UT Awarded $1.2 Million for Traffic Safety Project by CDC

Shashi NambisanThe nighttime safety of drivers and passengers on Tennessee’s highways could soon be greatly improved thanks to a new research project through the Center for Transportation Research at UT.

The high number of injuries and deaths from traffic incidents prompted agencies such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations to recognize their epidemic proportion.

Having been labeled as such allowed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come into play, leading to a competition to select a team that would lead the efforts to improve nighttime seat belt usage.

UT’s team—led by Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Shashi Nambisan and CTR Transportation Research Director Jerry Everett—won, and is now being supported by the CDC with a $1.2 million grant paid over three years.

“This project brings together researchers, practitioners, and the public in a collaborative fashion to address a real-world transportation issue,” said David Clarke, CTR director. “Highway traffic safety is a key aspect of our center’s mission, and we can achieve that better by getting everyone on the same page.”

Although it might seem odd for the CDC to get involved in a transportation issue, the agency is tasked with public health and safety regardless of the cause.

Nambisan pointed out that, on average, the number of people killed in traffic incidents each day in the United States is roughly the same as having an airliner crash every day.

With that statistic in mind, it’s easy to see why the CDC felt it was an important topic to tackle.

Jerry EverettWhereas “Booze It and Lose It” and “Click It or Ticket” programs have helped the Tennessee Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies curb drunk driving and raise overall seat belt use, the new study will focus on specifically increasing nighttime seat belt use.

Statistics have shown much higher rates of injuries and fatalities involving unbelted motorists with high blood alcohol content in post-dusk incidents compared to daytime ones, highlighting the need for the study.

“Most of the studies done so far and the efforts to enforce have focused only on daytime hours,” said Nambisan. “The focus of this initiative is to increase the seat belt usage rate at night through coordinated enforcement and outreach efforts.”

The study will be conducted in Knox, Blount, Loudon, Roane, and Sevier Counties, with data from Rutherford County—where no outreach will take place—being used for comparison purposes.

Observations will be made about driver behavior at a variety of locations such as sporting events or at highway checkpoints.

“The strength of our partnership with the Governor’s Highway Safety Office is critical to this study,” said Everett. “Additionally, without the help of law enforcement this project wouldn’t be possible.”

Following a period of outreach and advertising, more observations will take place to see what impact the message has had.

From the standpoint of law enforcement, the potential for the study comes down to changing the behavior of a specific portion of the population.

“We currently have an 88 percent seat belt use rate across the state,” said Governor’s Highway Safety Office Director Kendell Poole. “However, our studies show that around half of our traffic crash fatalities are unbuckled. This means that half of our fatalities come from 12 percent of our population.

“It is important to evaluate enforcement and educational programs in order to be the most effective in getting our message across and help us understand which interventions can impact that last 12 percent.”

In addition to the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, Cindy Raines of UT’s College of Business Administration, UT Athletics, UT’s Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life, and the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association also have joined the effort.

By partnering with such a wide range of people and organizations, the reach of the study will have a much better chance of hitting the key demographic the group hopes to address, teens to people in their mid-thirties.

“This is another great example of the good that can be achieved through collaboration,” said Wayne Davis, dean of the College of Engineering, where the CTR is housed. “Being able to take part in projects such as this, that can make a real impact in people’s lives, is something we take very seriously.”

The program will likely hit full swing in early 2015, with periods of observation and outreach lasting three to four months at a time thereafter.

Cooperative Agreement Number 1 U01 CE002503-01, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, supports this study.

C O N T A C T :

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)