Uncovering why policymakers support—or oppose—traffic safety countermeasures
Mounting evidence shows that certain traffic safety countermeasures consistently save lives on our nation’s roadways. Examples include motorcycle helmet laws, primary enforcement of seat belt use, sobriety checkpoints, graduated driver licensing (GDL), mandatory ignition interlock, and automated speed enforcement. But despite the effectiveness of these countermeasures, states that have tried to implement them have had varying levels of success in garnering the support needed from policymakers.
Currently, Roadway Safety Institute (RSI) researchers are working to determine why this support varies by assessing the factors that affect the adoption of evidence-based approaches to road safety by state legislators and policy leaders. In addition, the researchers are examining the role of federally required state safety programs and are identifying best practices for states. The research project, “Assessing Factors Affecting Policy Leadership in Adopting Road Safety Countermeasures,” is being led by Lee Munnich, director of the State and Local Policy Program at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
“We know that if certain policy countermeasures are adopted more broadly by state legislatures, we would likely see measureable and significant reductions in roadway fatalities and serious injuries,” Munnich says. “In this project, we’re asking why state legislators and policy leaders support or oppose certain evidence-based countermeasures. For example, are they not convinced of the evidence? Are they concerned about constituent response? And how do things like public opinion surveys, lobbying groups, and law enforcement organizations affect their decisions in support or opposition?”
Munnich’s team recently completed the first phase of this project, which included reviewing state strategic highway safety plans and Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) programs for the six RSI member states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin). As part of that work, the researchers prepared a draft case study for each state. The case study on Minnesota, for example, found that the state has demonstrated mixed results in implementing policy countermeasures. Minnesota has been successful in legislating primary enforcement of seat belt use, GDL program upgrades, and mandated ignition interlock implementation in certain cases, but it does not require universal motorcycle helmet use or authorize automated speed enforcement or use of sobriety checkpoints. This means the state legislature could do considerably more to make advances in those areas, the researchers say.
The team also developed a methodology for developing an assessment tool for TZD programs, conducted policy interviews with state legislators and safety policy leaders, and analyzed results. During the next year, continued work on this project will include developing and testing the new assessment tool, conducting roadway safety policy roundtables, and completing the final research report and policy brief.
Ultimately, Munnich hopes this work will help shape the future of roadway safety policy in the United States. “Safety strategies require policy leadership as well as institutional collaboration for continued improvements in roadway safety,” says Munnich. “We hope that the assessment tool will help policymakers to re-evaluate their positions to push for evidence-based road safety policy countermeasures.” This research, he adds, will contribute to further developing and successfully implementing roadway safety policy strategies at the state and local level—in addition to providing best practices and strategies for legislators, state DOTs, public safety offices, and state and local elected officials in adopting proven legislative policies and effective TZD approaches to reduce traffic deaths and serious injuries.