November 01, 2016

Traffic Safety in Indian Country: A New Beginning

By J. Matthew Martin and Susan Crotty

The U.S. House and Senate emerged in late 2015 from conference committee with a five-year transportation bill, which was quickly enacted and became the first “long-term” transportation legislation in more than a decade. Discouragingly named the “FAST Act” (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act1) and 1,300 pages long, the $305 billion bill reserves $48 billion exclusively for transit and $205 billion for highways. In very broad strokes, the FAST Act authorizes federal surface transportation programs through fiscal year 2020 aimed at improving our nation’s infrastructure. Specifically, the Act reforms federal surface transportation programs, refocuses those programs on addressing national priorities, and encourages innovation to make the surface transportation system safer and more efficient.

One of those national priorities is traffic safety in Indian Country.2 In sections 1117 and 1118 of the FAST Act, the Federal Lands and Tribal Transportation Programs are identified specifically. In section (b), Congress found in the Report on Tribal Governments Transportation Safety Data that, in many states, the American Indian3 population is disproportionately represented in fatalities and crash statistics. In particular, Congress recognized how improved crash reporting by tribal law enforcement agencies would facilitate safety planning and enable Indian tribes to apply more successfully for state and federal funds for traffic safety improvements. Additionally, Congress addressed the causes of underreporting of crashes on Indian reservations, including tribal law enforcement capacity, staffing shortages and turnover, lack of equipment, software and training, and lack of standardization in crash reporting forms and protocols. Congress realized that, without more accurate reporting of crashes in Indian Country, it is difficult or impossible to understand fully the nature of the problem and develop appropriate countermeasures. Such congressionally approved measures include effective transportation safety planning and programs aimed at driving under the influence (DUI) prevention, pedestrian safety, roadway safety improvements, seat belt usage, and proper use of child restraints.

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