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Center for Transportation Studies

Minnesota Comprehensive Highway Safety Plan – Progress Report

Presentation by Bernie Arseneau, Minnesota State Traffic Engineer

November 9, 2004

Bernie Arseneau, Minnesota's State Traffic Engineer, is an outspoken advocate for a radical new vision of road safety in Minnesota. After more than two decades at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Arseneau is one of many state transportation leaders who is convinced that a new approach to reducing fatalities and serious injuries on Minnesota's roads is necessary.

Although it is not primarily concerned with advanced technologies, the Comprehensive Plan represents innovative thinking about roadway safety and seems destined to affect the implementation of ITS technologies for safety in Minnesota for years to come.

Arseneau appeared at an Advanced Transportation Technologies Seminar November 9 to lay out the ambitious new program for an audience that included both researchers and members of CTS advisory boards.

Introducing the plan, Arseneau emphasized that the development of this plan has been a cooperative effort including participation from many areas of state and local government; in particular, he thanked project managers Loren Hill and Cathy Berkmore, as well as Howard Preston of consulting firm CH2MHill.

At the core of the new plan is the statewide safety initiative known as Toward Zero Deaths (TZD), jointly developed by Mn/DOT and the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. TZD is based on the premise that any deaths or serious injuries occurring on the highways of Minnesota are inherently unacceptable; the program works to leverage the 'Four E's' of Engineering, Enforcement, Education, and Emergency Medical Services to move the state closer to a day when highway fatalities will be a thing of the past. More information about the TZD program is available on the program's Web site, at www.minnesotatzd.org.

In the past, Arseneau said, a goal of zero deaths would have been seen as unreasonable; indeed, many people still view it as an impossibility. However, through advances in many areas such as traffic safety research and countermeasures, combined with increasing public awareness of the traffic fatality problem, Arseneau now believes that the goal is attainable—although it may take some time and a lot of effort to reach it.

Minnesota's approach to highway safety has historically been much the same as other states: look for problem areas in the crash and injury statistics, and then try to go after those areas with safety improvements that focus on engineering solutions such as improved signing and changes in road geometry—Mn/DOT's traditional strong suit.

In contrast to this reactive and piecemeal approach, Arseneau paints the new comprehensive safety plan as a proactive and systematic. Under the new plan, Mn/DOT will look beyond the trunk highway system to include local roads in its safety analysis. Instead of focusing narrowly on engineering, the agency will develop solutions that incorporate better driver education and more effective enforcement, in cooperation with other state agencies such as the Department of Public Safety. The goal, he said, will be "to get out in front of crashes, learn from them, and apply fixes in similar locations all around the state—even in areas that have had few fatal crashes, or none at all."

Another difference from business as usual is that the new approach looks at traffic safety from the point of view of bodies, not of crash rates. This gives planners the ability to think of ways not only to reduce the number of crashes, but to reduce the effects of crashes when they do occur, for example, through working for a statewide primary seat belt law.

Modeling their approach on the safety initiative developed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the new comprehensive plan used a process of self-assessment and data analysis to identify key emphasis areas that would have the greatest positive impact in Minnesota. These were classified into six groups:

  1. Drivers. Education and licensing of young drivers, including the possibility of a graduated licensing system; improving the performance of older drivers; increasing seat belt usage; and reducing the incidence of impaired driving such as DUI.
  2. Special Users. Pedestrian and bicycle safety.
  3. Vehicles. Motorcycle safety and awareness, as well as safety issues connected with heavy commercial vehicles and trucks.
  4. Highways. Reducing lane-departure crashes and improving intersection safety; reducing vehicle-train collisions; improving safety in work zones.
  5. Emergency Medical Services. Increasing the survivability of crashes, particularly in outstate areas where injuries occur far from hospitals with trauma centers.
  6. Management. Improving systems for information gathering and decision support; developing better processes and safety management systems.

From these key emphasis areas, the planning team identified a group of critical strategies for implementation in Year 1 of the comprehensive plan. These can be broken down into the "Four E's" of the Towards Zero Deaths program, with an additional category added for administrative improvements. They include:

Enforcement:

  • Ensuring adequate resources to perform traffic enforcement
  • Enactment of a statewide primary seat belt law
  • Deployment of automated enforcement (cameras) for red-light running and aggressive driving
  • Implementation of a stricter graduated license system
  • Improving cooperation between courts and law enforcement to prevent reduced/eliminated charges
  • Implementation of targeted enforcement programs and sobriety saturation enforcement

Engineering:

  • Deployment of low cost safety improvements for lane departure & intersection crashes
  • Providing assistance for local agencies in implementation of low cost improvements
  • Improving maintenance of roadway facilities and roadside hardware, and removing hazardous objects
  • Performing Road Safety Audits at the network level

Education:

  • Formation of a Communications Task Force to raise public awareness
  • Revision and enhancement of driver education programs

Administrative:

  • Establishment of a Governor's Traffic Safety Panel
  • Formation of a Legislature Action Committee to lobby for GDI/improved curriculum/increased liability/court involvement
  • Ensuring adequate staffing, equipment and other resources for information systems

Emergency Medical Response and Care:

  • Implementing a statewide Trauma System

Arseneau took numerous questions from researchers in the audience during and after his presentation, demonstrating the high level of interest among ITS researchers in safety planning, and the strong ties between technological development and policy directions. For everyone in attendance, Arseneau's seminar presentation was a welcome opportunity to look into the highest levels of a safety planning process informed by the latest research results from the academic community.