National Center for Rural Road Safety

Third Rural Road Safety Summit: Virtual Format Leads to Record Attendance

The National Center for Rural Road Safety hosted the 3rd National Summit on Rural Road Safety from September 30 – October 1, 2020. The summits have become an important national forum for engaging a wide variety of stakeholders and raising awareness on critical rural road safety issues. With a new virtual format, the summit blended effective elements from the last two forums with innovative types of engagement made possible by the online setting.  Some of the benefits of this approach included increased attendance, access to new speakers and presenters, and highly positive feedback from attendees.

The first two summits achieved key foundational steps.  In 2016, the first summit, Moving Rural America, invited stakeholders to articulate critical issues and identify collaborative safety initiatives. The second summit, held in 2018, focused on Bridging the Gap, highlighting proven safety measures and other strategies that participants could implement in their regions. This year, the third summit, Rural Road to Zero, discussed strategies for meeting a region’s Rural Road to Zero goals through the Safe System Approach and Safety Culture.

Another new component in 2020, was an optional pre-summit course on September 29.The Rural Safety Center offered six training modules for the new Road Safety Champion Program, which was established by the Rural Safety Center, the National Association of County Engineers (NACE), the National LTAP & TTAP Association and the West Region Transportation Workforce Center.

Moving Virtual

While the original plan was to host an in-person summit in Kansas City, Missouri, the forum was restructured into a virtual event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While challenging in some respects, the Rural Safety Center used this opportunity to try some new strategies for promoting networking and engagement.

Moving the summit to a virtual setting had a major impact on attendance – the number of registrants was four times larger than past years. More than 400 planning, engineering, law enforcement and public health professionals attended the two-day event.

In another benefit, the Rural Safety Center offered a broad selection of high level, expert speakers, some of whom had not been able to participate in the past due to travel restrictions.

The Center was honored to welcome U.S. DOT Secretary Chao, FHWA Administrator Nason, FHWA Deputy Administrator Parker, and NHTSA Deputy Administrator Owens, who all offered remarks on rural safety.

In three keynote sessions, speakers delivered technical content that was very well received by attendees, who called it “informative and inspiring.” In his session, Mark Doctor of FHWA explained that if “Zero is our Goal, the Safe System Approach is How We Will Get There,” and attendees called his presentation “the most beneficial and very engaging.” FHWA Associate Administrator for Safety Cheryl Walker tied her remarks to the inaugural Rural Road Safety Awareness Week (RRSAW2020), which ran the same week as the summit. She shared information about a few of FHWA’s safety initiatives; but more importantly, she encouraged participants to start a dialogue with their state and local partners about these initiatives. Attendees felt that her personal “story was powerful.” The final keynote session featured Holly Kostrzewski, Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths Director in the Northeast Region, speaking on “Empowering Yourself to Become a Rural Safety Champion.” Participants commented that her “empowerment was infectious” and will help them “strive to work [with] even more with partners, particularly in public health.”

To ensure that participants still had the ability to network even in this virtual setting, the Rural Safety Center offered some new features and activities, including a chat feature in the platform, interactive games, a poster session, and after-hours “coffee talk roundtables.” Furthermore, the first 225 registrants received a pre-summit package with a coffee mug and huckleberry hot chocolate, an invitation to participate in RRSAW2020, and items from exhibitors. “I LOVED receiving the package with mug and other conference items.  It was such a unique touch.  I feel it “connected” people more with the virtual event. THANK YOU!”

The Rural Safety Center also incorporated an exhibit hall for the first time. At the previous in-person summits, an exhibit hall was not feasible based on physical constraints and cost. This cost-effective option led to a record number of nine sponsors, including  Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University, Arora and Associates, AASHTO, Burgess and Niple, Cambridge Systematics, National Aging & Disability Center (nadtc), Lux Solar, Roadway Safety Foundation, and RHI hub. Three additional organizations had exhibit booths in the hall, including the FHWA Office of Safety, FoRRRwD, and Emergency Responder Safety Institute.

Keeping with Traditions

One popular tradition has carried through to all three summits – asking participants to jot down their key takeaways from each session they attend. The list of takeaways becomes an actionable plan to take home and start implementing. To continue this tradition in the virtual world, Jaime Sullivan, Rural Safety Center Director, introduced the idea to participants in both the welcome video and the opening keynote session. Moderators then built it into the agenda of each session. As in the past, Hillary Isebrands of FHWA facilitated a panel session to wrap up the summit and discuss the key takeaways from different perspectives (e.g., engineering, emergency response, public health, and communications). Participants stated that “having the speakers consistently emphasize takeaways made me think after every session about how I can apply the content to my work” and that the panel session was “a great way to wrap up any event” and “was especially beneficial in making sure we didn’t walk away without committing to follow-up with action items.”

Key Takeaways

Many resources are shared over the course of the summit, which can be overwhelming for some of the newer safety practitioners. During the closing session, one participant asked, “where do I start to improve safety on rural roads?” Suggested action items included:

  • Focus – When a new subject area is overwhelming, achieving clarity or focus can be the hardest part. Pick one topic or goal to make progress on each day and go after that. People will know you for this “one thing,” which will attract others to you. Eventually, you will create a network of colleagues talking about this common interest.
  • Go to them – In a rural area where distances can be large and resources are lacking, do not ask others to come to you, make sure you go to them.
  • Create a robust network – With a network of partners, it will generally only take a few phone calls or emails to find a solution or the resource you need.

Other key takeaways from the summit included:

  • Safe System Approach is actionable – By understanding the six principles of the Safe System Approach, you can take actions towards the Rural Road to Zero.
  • Redundancy is critical – To achieve zero, it is necessary to understand that redundancy is critical in the transportation system to reduce risks. Redundancy in the system allows for multiple opportunities to correct, prevent, or intervene with a severe crash. Redundancy can be achieved through the use of multiple proven safety countermeasures (e.g., traffic control features, educational campaigns, vehicle technology, etc.) aimed at multiple parts of the transportation system (e.g., vehicle, roadway, road user, etc.).
  • Words are powerful. There are studies that show that a single word change in your messaging can have real outcomes (e.g., accident versus crash). Changing your word choice is something that everyone can do regardless of availability of resources. By examining your word choices and making small changes, everyone can be a marketer, have “brand” discipline, and change the culture in real, powerful, meaningful ways.
  • Roads are for all users – Road owners and stakeholders need to be intentionally inclusive of all users regardless of age, gender, diversity, and mode.
  • Everyone can be a “disruptor” – You can be the change to safety culture by being a disruptor and breaking down silos. This will allow everyone to look at rural safety from different perspectives.
  • Coalition Building is important – There are other groups that are working on the same safety issues, but from a different perspective (e.g., engineering, public health, law enforcement, communications, emergency responders, etc.). It is important to identify these groups in your local area and work together. One way to consider this is to “partner opposite of yourself” (e.g., if you are an engineer, learn from public health officials or marketers, etc.). There are steps you can take to make building and maintaining coalitions easier.
  • Listen to listen – Many of us listen to respond, but community engagement and relationship building is truly about listening to listen.
  • Messaging is important – Similar to word choice, you can reframe what you do to be more specific, so people understand how it fits better in their world. For example, “highway safety is public safety.”
  • Survivor Advocates are great partners –Survivor advocates may be willing to share their personal experiences with your audience. The accounts of their lives typically have the biggest impact on changing people’s behaviors. When working with survivor advocates, remember to ask how they would like to be referred to (e.g., many do not want to be referred to as a victim) and see if there are data or resources you can provide to support their work. Lastly, make sure that you include a generative message that says how you can prevent this event from happening again and provides hope.
  • Data is about building relationships – The ability to gather additional data to tell a complete story is about creating relationships with the correct people. Many examples were shared on how to utilize public health and 911 call data to augment crash data to tell a more complete story or to identify the “near miss” data.
  • Celebrate the small victories – It is important to celebrate the small victories either by time (e.g., 1 week, 1 month, 1 year) or by emphasis area (e.g., bike/ped, roadway departure, curves, etc.). Minnesota has a map of their zero counties and celebrates those, and Montana also posts its milestones on dynamic message boards (e.g., no fatalities for 30 days).

The overarching message in these takeaways is that everyone can be a Rural Safety Champion. Everyone wants to do meaningful work, and transportation agencies do it on a daily basis. For safety people, it’s a mission. For those who are committed to improving rural roads, summits like this are a reminder that we are part of a bigger, national coalition doing lifesaving work. These events are also an opportunity to thank stakeholders across many professions for contributing to rural road safety.

Overall Success

Overall, the survey responses indicated that participants consistently ranked the content between 4 and 5 (on a scale of 1 – 5), and comments were also very complimentary! Some examples included: “It was BY FAR the best virtual conference I have attended you should be SO PROUD! Thank you for inviting me! I had a great time!” “Overall, one of the most productive and applicable conferences to rural areas that I have attended, looking forward to next year.” “You exceed my high goals.  I’ve attended a lot of virtual conferences (around 8 or so), and this was far and away the best one with excellent content and interaction.  I think we had more participants due the virtual format and should be considered for the future summits.”

Participants also felt that the Rural Safety Center met the ultimate goal of creating interactive sessions with real takeaways.  Some examples include: “there [are] a lot of good resources [and] content that will help in my region and help assist me in taking [an] even bigger step to proactive action instead of concentrating mostly on reactive actions;” “I gained a lot of great information that I can apply to the programs and projects at my agency.  Also, I will be able to provide content examples to support the changes that I am trying to make and introduce new initiatives;” “We are getting ready to prepare a rural safety guide for our five-county region and the summit provided lots of ideas, examples, and best practices for improving safety on rural roads;” “There was wonderful actionable information that was shared, and time to follow up with the speakers so that I could take away information to use locally;” “Being able to hear from others, outside of my field, created new takeaways. It is a new perspective, but also an intricate piece to making safety work.”

Evolution and Future

The Rural Safety Summits have evolved over the past six years, as organizers continually refine the approach to building engagement around safety.  From the onset, a key goal was to break down the traditional siloes around both issues and stakeholder groups to develop more holistic solutions.  The summits have offered opportunities for relationship building and networking that have led to trust and rapport among participants, and in turn the creation of a broad and productive group of rural safety stakeholders. This cross pollination offers new perspectives and ideas that advance progress on the Rural Road to Zero.

The virtual world allowed opportunities to further expand the diversity of participants and insights. While there were concerns that going virtual would hamper interactions and input, it was instead a blessing in disguise, by opening the Summit door to a lot of people who previously were unable to attend. “Outstanding!  I would hope that a virtual option would always be available even if in-person happens again in the future.  It allowed all my engineering staff (five) and me to attend, both due to much lower costs and a smaller time commitment away from homes/families.”

The vision for summits in the future will be to learn from the successes of the past three summits and build on the “best of the best.” In terms of structure, this could include incorporating both a virtual and in-person portion in the next summit. As for stakeholder development, a primary goal is to retain the strong presence from public health and expand the participation from first responders and law enforcement. To accomplish this, the Rural Safety Center will look into the possibility of offering professional credits needed by these groups.

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