Traffic Safety on Tribal Lands

By Amanda Essex | Vol . 24, No. 30 / August 2016


Did You Know?

  • There were 511 Native American traffic fatalities in 2013.
  • From 2009-2013, non-Native Americans accounted for nearly half of fatalities on reservations.
  • Each tribe has its own laws related to traffic safety.

Traffic safety is an important public health and safety concern, with approximately 33,000 traffic fatalities and hundreds of thousands of injuries in crashes in the United States each year. One group that is disproportionately affected by traffic crashes are American Indians. Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of unintentional injury for American Indians and Alaska Natives ages 1 to 44, with adults one and a half times more likely to die in a crash than whites or blacks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Between 2009 and 2013, 2,602 Native Americans were killed in traffic crashes. In 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 511 Native American traffic fatalities and 180 of those occurred on reservations. Crashes on tribal lands also affect non-tribal populations; data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that from 2009-2013 nearly half of fatal crashes on tribal land resulted in the deaths of non- Native Americans.

Major traffic safety risk factors identified by the CDC include low seat belt use, low child safety seat use and alcohol impaired driving. Nearly 47 percent of the total Native American fatalities in 2013 involved alcohol and over 45 percent of those killed were not wearing seat belts.

Non-motorized traffic safety is also a significant concern on tribal lands. In 2013, 110 Native Americans not driving or riding in vehicles were killed in traffic crashes, including 101 pedestrians and eight bicyclists. Some tribal communities have worked with Safe Routes to School programs, which aim to create safe street environments for students to walk and bicycle to and from school. However, there are important challenges associated with tribal lands, such as the distance students may have to travel to reach their school, road conditions and variation in the agencies that have jurisdiction over roads.

State Action

Tribes have sovereignty, meaning they have rights of self-government and each tribe has its own laws related to traffic safety. There are various means through which tribes can apply for grants to support traffic safety. Many of these include cooperative programs with states.

The state of Washington, for example, has an agreement with the Tribes of Washington State to enhance traffic safety. It includes maintaining a Tribal Traffic Safety Advisory Board to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC), planning and facilitating a Tribal-State Transportation Conference every other year, and improving the collection and analysis of crash data on tribal lands. WTSC works with tribal governments to provide resources, including education, outreach and funding to help improve traffic safety on tribal roads.

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, working with the commission, put up billboards about traffic safety and made public service announcements promoting the use of child restraints. They also held a bicycle safety rodeo during which they gave helmets to participating children and taught them about bicycle safety. The improvements resulted in a decrease in traffic fatalities from approximately 24 per year to two fatalities in 2011.

Arizona has 22 federally recognized tribes located in the state, making up 28 percent of the state’s land base. Arizona’s Department of Transportation maintains a webpage with information on funding opportunities for tribes, including a section on transportation safety. Recently the Arizona DOT and Navajo Nation released a flyer, translated to Navajo, that educates drivers on navigating a roundabout. Colorado and Nebraska also have grant programs to support traffic safety on tribal lands.

Federal Action

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act), the long-term transportation funding bill passed in 2015, made modifications to requirements for federal grants related to traffic safety. The legislation specifies that states may provide funds from these grants to tribal governments. The FAST Act also appropriates funds for the Tribal Transportation Program, which includes money to “address the prevention and reduction of death or serious injuries in transportation related crashes.” Nearly $8.5 million in grants were awarded in FY 2015.

Additionally, the BIA’s Indian Highway Safety Program (IHSP) aims “[t]o reduce the number and severity of traffic crashes in Indian Country by supporting Education, Enforcement, and Engineering, as well as Safe Tribal Community Programs.” The IHSP partners with a number of federal agencies to reduce injuries and fatalities on Native American reservations, including NHTSA, CDC, Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS). IHSP funds are used by tribes in a number of ways, including for highway safety officers, increased traffic patrols, DUI checkpoints and educational presentations on the effects of impaired driving.

Another significant program is the Tribal Technical Assistance Program (TTAP), funded by the FHWA and BIA. There are TTAP centers by region across the country. The Northwest TTAP, based out of Eastern Washington University, provides resources and trainings for Northwest Tribes on a range of topics, including a course on defensive driving, a training on the fundamentals of highway safety and a road/pedestrian safety workshop. CDC also partners with FHWA to support tribes through TTAP.

The IHS has an Injury Prevention Program, which includes programming focused on tribal traffic safety. It offers the Safe Native American Passengers program (SNAP), a one-day course providing a “culturally appropriate introduction to child passenger safety.” IHS also provides grants to tribes to help address injury prevention, including motor vehicle injuries.

The CDC’s “Roadway to Safer Tribal Communities Toolkit” encourages tribal governments to fully enforce drinking and driving laws, conduct sobriety checkpoints, require ignition interlock devices for first-time offenders, and include nighttime driving and passenger restrictions in a graduated driver licensing law. The toolkit also encourages providing education and enforcement regarding car seats and booster seats and instituting primary enforcement of seat belts laws.

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