Friday, May 6, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
What is an acceptable number of fatalities from traffic accidents in Nevada?
When the Nevada Department of Transportation began working on its Strategic Highway Safety Plan, that’s the question officials asked.
Then they wondered, how many deaths are acceptable in their own families? And the answer was obvious: Zero.
“That’s everybody’s goal,” said Chuck Reider, the department’s chief safety engineer.
The department held a kickoff Thursday for its Zero Fatalities campaign as part of the safety plan, which was completed last year and approved by the state Transportation Board last month.
The event was held in conjunction with the spring meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. NDOT Director Susan Martinovich is the group’s president.
When the first Strategic Highway Safety Plan was finished in 2006 there were 431 deaths on Nevada roads. In 2010, there were 254.
“Deaths on Nevada highways have declined in the last five years,” Martinovich said. “That’s great; that’s wonderful. But they’ve declined, not been eliminated. We don’t want anyone killed on our streets and highways.”
The plan to continually move toward the goal of zero fatalities, Martinovich said. “Is it doable? I definitely think so.”
The plan was developed by the transportation department with the help of the Department of Public Safety and input from more than 75 Nevada traffic and safety experts. A series of meetings was held across the state last spring, and a safety summit was conducted in Reno in October to finalize the plan.
It has five critical areas of emphasis: impaired driving, seat belts, intersections, lane departures and pedestrians.
“It’s in our mind, our heart, our soul, if you will, that we are going to change the behavior of drivers in the state of Nevada,” said Nevada Highway Patrol Maj. Brian Sanchez, who helped with the plan. “We want to influence them; we want to educate them; we want to train them.”
Reider said improving highway safety will require a cultural change, where drinking and driving, texting and driving and not wearing seat belts becomes more socially unacceptable.
“We must change the mindset,” Reider said.
Jenifer Watkins was injured seven years ago when an unlicensed driver talking on a cell phone hit her and her husband on the side of U.S. 95.
In the past year, she and her mother-in-law, Sandy, have become advocates for improving traffic safety. They said they are hopeful the plan will work.
“We don’t want more people to be hurt,” Jennifer Watkins said.
Sandy Watkins said it’s “a good idea to aim for zero fatalities. It’s just sad it takes tragedies like ours for people to realize the problems. We don’t want to see any more lives lost or changed.”