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Iowans working together to improve highway safety

12/23/2016

Cracked windshieldIowa is setting the bar high related to traffic safety. The state’s Multidisciplinary Safety Team (MDST) Program, a coordinated effort between the Iowa Department of Transportation, Iowa Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP), and the Iowa Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, is the first of its kind in the country.

Before a crash or emergency or after one occurs, there are a number of professionals in the area of emergency management; first responders such as fire and emergency medical; engineers; law enforcement; traffic planners and more who work to keep the public safe. These professionals come from a variety of agencies who all have their own areas of focus and ways to do business. It is extremely important to have an avenue for these professionals to come together.

These safety teams to look at the causes of local crashes to determine how they can prevent future crashes and improve how professionals (i.e., law enforcement, fire and medical) respond to those crashes. In a MDST, these responders meet regularly to discuss safety topics, problems, projects, and improvements along their local roadways.

Theresa Litteral
Theresa Litteral

Theresa Litteral joined the Iowa State University Institute for Transportation (InTrans) team last year as a research associate. In addition, Litteral is housed at InTrans as the statewide MDST facilitator for LTAP. She conducts research in transportation safety projects for InTrans and as part of the LTAP staff team, assists the MDSTs in working toward their goal to make the state’s roadways a safer place to travel.

“When I came on board, I tried to learn all I could about these various groups. For example, which groups existed and how I could assist the groups along with possibly developing new teams,” Litteral said. “Some have a lot of history, some meet less frequent, and others were formed more recently with the assistance of this program.”

LTAP offers information for workshops related to engineering and traffic safety. Workshops are open to both MDST members and the public to attend. To see the list of upcoming workshops or register to attend, visit the LTAP website. LTAP also provides the MDST teams with technical reports, research documents, and traffic safety assessments. This approach will improve communication on technical transportation issues among professionals from local governments, cities, counties, metropolitan planning organizations, regional entities, and the Iowa DOT statewide.

Crash scene_multiple respondersBy collaborating with others, MDST participants gain a wider perspective on safety issues and learn from professionals outside their area of expertise. This can lead to the development of solutions that otherwise may not have been considered.

Too often, when a crash occurs it is more likely a secondary crash will occur in the same area. In fact, each minute a lane is blocked by an initial crash, the likelihood of a secondary crash occurring increases by 2.8 percent.  That means that after only 36 minutes after one crash closes a lane, the likelihood of another crash happening is 100 percent. These statistics are well known to first responders and highlight the need for responders to work together to clear incidents quickly.

Attending to a crash is dangerous for responders. Good communication is a key to increasing safety for the responders on scene. Through the MDST meetings, responders get to know each other and feel more comfortable communicating with each other when an incident occurs.

Another safety improvement is getting responders to follow similar protocols. One agenda Litteral is promoting is the use of the Federal Highway Administration’s National Traffic Incident Management Response Training Program. This program trains law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, transportation agency employees, and tow truck operators on how to effectively and efficiently work together when responding to crashes. This training, along with regular MDST meetings, helps solve these issues and prevent future occurrences.

Iowa Traffic Safety Team-01-01Just in the last year, Litteral has aided two communities in forming their first MDSTs.

“The Linn County and Ottumwa MDSTs were formed because the Iowa DOT recognized a need for a proactive solution regarding traffic safety in these communities.” Litteral said. “We contacted professionals from various backgrounds to put together each of the communities’ MDSTs.” This is an ever evolving effort between everyone involved.

Each MDST group functions a little differently from the next, whether that be how often they meet or their reasons for meeting. MDSTs meet at different frequencies — some meet on an as needed basis, and some meet monthly regardless of their community’s traffic safety issues. Litteral said some teams that meet on a regular basis are looking for ideas to include on their agendas, so part of her role is to assist with possible topics and discussions about local traffic safety programs.  

The Ames MDST began as a result of wrong-way movements on the community’s roadways. After cameras were installed on Ames-area roads, local law enforcement noticed drivers would travel down one-way roads or on the wrong sides of mediated roads. “An MDST led by the Ames Police Department specifically discusses topics like police reports and crash data, and reviews video footage to try to combat this ongoing issues along with other traffic issues in the community. Discussions include how changes can be made to the highway so that it is easier for drivers to interpret, be it through low-cost signage improvements to roadway realignment projects and  more. Analyzing topics like these at the meetings is the key to knowing who to contact and how to get the job done right. These teams connect people that are all working toward the same goals,” said Litteral.

She continued, “I don’t think I’ve ever met such passionate people in the field of traffic safety. It’s incredibly uplifting listening to them talk about all they do for their communities and all the effort they give to keep those community members safe. It’s an amazing inspiration and should be used as an example of how multidiscipline multiagency professionals can work together effectively.”

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Iowa highway in the evening