The University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Toward Zero Deaths: Can We Get There?

by Matt Cate, P.E.

One of the lasting impressions from my experience at the Local Road Safety Peer Exchange in Atlanta came from a video shown early in the meeting. The video begins with people on the street being asked how many traffic fatalities occur in the U.S. every year. Despite the fact that this is a serious topic, the answers are humorous because people are clearly guessing. Responses ranged from a low of 400 to a high of 1,000,000. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicates that there were 32,637 traffic fatalities across the United States in 2011. The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that fatalities rose to approximately 36,200 in 2012, marking the nation's first annual increase since 2005. In Tennessee, the state's 2011 fatality total of 938 represented the state's lowest annual toll since 1962. However, Tennessee followed the national trend in 2012 as fatalities rose to 1,023.

People were next asked to identify the leading cause of traffic fatalities. Again, answers were all over the place. Many interviewees focused on distracted driving, while others identified drunk or impaired driving as the leading cause of fatal crashes. They were then asked what would be a reasonable goal for their state. Answers were again all over the place, with some as low as 2 or as high as 1,000. Several said that fatalities should be reduced by 50% from current levels. However, no one said "zero."

The last question, and the one that has grabbed my attention since the meeting, was "What is a good goal for your family?" Not surprisingly, every person interviewed said that there should be zero traffic fatalities in their family. Any loss of life among their family and friends would be unacceptable. I cannot imagine a scenario where any person in any state would give a response other than zero. However, by setting fatality goals above zero, are we unintentionally saying that it is acceptable for other families to experience loss of a friend or loved one? No one would put it in those words, but it is food for thought. All in all, I thought that the video was very effective and I would encourage you to take less than four minutes out of your day to watch it. The video, produced by the Illinois Department of Transportation, can be found on the YouTube website at

The video, and the broader concept of Toward Zero Deaths campaigns at the national and state levels, raises many questions. Is a year without traffic fatalities a realistic goal for any state, much less the nation as a whole? Probably not, as there are many variables beyond the immediate control of the highway safety community. However, a year without traffic fatalities would represent the ideal situation for every political division of our country. Why not strive for perfection as the ultimate goal?

In my mind, this discussion gets even more interesting when brought down to the local level. While it may not be "realistic" to expect zero deaths across Tennessee in a given year (or even a given month), why can't it be done on a smaller scale? Two Tennessee counties (Lake and Van Buren) had no traffic fatalities in 2012. Twenty more counties had only one, two, or three traffic fatalities in 2012. In other words, Tennessee has at least 22 counties where it would be quite reasonable to set an annual goal of zero fatalities.

How would we achieve a goal of zero fatalities? Certainly it would take a coordinated effort among law enforcement, emergency response, and roadway agencies. It would take a conscious effort on the part of drivers and other roadway users to be aware of potential danger posed by the roadway and the other vehicles and an understanding of responses that are appropriate to avoid these hazards. However, it only takes one driver to make a poor decision that could result in injury or fatality. A goal of zero deaths cannot be attained without an effort by everyone on or behind our roadways. Ask yourself what you can do on a daily basis to help achieve this goal within your own community.

One example of a proactive safety response was provided last year by TDOT. After seeing traffic fatalities increase by 64 (249 at the end of March 2012 versus 185 at the end of March 2011, or a year-to-date increase of 34.6%) in the first three months of 2012, TDOT began to post the YTD fatality total on its SmartWay overhead dynamic message signs. As evidenced by the responses in the Illinois DOT video, most people didn't have a clue how many lives are lost on Tennessee roadways in a given year. I heard many people discussing the fatality totals after the numbers became a standard message in the summer months. While sharing this information was not the only step taken to reduce fatalities, it surely helped to raise awareness of the problem in a greater percentage of the driving population.

On a related note, TTAP presented the Road Safety 365 workshop for the first time in 2012. This class, funded by the Federal Highway Administration for use by Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) and Tribal Technical Assistance Program (TTAP) centers across the nation, provides an excellent overview of the need for attention to improved safety on all roadways. Using simple but effective real-world examples, the class leads participants through a discussion of common roadway safety issues and presents a variety of potential low-cost safety improvements. One of the key concepts in the class is that of reading the road, or using clues in the roadway environment to determine where and potentially even why problems may occur. More importantly, the workshop builds a case for the importance of safety in all roadway activities, from planning to construction to routine maintenance. Finally, the course challenges all participants to renew their commitment to safety on a 24/7/365 basis.

As a co-instructor for the Road Safety 365 workshop, I feel that the classroom materials, videos and slides provide an excellent foundation for a meaningful discussion of safety on all roadways. In fact, the Road Safety 365 workshop has received excellent reviews from all participants. The biggest problem we face with this class is the fact that more people haven't had a chance to participate. In an effort to better identify the course content and focus, we have renamed it "Road Safety 365: Everyday Safety for Local and Rural Roads." The class will be offered in Knoxville on May 21 and in Jackson on August 20. Please visit the training page on the TTAP website ( for more information.

To learn more about current opportunities for local road safety funding in Tennessee, contact:>
Steve Allen, Director, TDOT Project Planning Division ( or
Brian Hurst, Transportation Manager 2, TDOT Project Safety Office (, 615-253-2433).

More Links: Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security's Daily Traffic Fatality Report:
FHWA Office of Safety's Toward Zero Deaths page:
NHTSA Driving Safety:


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