The Center for Health & Safety Culture at Montana State University engaged in a 3-year project to leverage existing traffic safety collaborative efforts to improve traffic safety culture in Park Rapids, a small rural community in Minnesota. The project was funded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation through its HSIP.

Traffic safety culture can be defined as “The shared belief system of a group of people which influences behaviors affecting traffic safety.”1 A positive traffic safety culture prioritizes safety across the social environment, which includes individual road user behaviors as well as actions by traffic safety stakeholders (e.g., local, State, and Federal transportation agencies; law enforcement; public health; schools; and elected officials). This article explores insights from the project that bolstered sustained engagement in growing a community’s positive traffic safety culture.

Creating a Coalition

Coalitions are an effective structure for collaboratively working to grow a positive traffic safety culture. Although there was not a specific traffic safety coalition in Park Rapids, there were stakeholders who met regularly as a health and wellness coalition. To leverage these resources and the synergy of the group, a traffic safety work group was created to grow a positive traffic safety culture. The following insights were developed over the multiyear project.

Identifying Local Leaders and Champions

Leaders are instrumental in recruiting and convening stakeholders across the social environment (also called the social ecology); communicating the coalition’s goals; and maintaining the group’s function, longevity, and success. Identifying local champions in traffic safety culture efforts is equally important. Champions are partners who have a passion for the work and are energized to mobilize the community for change. Some leaders are champions by nature, yet others may be fulfilling an obligation of their organization. Identifying local champions is important for coalition sustainability. Local champions often bridge gaps during shifts in leadership, losses of funding, and challenges with local engagement. Both leaders and champions are important, and it is beneficial to recognize they may be different.

Building Shared Language and Understanding

This project was a change process focused on transforming culture, so it was necessary that leadership understood the role and importance of traffic safety culture. Without this understanding, it is not possible to lead the change process or explain and encourage other partners to commit to the transformation of culture as the means of reaching the coalition’s vision. Traffic safety culture must be articulated in a way that is understood by others. Building the capacity of leaders and champions is necessary to be successful.

Growing Concern and Hope

Engaging in meaningful conversations and sharing data (e.g., highlighting serious injuries and fatalities) can create shared concern. Shared concern fosters motivation for change. However, in addition to creating concern, there must also be an intentional focus on creating hope. Concern without hope can lead to frustration and disengagement. Hope entails both the recognition of a path to success and the will to follow that path.2 Hope can be generated from recognizing existing strengths, celebrating successes, and creating an appreciative generative vision.

Developing an Appreciative Generative Vision

An appreciative generative vision shifts from reducing a problem to growing a solution, and gives energy, aspiration, and space for new thinking to take place. It changes how people think about an issue so new options for discussion or action become available and compels people to want to act.3 Typical visions in traffic safety tend to highlight concern and the need to reduce something (e.g., vehicle crashes, serious injuries, deaths). A vision focused on concern can draw attention to the need for change but can lack the energy and aspiration necessary to motivate and sustain engagement to make that change. Examples leveraging an appreciative generative vision in traffic safety could include growing proactive traffic safety behaviors, engaged driving, conversations about never driving after drinking alcohol, and a commitment to safety in transportation. An appreciative generative focus allows for a community to tap into the positive aspects of its culture, which it can leverage to address challenges in traffic safety.

Creating Regular Opportunities for Interaction

To grow a positive traffic safety culture, there must be regular opportunities for stakeholder interaction. Frequent interactions reinforce commitment to the coalition and its shared goals. Time spent together allows for planning, engagement in activities, and follow-through.

Creating Systems to Engage New Stakeholders and Learn from and Embrace Change

Systems must be in place for the coalition to function effectively. A system to orient new stakeholders and a system from which to learn and embrace change are important when growing a positive traffic safety culture.

  • A system to engage new stakeholders – Orienting new stakeholders is necessary to help quickly adopt shared language, embrace the coalition’s appreciative generative vision, and meaningfully engage in the work. Without appropriate orientation, engagement of new stakeholders can be delayed or lost, thereby losing the intended benefits of recruiting new stakeholders.
  • A system from which to learn and embrace change – Change can take many forms, both internally within a coalition and externally throughout the community. Internal coalition changes can include staffing, funding for the initiative, and member engagement levels. External community change may be shifts in priorities, changes in beliefs, or changes in behaviors related to the traffic safety issue. As changes emerge, coalitions must be flexible and adaptable. Examining these changes provides the coalition opportunities to learn, apply that learning, and become more effective.


A coalition that prioritizes traffic safety and includes stakeholders across the social environment has the potential to be an effective change agent. This project identified coalition characteristics necessary to bolster cooperation among community stakeholders. While perhaps underutilized, coalitions may be the only way to actualize a common vision of zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries on our Nation’s roads.

For more information, contact Kari Finley, Ph.D., at (307) 272-8505 or