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Although the national crash rate has dropped 50% since the 1970s, fatalities have hovered at 40,000/year for nearly two decades. At least half occur on rural roads.

The emotional toll these deaths represent has spawned a movement — Toward Zero Deaths — that's gaining traction as federal, state, and local agendas align. Last year, the Governors Highway Safety Association announced its goal to reduce fatalities by 1,000 every year through 2030. This dovetails nicely with incentives in the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), designed to radically reduce fatalities by midcentury.

“Many counties aren't pursuing these dollars right now,” says Sue Groth, director/state traffic engineer of the Minnesota DOT's Office of Traffic, Safety, and Technology, which works with the agency's Office of State Aid for Local Transportation to distribute state funding. For the 2009 – 2010 fiscal year, $11 million has been awarded for county safety projects. “And they're missing out on an opportunity.”

Freeborn County Engineer Susan Miller isn't one of these managers.

Tired of the finger-pointing from residents and public safety officials after crashes on her department's 634 miles of road, the mother of four took it upon herself to establish and lead Toward Zero Deaths initiatives. Her office helped create a regional effort in southeast Minnesota five years ago, and two years ago the county established its own.

“I wanted to give better answers to the people who came to my office after a fatal accident,” she says. “And I don't want it to be anyone else's kids.” Though it increases her work load, she believes it's logical to spearhead the program because she and her colleagues are most familiar with the infrastructure in question.

Though much of her work involves existing assets, over the last three years Miller's department has received $16 million from Minnesota's Local Road Improvement Program for new infrastructure. Last year, it also received $450,000 through three SAFETEA-LU programs:

  • The Highway Safety Improvement Program, which has allocated $11 million to Minnesota counties over the past five years.
  • The High Risk Rural Road Program, which provides $1 million/year for Minnesota counties.
  • The Comprehensive Highway Safety Program, which provided $2 million and has funded many local safety audits.

Best of all, Miller can prove her department's efforts paid off and deserve continuing investment. Countywide, deaths are down to two in recent years from about seven annually a decade ago.

Some experts think funding levels in the next federal surface transportation bill could be significantly lower, so managers must demonstrate significant need. They can do so by adopting a comprehensive, four-step approach: Know the facts, conduct an audit of safety hazards, identify and access available funding, and make the improvements.


States may use up to 10% of their Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) allocation for projects that address the “4Es” of SAFETEA-LU: engineering, education, enforcement, and emergency medical services. The rest must go toward railway-highway crossing projects and highway safety improvements.