By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily
The Wyoming Department of Transportation spends millions to inform the public about safe driving practices, but the death toll continues to rise on Wyoming’s highways.
Sixty-two people have died on Wyoming highways since the beginning of the year, nearly double the amount of fatalities recorded by this time in 2018 and 2017 and more than triple the number of highway fatalities by this date in 2016, according to the Wyoming Highway Patrol website. Of the 62 fatalities in 2019, 29 are listed as resulting from a failure to wear seatbelts.
The increase is occurring even as the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s funding for public education is growing.But the effort to increase safety awareness is a long-term job, said WYDOT spokesman Doug McGee.
“What we’re talking about is behavioral change,” he said. “It takes years and years to take hold, and more time to measure.”
Highway fatalities fluctuate widely from year to year. In 2014, the Wyoming Highway Patrol reported 46 fatalities by May 16. That number dropped to 17 by May 16, 2016, the patrol website states, compared to this year’s figure of 62. McGee said his department has incrementally increased funding for safety messaging and public education since 2016 to encourage Wyoming drivers to be more safe on the road.
“The money comes from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) — it’s all federal funds,” McGee explained. “The (Wyoming) Highway Safety Office entertains grants from all sorts of places, and the funds received are designated (for) information and education. They can’t be spent anywhere else.”
In 2016, WYDOT requested about $1.3 million from NHTSA, increasing the request by a couple hundred thousand dollars each following year. The department could receive as much as $2 million from NHTSA in 2019, McGee said.
“That money goes to WYDOT groups and sub-recipients such as the Governor’s Council on Impaired Driving and the Wyoming Seatbelt Coalition,” he added.
Once received, the funding is used to purchase airtime on local radio and TV stations, newspaper and magazine ads and banners at sporting events — all with the intent of pushing the message of safety while driving.
“We’re in a lot of community college campuses and at (the University of Wyoming), because that is very much our target audience,” McGee said. “Sporting events are a big one, too. We sponsor media at baseball games, football and rodeo events.”
WYDOT regularly uses traditional media — newspapers, TV and radio — to spread its message, but as the world races toward the digital era, the department is keeping pace.
“One of the areas we’re increasing our focus on is the digital platforms,” McGee explained. “What the digital platform provides is the opportunity to be more targeted in our message. We can reach a specific demographic more effectively than we can with say a newspaper ad.”
The predominant message is buckle up, WYDOT spokeswoman Aimee Inama said.
“We’ve had the seat belt campaign for numerous years,” she said. “But we don’t have an exact date when it started.”
Impaired driving is also high on the list, but McGee said the fastest growing area of concern is distracted driving.
“The gross of distracted driving as an issue has grown dramatically,” he explained.
In an effort to reduce road distractions, WYDOT started purchasing digital ads that target phone users in hopes the message will remind them not use their devices while driving.
While advertising does comprise a large portion of the NHTSA funds, McGee said the money is also put toward public education events such as May Mobilization, a nationwide effort to increase seat belt usage.
WYDOT also sets up booths at public gatherings such as the Wyoming State Fair and Cheyenne Frontier Days and sends staff to educate children about safe driving in classrooms around the state.
“We recently started one particularly interesting campaign in some high schools,” McGee said. “We reach out to the school staff to identify some of the influencers among the kids, then we get them together and take photos for banners and posters with safe driving messages on them.”
The program has seen some success with teachers and parents reporting the students respond well to the posters, and in some cases, put them up at home, he said.