By Hillary Isebrands, FHWA Resource Center Safety & Design Technical Service Team; Jerry Roche, FHWA Office of Safety; and Holly Kostrzewski, Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths Program Director

Public Health and Traffic Safety

Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities. Public health professionals’ primary responsibilities include promoting healthy lifestyles, preventing injuries, and responding to infectious diseases. Two of these three core functions align with those of transportation safety professionals: promoting healthy lifestyles and preventing injuries.

When you think about the biggest opportunities in injury prevention, what’s the most common risk-taking activity that nearly every one of us does each day? It is transportation—by walking, biking, or driving or riding in a motor vehicle. When you think about the biggest opportunity in promoting healthy lifestyles, what is an important way to live healthier? It is becoming more active—by walking or biking.

Holly was 18; she was driving her car near an intersection and didn’t see the approaching vehicle. The collision left Holly with a traumatic brain injury.

“That moment of my life—you might say was the ‘intersection of my life,’ which resulted in the trajectory of my entire career and my life forward. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason, and I believe that I didn’t choose my career path—my career path chose me. I knew of public health professions because my mom was a nursing director, but I never thought of the link to transportation. I wish that more people in public health knew about traffic safety as a specialization.”

— Excerpt from interview with Holly Kostrzewski

How Can Public Health Professionals Help a Local Transportation Agency?

Public health professionals are experts at interdisciplinary partnerships, because they’re trained to work collaboratively across disciplines in their mission to protect the public. They’re trained to communicate sensitive subjects, and they have experience educating the public about positive and negative behaviors. For example, they’re involved with child and teen checkups, nutrition, diabetes prevention, smoking cessation, wellness, exercise, and substance abuse. They concern themselves with the care of babies, children, teens, and sick and older populations; they go into homes, schools, and facilities. Changing personal behaviors is directly applicable to traffic safety.

Public health professionals also track communities’ injuries and deaths and try to prevent them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the public health injury prevention approach has four steps: define the problem, identify risk and protective factors, develop and test prevention strategies, and assure widespread adoption of effective injury prevention principles and strategies. Interdisciplinary safety teams, such as a Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) coalition, or participating in the development of a local road safety plan (LRSP) fit well within the role of public health professionals. It’s essentially a public health model for traffic safety. If your community is trying to improve traffic safety, public health professionals can help get the players to the table. They can help with framing and communicating the message to other stakeholders, elected officials, and the public, and they have a knack for seeking and leveraging funding opportunities.

How Can Transportation Professionals Help a Local Public Health Agency?

Likewise, there are things that local transportation agencies can assist public health professionals with. First and foremost, there’s the infrastructure. A primary way for people to maintain a healthy lifestyle (and reduce future healthcare costs) is mobility and exercise, including walking, running, or biking. This requires the presence and maintenance of sidewalks, shared-use paths, and roads. Many progressive transportation agencies are now providing enhanced active transportation infrastructure, with features such as protected bike lanes, bike boxes, road diets, roundabouts, and leading pedestrian intervals at signalized intersections.

In addition, transportation agencies often have data, such as the number of vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists traveling along a roadway or passing through an intersection, which are helpful to public health agencies that need metrics for grant applications or post-project reports. Engaging public health leaders with development and implementation of LRSPs is also a great way to establish and enhance relationships to reduce fatal and serious injury crashes.

A Shared, Common Goal

At the core, public transportation and public health share a common goal. If you’re a State, county, or city engineer, you’re very concerned that your citizens and visitors arrive safely at their destinations. And the same is true for public health. Transportation and public health professionals are concerned about protecting people both inside and outside our communities. We need to collaborate more and be interdisciplinary partners to achieve zero deaths on the roads across the country. And so, how can we better link arms and help each other figure out why our fatalities are rising, and what we can do collectively instead of individually?

An Example of Interdisciplinary Partnership

Led by the Departments of Public Health, Public Safety, and Transportation, the Minnesota TZD partnership is supported by eight regional coalitions including Native American Tribes in the regions. This enables regions to look at data specific to their geographic areas to identify factors leading to fatal and serious injury motor vehicle crashes, and then work with their constituents to implement proven countermeasures. These countermeasures commonly include the 4 E’s: education, engineering, enforcement, and emergency medical services. The regional TZD coordinators are co-funded by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and Minnesota DOT. These partnerships have resulted in projects such as Minnesota’s LRSPs, a program that started in 2010 and produced LRSPs for the State’s 87 counties. Minnesota TZD regions provide a public health perspective and bring a public health lens to the challenges and solutions associated with fatal and serious injuries crash on the local road system.

Fostering interdisciplinary partnerships is key to success. The regional coordinators nurture these partnerships with other safety disciplines, including educators, engineers, emergency medical services, and law enforcement at the State and local levels. We need to make sure everybody is interdisciplinary. If the champion of safety in your organization leaves their job today and goes somewhere else, the team they had been a part of will still be talking because we’ve all devoted ourselves to building those interdisciplinary partnerships. As Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

For more information, please contact Hillary Isebrands at, Jerry Roche at, or Holly Kostrzewski at