Five Iowa counties, including Mitchell, targeted to try and reduce traffic injuries, deaths

DES MOINES — State traffic safety officials are singling out five Iowa counties where crashes, injuries and deaths are the worst to focus efforts on changing driver behaviors and making roads safer.

Brett Tjepkes, chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, says the initiative is called the High Five Rural Traffic Safety Project and it’s now underway in Appanoose, Fremont, Humboldt, Keokuk and Mitchell counties.

Tjepkes says, “How we selected the High Five counties is, we looked at some of these underserved areas that have a higher incidence of drivers and passengers not wearing their seatbelts involved in crashes and not wearing their seatbelts, meaning, either seriously injured or killed.”

The High Five project involves a three-tier approach, including law enforcement, engineering, and education with the ultimate goal of building safer communities. In the engineering portion, experts from the Iowa DOT are teaming up with the Institute for Transportation at Iowa State University.

“They’ll meet with local engineers and look at some of these crash locations and try to find are there some low-cost engineering solutions that we might be able to implement that could reduce crashes in certain areas,” Tjepkes says. “Some of these examples may be just some better painting, markings that are on the roadway, or signage, or wider shoulders.”

The education portion of High Five targets drivers of all ages, but also tries to reinforce certain messages with teenagers, before they might form bad driving habits. “We partner with an organization called Seatbelts Are For Everyone, or SAFE,” Tjepkes says. “The SAFE program works with local school districts to have some peer-to-peer type of education opportunities, the importance of wearing seatbelts and other traffic safety topics with high school-age kids.”

A recent study found nearly three-quarters of all deadly crashes in Iowa take place on secondary rural roads, and most of Iowa’s roads are considered secondary. Tjepkes says Iowans have a great national score for seatbelt use, but some people continue to ignore the law.

“Almost 96% of Iowans wear their seatbelts, but also 45% of the people killed in crashes are not wearing their seatbelts,” Tjepkes says. “So this one thing is, with what we’re doing, we really feel that we can make an impact and save people’s lives by encouraging them to wear their seatbelts through programs like the High Five.”

Preliminary numbers show 338 people died in traffic accidents on Iowa’s roads in 2022, a number that’s down from the past few years. Iowa hasn’t had fewer than 300 traffic deaths in a year since 1925.