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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.

The relevance of quality transportation safety data collected by Indian tribes, states, and counties leads to improved collection and sharing of data on crashes on Indian reservations. In turn, the use of such data gives rise to the development of information that Indian tribes can use directly to address traffic safety issues on Indian reservations, including the identification and improvement of problem areas on public roads on Indian reservations.

For the purposes of traffic safety for indigenous nations, the FAST Act builds on the Highway Safety Act of 1966.4 This groundbreaking legislation provides U.S. Department of Transportation funding to assist federally recognized Indian tribes5 in implementing traffic safety projects on Indian reservations in the United States. The program is administered by the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Indian Highway Safety Program (IHSP). Oversight is provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Region 6 in Fort Worth, Texas. NHTSA and IHSP are also responsible for monitoring grants. The monitoring process ensures the achievement of federal requirements and performance targets. The monitoring process also assists the various highway safety projects in identifying actions needed to be taken to improve their highway safety programs, thereby remaining in compliance with the IHSP Law Enforcement Agreements.

Additionally, the FAST Act extends the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21).6 MAP-21 provides for Tribal Transportation Program funds to be set aside to address traffic safety issues in Indian Country.

How Big Is the Problem on Tribal Roads?

According to National Safety Council Injury Facts 2015, in 2013, motor vehicle crashes claimed 35,500 lives and research shows the likelihood of fatal crashes is even higher in tribal communities. According to Injury Facts, the average economic cost due to a crash was more than $1 million per death and more than $78,000 per nonfatal disabling injury. The Federal Lands Highway Tribal Transportation Program recognizes that traffic fatalities and injuries severely impact the quality of life in Indian Country. Such statistics are consistently higher than for the rest of the nation as a whole. In particular, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Injury Center research shows that

  • Injuries are the leading cause of death for indigenous peoples in the United States for ages 1 to 54 and the third leading cause of death overall.7
  • Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of unintentional injury for Natives ages 1 to 44. Adult motor vehicle–related death rates for Indians are 1.5 times more than those of whites and of blacks.8
  • Among infants less than 1 year of age, Indians have eight times the rate of motor vehicle traffic deaths than those of non-Hispanic whites.9
  • Among Natives 19 years and younger, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of unintentional injury-related death, followed by drowning and poisoning.10

Who Is Most at Risk?

  • Children: Among ethnic groups in the United States, Indian children experience the highest rates of injury mortality and morbidity. Natives ages 19 years and younger are at greater risk of preventable injury-related deaths than others in the same age group in the United States. Compared to blacks and whites, this group has the highest injury-related death rates for motor vehicle crashes, pedestrian events, and suicide. Rates for these causes are two to three times greater than rates for whites the same age.11
  • Males: Indians as a group are at increased risk of injury; however, Native males are at unusually high risk for many types of injuries. Compared to their female counterparts, indigenous males ages 20 years and older are twice as likely to die from a motor vehicle crash and three times more likely to die from a pedestrian-related injury.12

The map on page 33 shows motor vehicle related deaths rates from 2004–2010 for Natives.

The five states with the highest motor vehicle–related fatality rates among this population were Wyoming (72 deaths/100,000 population), South Dakota (59 deaths/100,000 population), Montana and North Dakota (56 deaths/100,000 population), and Arizona (45 deaths/100,000 population). Note that the data are not broken down further, so we do not know how many of these deaths occurred in Indian Country versus in the various states. This illustrates one of the key imperatives of Congress in collecting specific data in Indian Country.13

What Are the Major Risk Factors?

  • Low Seat Belt Use: According to NHTSA and the IHSP, the 2013 overall rate of seat belt use on 16 reservations was 69.6 percent. Belt use varies greatly across reservations, ranging from a low of 36.4 percent to a high of 90.7 percent. Reservations with primary seat belt laws have the highest use rates, followed by reservations with secondary seat belt laws. Not surprisingly, reservations with no seat belt laws have the lowest use rates.14 More than half (56 percent) of occupants of Indian passenger vehicles who died in motor vehicle crashes were unrestrained at the time of the fatal crash.15
  • Low Child Safety Seat Use: Though child safety seat use rates for Native communities vary greatly, rates are generally much lower than those of other racial groups.16 In 2011, the national child restraint use for children from birth to age 7 ranged from 79 percent to 99 percent.17 In one study of three Northwest tribes, car seat use ranged from 12 percent to 21 percent for children from birth to age 4.18 In some Native communities, not restraining children is a kind of local tradition.19
  • Alcohol Impaired Driving: Indigenous populations have a relatively high prevalence of alcohol-impaired driving and the highest alcohol-related motor vehicle mortality rates among racial/ethnic populations.20, 21 Among fatal crashes involving Native drivers in 2012, an estimated 42 percent were alcohol-related.22 Nationally, during this same time period, 31 percent of total crashes were alcohol-related.23
  • Distracted Driving: NHTSA’s Driver Distraction Program defines “distraction” as a specific type of inattention that occurs when drivers divert their attention from the driving task to focus on other activities. In 2010, 9 percent of fatal crashes involved driver distraction, and 13 percent of the drivers in these fatal crashes were reported to have been using a cell phone at the time of the crash.24 Distraction occurs when drivers take their eyes off the road, their hands off the wheel, and their minds off their primary task of driving safely.25 According to the 2012 National Survey on Distracted Driving Attitudes and Behaviors, 30 percent of Native drivers are distraction prone, while 70 percent are distraction averse.26


Proven and effective strategies to reduce motor vehicle crash–related injuries and deaths are well established; these include use of occupant restraints, primary laws, high visibility enforcement, and strict blood alcohol content (BAC) laws. Although each Indian community is politically and culturally unique, effective strategies can be tailored in these communities to meet the specific needs of tribes.

  • Seat Belt Use: There is strong evidence that seat belt use laws, especially primary enforcement laws, and enhanced enforcement campaigns are effective in increasing seat belt use.27 Inasmuch as seat belt usage is generally subject to tribal law28 and because tribal traffic law and law enforcement vary widely, the ability to encourage improved safety belt usage could have a dramatically positive effect on saving lives on tribal roads.
  • Child Safety Seats: Child safety seats reduce the risk of death in passenger cars by 71 percent for infants and by 54 percent for toddlers ages 1 to 4 years29 with strong evidence that child safety seat laws, safety seat distribution and education programs, community-wide education and enforcement campaigns, and incentive-plus-education programs are effective in increasing child safety seat use.30 Supporting families with information on the need for securing kids in safety seats, coupled with the distribution of free seats to parents who cannot afford them, has helped improve this issue in some Native communities. However, not restraining children remains a significant, and deadly, issue.
  • Impaired Drivers: Proven measures to reduce alcohol-impaired driving include aggressively enforcing 0.08 percent BAC laws, minimum legal drinking age laws, and zero tolerance laws for drivers younger than 21 years old;31 utilizing sobriety checkpoints (DUI checkpoints are effective in reducing alcohol-related crashes and death by approximately 17–25 percent);32 and utilizing multifaceted community-based approaches to alcohol control and DUI prevention.33
  • Teen Drivers: There are proven methods for helping teens become safer drivers. Inexperience, risky behavior, speeding, not wearing seat belts, and the proliferation of smartphones are the main factors in teen road fatalities. Research suggests that the most comprehensive graduated drivers licensing (GDL) programs are associated with reductions of 38 percent and 40 percent in fatal and injury crashes, respectively, among 16-year-old drivers.34 GDL’s are designed to delay full licensure while allowing teens to get their initial driving experience under low-risk conditions.35
  • Distracted Drivers: As tribal nations are updating and implementing public health law codes, it will be important for tribal leaders to consider establishing distracted driving codes to protect drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. Enacting a distracted driving code and providing education on the importance of attentive driving could foster safe driving behavior and prevent injuries and deaths.

The vastness of Indian Country and the great differences in the various tribal communities raise significant problems in data collection, reporting, and the targeting of resources. Many of these communities have had little to no resources targeted towards them. Fortunately, that is changing. Both Congress and the administration have demonstrated their commitment toward increasing traffic safety in Indian Country. While many tribes demonstrate an admirable go-it-alone spirit, all 567 are part of the national transportation network and deserve appropriate federal attention to the traffic safety issues in their sovereign communities.36

Individually and with the collaboration of the IHSP, tribes can foster the development of Strategic Transportation Safety Plans under MAP-21 as a means to determine how transportation safety needs will be addressed in tribal communities. The government gives priority consideration to eligible projects within the following four categories:

40 percent: Safety Plans & Safety Planning Activities,

30 percent: Engineering Improvements,

20 percent: Enforcement/EMS, and

10 percent: Education.

The evidence suggests that the roads in Indian Country are among the most dangerous in America. Lives depend on the institution of proven traffic safety interventions, delivered in a culturally responsive and competent manner. Recognizing the differences that diversity brings, being willing to experiment locally, incorporating solutions into unique cultural traditions, and partnering from the ground up, rather than imposing from the top down, remain the keys to success. Bipartisan support from Congress and the administration is a huge first step. Now it is up to the residents of Indian Country and everyone involved in traffic safety to follow this lead toward a safer future.

The authors would like to thank Special Agent Lawrence Robertson of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, for his assistance with this article.


1. Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, Pub. L. No. 114-94, 129 Stat. 1312 (Dec. 4, 2015).

2. “Indian Country” is defined in 18 U.S.C. § 1151. The term is used in this article in its broadest context to encompass all Indian lands in the country, including Alaskan Native Villages.

3. In this article, we use the terms “tribes,” “Natives,” “indigenous peoples,” and “Indian” interchangeably. We avoid the more widely used term “Native American.” This reflects an ongoing and somewhat contentious debate in American Indian studies about which among these types of terms should be used when referencing indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere. The term “Indian” is among the most disfavored on this list, not only because of the obvious but, at times, confusing geographical inaccuracies, but also because it is a colonial label that ignores the rich cultural diversity of indigenous nations in North America. Noting its disfavor, we employ the word “Indian” primarily because it is the term used by the government in many statutes and in case law and it is simply difficult to tiptoe around it. The stigma of colonialism also arguably infects the word “tribe,” and it is thusly losing favor in academic circles. See David E. Wilkins & Heidi K. Stark, American Indian Politics and the American Political System (2010).

4. 23 U.S.C § 402.

5. There are currently 567 federally recognized Indian tribes. Tribal Leaders Directory, Indian Affairs, U.S. Dep’t of the Interior,

6. Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, Pub. L. No. 112-141, 126 Stat. 405 (2012).

7. Injury Prevention & Control: Motor Vehicle Safety, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (Aug. 25, 2015), [hereinafter CDC Motor Vehicle Safety] (citing Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS), Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention, Nat’l Ctr. for Injury Prevention & Control (2014), [hereinafter WISQARS]).

8. Id.

9. Id. (citing T. Murphy, P. Pokhrel, et al., Unintentional Injury Mortality Among American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States, 1990–2009, 104 (Supp. 3) Am. J. Pub. Health S470 (2014)).

10. Id. (citing WISQARS, supra note 7).

11. Id. (citing L. J. D. Wallace, R. Patel & A. Dellinger, Injury Mortality Among American Indian and Alaska Native Children and Youth—United States, 1989–1998,. 52 Morbidity & Mortality Wkly. Rep. 697 (2003)).

12. See id. (citing WISQARS, supra note 7).

13. Incredibly, the federal government does not even know how many tribal courts there are. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ “first National Survey of Tribal Court Systems . . . will collect data on tribal courts in the lower 48 states and Alaska covering 566 tribes. The survey will also cover the Tribal Courts of Federal Regulations that handle some offenses and resolve disputes among tribal members.” Publications, U.S. Dep’t of Justice,

14. CDC Motor Vehicle Safety, supra note 7 (citing Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian Highway Safety Program, Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., U.S. Dep’t of Transp., Final Report, 2013 Safety Belt Use Estimate for the Indian Nations (Feb. 2014).

15. Id. (citing Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., U.S. Dep’t of Transp.,

16. Id. (citing R. J. LeTourneau, C. E. Crump, et al., Ride Safe: A Child Passenger Safety Program for American Indian/Alaska Native Children, 12 (Supp. 1) Maternal Child Heath J. 55 (2008)).

17. Id. (citing Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., U.S. Dep’t of Transp., DOT HS 812 011, Traffic Safety Facts: 2012 Data: Children. (Apr. 2014)).

18. Id. (citing M. L. Smith & L. R. Berger, Assessing Community Child Passenger Safety Efforts in Three Northwest Tribes, 8 Injury Prevention 289 (2002)).

19. See, e.g., J. Matthew Martin, A Conversation with Chief Justice Kevin Briscoe, 18 Highway to Justice, no. 3, Mar./Apr. 2015, at 1 (“Certain rules of the road are disregarded because the Reservation is kind of like a safe haven for drivers. A lot of our tribal members like trucks, and kids like to ride in the beds of the trucks. We see that a lot on the Reservation. We see the same thing with children, even babies, riding on the lap while the parent is driving.”).

20. CDC Motor Vehicle Safety, supra note 7 (citing R. B. Voas, A. S. Tippets & D. A. Fisher, Pac. Inst. for Research & Evaluation, DOT HS 809 068, Ethnicity and Alcohol Related Fatalities: 1990 to 1994 (2000); see also T. S. Naimi, N. Cobb, et al., Alcohol-Attributable Deaths and Years of Potential Life Lost Among American Indians and Alaska Natives—United States, 2001–2005, 57 Morbidity & Mortality Wkly. Rep. 938 (2008)).

21. See supra note 15. The 2013 data are now available and data continue to be updated.

22. See id.

23. CDC Motor Vehicle Safety, supra note 7 (citing Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., U.S. Dep’t of Transp., DOT HS 811 870, Traffic Safety Facts: 2012 Data: Alcohol-Impaired Driving (Dec. 2013)); James K. Cunningham, Teshia A. Solomon & Myra L. Muramoto, Alcohol Use Among Native Americans Compared to Whites: Examining the Veracity of the “Native American Elevated Alcohol Consumption” Belief, 160 J. Drug & Alcohol Dependence 65 (2016).

24. Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., U.S. Dep’t of Transp., DOT HS 812 132, Traffic Safety Facts: Distracted Driving 2013 (Apr. 2015),

25. Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., Facts and Statistics: Distracted Driving,,

26. P. Schroeder, M. Meyers & L. Kostyniuk, Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., U.S. Dep’t of Transp., DOT HS 811 729, National Survey on Distracted Driving Attitudes and Behaviors 2012 (Apr. 2013),

27. CDC Motor Vehicle Safety, supra note 7 (citing C. A. Evans Jr., J. E. Fielding, et al., Motor-Vehicle Occupant Injury: Strategies for Increasing Use of Child Safety Seats, Increasing Use of Safety Belts, and Reducing Alcohol-Impaired Driving. A Report on Recommendations of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, 50 Mortality & Morbidity Wkly. Rep., no. RR-7, 2001, at 1.

28. But see Pub. L. No. 83-280 (Aug. 15, 1953, codified as 18 U.S.C. § 1162, 28 U.S.C. § 1360, and 25 U.S.C. §§ 1321–1326), extending state police power over certain portions of Indian Country.

29. See supra note 17.

30. CDC Motor Vehicle Safety, supra note 7 (citing S. Zara, D. A. Sleet, et al., Task Force on Cmty. Preventive Servs., Reviews of Evidence Regarding Interventions to Increase Use of Child Safety Seats, 21 Am. J. Preventive Med., no. 4 Supp., 2001, at 31).

31. Id. (citing R. A. Shults, D. A. Sleet, et al., Association Between State-Level Drinking and Driving Countermeasures and Self-Reported Alcohol-Impaired Driving, 8 Injury Prevention 106 (2002)).

32. Id. (citing R. W. Elder, R. A. Shults, et al., Effectiveness of Sobriety Checkpoints for Reducing Alcohol-Involved Crashes, 3 Traffic Injury Prevention 266 (2002)).

33. Id. (citing W. DeJong & R. Hingson, Strategies to Reduce Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol, 19 Annual Review of Pub. Health 359 (1998); see also H. D. Holder, P. J., et al., Effect of Community-Based Interventions on High-Risk Drinking and Alcohol-Related Injuries, 284 J. Am. Med. Ass’n 2341 (2000)).

34. Id. (citing S. P. Baker, L.-H. Chen & G. Li, AAA Found. for Traffic Safety; Nationwide Review of Graduated Driver Licensing (2007),

35. Parents Are the Key to Safe Teen Drivers, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (Sept. 22, 2015), arethekey/licensing/index.html.

36. While some of these communities do not have roadways, they nonetheless are not beyond the reach of the internal combustion engine.