestrian safety on tribal lands was a novel and important finding of this study; there has been relatively little prior research indicating this is a particular concern. "We found unequivocal data that pedestrian safety is a critical, under-recognized priority on reservations," Narváez says. "In reservation communities many people move around on foot, and we found that pedestrian safety is the single most outstanding feature of road safety in reservations compared to rural areas generally. This highlights the need for infrastructure investment, signage, enforcement, and education to protect pedestrians in reservations."

Another key finding was that impaired driving must not be assumed to be "the" explanation for American Indian mortality rates. "Our research strongly confirmed that enforcement and education to reduce reckless driving behaviors—including speeding, impaired driving, and distracted driving—are high priorities. However, our findings challenge 'conventional wisdom' about drinking and driving or drug use as the sole explanation for high fatalities among American Indians or in reservations. We did not find that in the data," Quick says.

Foot path from elementary school to cross US-2 highway, Leech Lake Reservation, MN.

Foot path from elementary school to cross US-2 highway,
Leech Lake Reservation, MN.
Photo credit: Guillermo Narváez

In some communities, the research has already led to some practical safety improvements. Kade Ferris, transportation planner with the Red Lake Tribal Engineering Department, says that the researchers' work allowed for "an unprecedented and useful integration of disparate types of data into a more comprehensive, robust picture," which aided development of a comprehensive tribal transportation safety plan for the Red Lake Nation. The data have also helped the tribe identify and address specific safety concerns—for example, pedestrian safety concerns along Minnesota Highway 1, the main east-west highway through the reservation. The tribe then used the data to apply for and receive funding from the State of Minnesota to develop a new walking trail and street lighting to provide a safer walking environment for the reservation's residents.

Going forward, the research team plans to continue its work on improving reservation roadway safety, particularly to evaluate roadway safety implementation with tribes, advance qualitative methods and expand qualitative data sources, and assess emergency response quality in reservations.