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GHSA – The States' Voice on Highway Safety

GHSA's Jonathan Adkins Talks with Us About Traffic Safety, Ford DSFL

WASHINGTON D.C. — The times they are a changing for drivers, safety officials and automobile manufacturers, as new technologies and mobility options gain acceptance and present new challenges.

One thing that hasn't changed is that vehicle crashes are still the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States and much of the world. To be sure, there has been much progress reducing roadway deaths and injuries among young people, but there is still more to do. In the U.S., government statistics show more than 2,500 young people aged 15 to 19 were killed in traffic accidents in 2017. That's down more than 50 percent since the turn of the century, thanks in large part to safer cars and trucks, graduated driver licenses, advanced driver training programs, such as Ford Driving Skills for Life (DSFL), and the work of organizations like the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).

Jonathan Adkins beside Ford Driving Skills car in convention hall
Jonathan Adkins

Founded in 1966, GHSA is a nonprofit representing state and territorial highway safety offices across the U.S. These offices implement the safety plans of their governor and administer federal grants for highway safety programs. In 2003, Ford Motor Company Fund, GHSA and a panel of safety experts established Ford Driving Skills for Life to teach newly licensed teens essential safe driving skills beyond basic driver education.

GHSA and Ford Driving Skills for Life are working to keep all drivers, passengers and pedestrians safe, but during National Teen Driver Safety Week, parents and teenagers are being urged to talk seriously about safety and keep the lines of communication open throughout the year.

Jonathan Adkins is executive director of GHSA. He began his work with GHSA in 2000, serving in various management positions before being named executive director in 2014.

How important is it for an organization like GHSA to have support from a company such as Ford?

"It's really critical to have a supporter like Ford. Of course, one reason is to provide resources, but a bigger reason is the platform Ford has. It's one of the most trusted brands in the country. When Ford Motor Company says something customers listen, so they're able to get to their customers and others to talk about how to be safe drivers. Ford and GHSA are an incredible example of a public/private partnership. Typically when a company sponsors a program it lasts for a couple years and then it goes away. It's really unheard of in our field for a company to put such a long-term, sustained commitment into a program. Ford DSFL has grown tremendously over the past 16 years. It's been in every state and it's now in many countries. It's also unusual to get company support in every state. Ford isn't just looking to go to a big media market, they're looking to support every state because every state has a teen driver problem. This program is very unique in many ways."

With so many school districts dropping driver's education, what is the role of Ford DSFL in helping fill the gap in driver training?

"It's really enhancing whatever driver's education is out there. There are some schools that still do drivers ed, and it's still important to have private driver's education. Ford DSFL is fabulous, but it's not a replacement. What's neat about Ford DSFL is that there is a role for parents. We know from research that any time you get parents involved in their teen's driving experience the odds of a crash are going to go down. Parents love to come out for the day, they learn a lot and it's an opportunity to have a discussion with their teen in a cool way. Once teens get there and see this, they're quite excited about it and have a dialogue with their parents."

As you enter your 20th year at GHSA, is there a person or event that really inspired you?

"I've been fortunate to meet a lot of inspiring people. One of the most inspirational leaders was Kathryn J.R. Swanson, the chair of our organization when we started Ford DSFL. She was just there to do the job. She wasn't there to get the glory or be in the newspaper or on TV. Her only goal was to move roadway safety forward and help save lives. Unfortunately, she died a few years ago and we created the Kathryn J.R. Swanson Public Service Award. It's presented each year to someone who serves in roadway safety. We look for someone like Kathryn, somebody who is really dedicated, doing the critical work, but not looking for the limelight. We gave that award in August this year to Jim Graham (manager of Ford DSFL). Jim is one of those people who just wants to do good work. The highway safety offices will call Jim and say they have a need. He may not be able to offer funding, but he will offer resources, ask them if they thought about this or that and come up with something in-kind. That's very important."

With all the talk about self-driving cars, how significant is human error in highway crashes?

"Nobody starts out their day wanting to make mistakes behind the wheel, but driver error does play a big role. We're distracted, we're speeding, alcohol is a big factor, marijuana legalization, driver error is a big part, and roadway design is also part of it. It's not just one thing. It's a lot of different factors. Vehicles thankfully have become a lot safer, so you're more likely now to survive a crash than years ago. Unfortunately, we're still prone to make a lot of errors."

Why do people make mistakes while driving, are they just not paying attention?

"Inexperience is a big factor for youth. They don't have the confidence. They can also be cocky. Speeding is a factor, cell phones. We used to talk about texting and making phone calls, now it's Snapchat and TikTok and other apps. Every year there's a new distraction out there. And a lot of people still don't wear their seat belts believe it or not, usually in the back seat. We're making progress, but there is a lot of work to be done."

What are your thoughts on driverless cars?

"The technology is improving, but we're probably a generation away from a truly driverless car. Technology is making great advances that will keep us safe, but we need to keep training new drivers to drive a traditional vehicle and how to use the technology, particularly the optional tech features on today's vehicles. We need to do a better job teaching why the tech is important and why we should use it. One of the challenges with technology is making sure the public understands that they still have to be engaged behind the wheel, even if they're in a vehicle with a semi-automated system, in case you have to take over at some point."

What is the role of the highway design?

"There are things that can be done on the engineering side to keep everyone safe. Roundabouts are an inexpensive way to reduce traffic collisions. Any kind of calming mechanism to slow drivers down helps keeps bicyclists and pedestrians safe. It's exciting having all these mobility options, but in state government we're having trouble keeping up with them. The technology changes faster than we can change laws and regulations. And infrastructure is a big part of this."

What is it about roundabouts that makes them safer?

"They are one of those things that people love to hate. Roundabouts are designed to slow drivers down. They're not designed to be everywhere. You put them in an area with a busy intersection and they help eliminate those big intersection collisions, so if there is a crash because of speed the driver is much less likely to be injured or die."

What does success look like to you?

"Success looks like anytime someone gets home to dinner safely with their family. That is success. We have far too many death notifications, people aren't getting home for Thanksgiving. We do a lot of reporting and analysis, but it's really about getting moms and dads and teens home for dinner at night."

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