Freedom. How different it looks outside the borders of the United States. The Iowa Department of Transportation and other Iowa government leaders are learning that firsthand as they embark on cooperative traffic safety efforts with Iowa’s sister-state of Kosovo.
A little about Kosovo
Kosovo is a land-locked Eastern European country of about 2 million people located between Serbia to the north, Albania to the southwest, and Macedonia to the southeast. Since the Roman Empire, the area now known as Kosovo has been occupied or claimed by many different empires and nations.
In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. In 2011, the Iowa-Kosovo National Guard Partnership was established with the long-term goal of assisting the people of Kosovo to develop security forces and establish a relationship between Iowa and Kosovo. In its March 17, 2011, news release, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s office wrote, “The program’s goals are to link National Guard states and territories with partner countries for the purpose of fostering mutual interests and establishing habitual, long-term relationships across all levels of society.”
In just eight short years, the people of Kosovo have made great strides in rediscovering their nation and reaching out to the world. Because of the National Guard connection, leaders of Kosovo opened a consulate in Des Moines in January 2016, just its second consulate in the United States.
Why is the Iowa DOT involved in Kosovo?
As you can imagine, a country as young as Kosovo faces many challenges. Infrastructure, traffic engineering, and highway safety are just a few. In May, the U.S. Department of Justice funded a trip for a traffic safety assessment team from Iowa to travel to Kosovo. The team was tasked to meet with and make recommendations to Kosovo authorities. The team included Steve Gent, director of the Iowa DOT’s Office of Traffic and Safety, as well as Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau Chief Pat Hoye and Iowa Department of Public Safety Major Randy Kunert.
According to Gent, “The Kosovo officials we met with said they asked for our help because, frankly they were tired of cleaning up fatal crashes on their roadways. They knew there are things that could be done to make their roadways safer. I was focused on the engineering aspects of safety while Pat and Randy were focused on the enforcement side of safety.”
Gent said the team’s week in Kosovo began with meetings to hear the officials’ concerns and to gather critical data that would help us with our evaluation. In addition to meetings, Gent was able to get out on the road to see the issues firsthand. He said, “Unfortunately, they had little usable crash data, but getting out on the road, I could see pretty quickly that there were issues that could be addressed.”
Gent continued, “Driving around the country with several Kosovar engineers was very interesting. Kosovo is a beautiful country, but they have a dire need to update their highway design. Since that’s not something that can be easily updated, I focused more on low-cost improvements that could be implemented quickly. Things like guard rails, pavement markings, rumble strips, and updated signing could make a big difference pretty quickly. There were some communication issues, like when I was trying to explain the concept of rumble strips. They had never seen rumble strips and when I tried to draw them, well … that did not work so well. It was then that I decided it would be best for their engineers to come to Iowa to see our roadways and the variety of safety measures we use.”
(To see the full report from the Kosovo trip, go to Traffic Safety Management Assessment - Kosovo.)
In October, a group of four engineers, two police officers, and an interpreter arrived in Iowa from Kosovo for a week-long tour guided by Gent, Hoye, and Kunert and Iowa DOT safety engineer Willy Sorenson.
During the week, the police officers were able to review many Iowa enforcement practices and tour some of Iowa’s emergency management systems. They even got to go up in the Iowa State Patrol’s speed enforcement airplane to see the coordination between the officers on the ground and the officer in the plane.
Gent and Sorenson took the engineers and showed them cost-effective safety countermeasures implemented on Iowa roadways – things like rumble strips, pavement markings, signing, work zone concepts and barriers. Some of the simple things we take for granted were totally new to them.
Sorenson said that in addition to seeing low-cost solutions, they showed higher-end safety features such as the new diverging diamond interchange at Grand Prairie Parkway and Interstate 80 near Waukee, an intersection conflict warning system at U.S. 65 and Iowa 330, prepare to stop flashing beacons on Iowa 163 outside of Pleasant Hill, the Traffic Management Center in Ankeny, and other intelligent transportation system tools.
“For them, I think seeing these safety systems firsthand will make it easier to implement in their own country,” said Gent. “They can access our specifications and manuals via the internet, but even more important, now they have someone they can contact to answer questions.”
Sorenson concurs, “The friendships created in those few days will last a lifetime. It was actually sad on the last day of their trip when saying our goodbyes, but knowing that we helped out was priceless.”
Gent said, “A highlight of the trip was the presentation of souvenir Iowa license plates with each guest’s name. They thought those were pretty special. Even with our diverse differences and cultures, there is such a human connection. You find out quickly that we have many of the same goals, dreams, concerns, and fears. They are dealing with a serious lack of opportunity in Kosovo and coming here gives them a window into a different world.”