Atlanta, GA,
17:04 PM

Shepherd Center Aims to Make Rural Roads Safer

Hospital receives grant to target seatbelt use on rural roads.

Emma Harrington

According to The Governor’s Highway Safety Association, 45% of all fatal crashes happen on rural roads, and the risk of dying is 62% higher on a rural road than on urban roads for the same length of trip. Together, Shepherd Center’s Injury Prevention Program and Montana State University Center for Health and Safety Culture are working to make rural roads a safer place to travel.

Through the Safe System Approach to Rural Roads grant, awarded by the Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety (GOHS), the two organizations will focus on increasing seat belt compliance using a social norming campaign targeting rural Georgians. The funds provided by Georgia to GOHS are provided by the National Highway Traffic Administration. The highway safety grant, totaling $237,300, will begin on October 1, 2023, and end on September 30, 2024.

“Although seat belts are the best way to protect yourself in the event of a crash and have been well-documented to save lives and reduce injuries, seatbelt compliance continues to be a challenge,” said Emma Harrington, director of injury prevention at Shepherd Center. “Unfortunately, Georgia’s trends mirror injury and fatality data nationally and at a level endured over 30 years ago. Increasing proper restraint use is key to saving lives on Georgia roadways.”

From 2019 to 2020, there was a 14.4% increase nationally in unrestrained passenger vehicle occupants, resulting in 10,983 lives lost.  In 2020, 51% of occupants in fatal crashes were known to be unrestrained, resulting in 10,893 lives lost on roadways nationwide (FARS, 2020).

In Georgia, despite relatively high rates of seat belt compliance, almost 50% of Georgia roadway fatalities were unrestrained. On average, 644 lives could have been saved per year (2016-2020) if all vehicle occupants had been properly restrained in our state (OPTT Fact Sheet).

Of particular concern are drivers on our rural roads, which have been identified as a highly vulnerable population. Even though only 19% of the nation’s population lives in rural areas, almost 50% of all fatal crashes happen on rural roads. The risk of dying is 62% higher on a rural road than on urban roads for the same length of trip.

This project aims to combine Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) priorities on rural roads and the Safe System Approach to Rural Roads with a cutting-edge social norming seat belt campaign.

“We have strategically combined countermeasures that work and evidence-based social norming to create an intervention to reduce unrestrained injuries and fatalities in our pilot rural counties,” Harrington said. “By including non-traditional stakeholders and building community coalitions, we hope to empower rural road users to transform their own traffic safety culture in Georgia.”

Social norming campaigns have a long history and strong evidence base for changing risky behavior. Best thought of as culture change interventions, social norming focuses on the vast majority of people doing the right thing and their ability to influence the small percentage of people engaging in risky behavior. While Georgia does have a significant problem with unrestrained crashes, the truth is that most drivers buckle up. Social norming theorem aims to dispel the myths, provide accurate information, and focus on growing the positive actions and characteristics of the majority.

“The grant aims to transform our safety culture and create a shared sense of responsibility for all road users,” Harrington said. “While this pilot grant will be one year in scope, it is just the beginning in making Georgia’s roads and most vulnerable users safer.”

Shepherd Center and the Governor’s Office of Highway ask that drivers do their part to make the roads safer.

“The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety and our partners continue to implement programs designed to save lives and promote safe driving behaviors,” said Allen Poole, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. “We ask everyone to help our state and nation reach the attainable goal of zero traffic deaths by driving safe speeds, always wearing a seat belt, keeping the focus on the road and not the phone, and never operating a vehicle under the influence of any substance that impairs your ability to drive.”

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.