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Meet Shelly Baldwin, new Director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission

Shelly Badwin

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission is a public agency that flies under the radar. In February, the commission got a new leader when Shelly Baldwin, previously the Legislative and Media Relations division director at the WTSC, was appointed head of the commission by Governor Inslee. Last year, the previous Director, Darrin Grondel, who had been appointed to the job by Governor Christine Gregoire in 2012, left to become Vice President of Traffic Safety and Government Relations at The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility.

We sat down with Director Baldwin recently to get a better understanding of the Safety Commission’s role in improving traffic safety in Washington.

Seattle Bike Blog: I guess the first question would just be, tell me a little bit more about your background and how you ended up as the Director.

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Director Baldwin: Yeah, you know, when I was a little girl, I wanted to be an astronaut, so I don’t know how I ended up here. I wanted to be a writer growing up, and when I became a grown up, I had a freelance writing situation going on and the commission began hiring me for many of their writing projects. That was back in ’92…So for many years, I enjoyed my association with the commission. I learned a lot about traffic safety, I wrote their grants, I wrote the first Target Zero plan. And then my daughter went to college and I realized I was going to need a little bit more of a steady income, and I was lucky enough to be hired on as a program manager. I took their impaired driving program as my emphasis area and worked in that for maybe seven years. And then as people retired, they asked me to do legislation and their communications, which I did for about seven years before our director, Darrin Grondel left and I applied for the position and I was extremely humbled to have been chosen for it. So that’s about twenty-five years in traffic safety.

Seattle Bike Blog: So you’ve been along for almost all of the Target Zero program.

Director Baldwin: Almost. So in 2000, the director at the time, John Moffitt, had come back with information about what they were doing in Norway, on their Vision, Zero piece, and he said to the team, I am not going to continue to set goals that maybe we can kill X number of people this year, which is 20 less than last year. It just doesn’t make any sense to me that that would be our goal. And he at that point implemented Target Zero, worked with all of the partners to bring them on board and honestly, everybody thought he was crazy for a little bit, probably including his staff…Like zero is never going to happen, why would we set that for our goal? But as we’ve existed in this world and watched successes in Norway, we really think that this is the only appropriate goal to set.

If you’ve seen it, but we do have a video out about why zero is the appropriate goal. It’s basically man-on-the-street interviews across the state asking people just basic questions, how many people do you think are killed in car crashes in Washington, and what do you think the leading causes are, what do you think an appropriate goal is. Most people say, well, can we kill ten thousand? They have no idea how many people actually die in Washington per year.

And then we say, well, what’s the goal for your family? And, you know, that gives them pause. And that’s where I’m at too. I certainly don’t want anybody in my family to ever be killed just because they’re trying to get from one place to another, regardless of what method they’re using. But more than that, there are actually things that we could be doing, if we would make the commitment as a state, to get us there.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the actual Target Zero strategic plan…It’s a big, big plan, but there are sections in there that talk about the most important things we could be doing to reach zero. And those are things that we will always be advocating for, even when they’re not popular.

Seattle Bike Blog: And so how do you describe the Safety Commission’s role in the statewide ecosystem?

Director Baldwin: That’s a really good question. The Safety Commission was formed back in 1967…The federal government required all states to have a highway safety representative appointed by the Governor. And that’s what this position is. There are fifty-four other people like me, who are the head of their traffic safety office and serve as that governor’s representative. But when we were formed, we were a little unique, so most states formed their highway safety office, either as part of their public safety statewide state patrol kind of office or under their DOTs. Washington however took a very different approach, recognizing that traffic safety is a multifaceted issue.

They made us a commission. So we have: the heads of agencies, including department of licensing, department of health, state patrol. superintendent of public instruction, a person who represents counties , a person who represents cities, a person who represents the judiciary…And they form our commission, which makes us super lucky. So we are a commission, we’re twenty-two people big right now. We could possibly be twenty-six people if we filled positions. And yet we’re tasked with eliminating all traffic crashes in the state, so obviously it’s not about simply what we can do. It really is about bringing those commissioners into the fold, letting them provide us direction and also providing them with what traffic safety professionals do and what we learn from the connections we have throughout America. And guiding and building partnerships, so we take charge of the Target Zero plan every three years, we bring all the partners to the table. We have a partners meeting to kick off that probably has, what was our last count, about 500 people that attend. So really, the best thing that we can do is organizing and bringing together lots of different professionals to help us reach our goals.

The other major factor that we have is: because we are the state highway safety office, we receive federal funding for highway safety projects. Those funds come with lots of strings attached to them, of course, because that’s that’s how the law gets written. We receive a portion of our funding just because they apportion all states based on certain things like population, roadway miles, vehicle miles traveled, and every state gets a set amount that’s called 402. And then they have what they call national highway safety priorities, so we get additional funding when we apply for and receive impaired driving funds? Those come with all these strings attached that can just be about impaired driving. There’s a portion of it that can only be about alcohol impaired driving, which is kind of ridiculous. And there’s funding for what we call traffic record systems. So that’s trying to patch together all of our commission agencies to be able to follow a traffic crash and learn more about those circumstances and provide better research and a better well-rounded piece. For example, when an officer is on a crash scene and somebody is injured, he fills out a form. He indicates the level of seriousness for that, based on “I’m arriving at the scene of the crime and this person is bleeding a lot and I’m going to call that a serious injury”. Or, you know, “They got a bump on the head, it looks fine, I’m going to say nothing happened here.” But the reality is the officer doesn’t know what happens in the next 24 hours to that person, maybe the person bleeding profusely, and he called that a serious injury…you know, it was a head wound, and once he was patched up, he was fine. And maybe the person who had the bump, ended up with a concussion and went into a coma and later died.

So it’s trying to connect all of those pieces of the puzzle to make a bigger picture so that we understand better about what’s really happening out there, so that we can get our grant dollars to the most appropriate places to seek improvements. We get money for peds and bikes. There is an RFP out on our website right now looking for projects…the walker and rider funding comes with lots of strings attached: you can educate officers about the laws of the state. They don’t allow for tons of different interpretations. But the RFP is bringing in some really interesting questions. For example, one of the projects that we funded so far is in Tukwila, where they have decided to use ambassadors from all of the different communities in Tukwila to be traffic safety messengers and help people translate the laws of our state to all these different languages and actually go into those communities to help people understand better what what’s expected in the laws. What else do we get specific funding for? Occupant protection: seatbelts and child car seats.

Seattle Bike Blog: And so it seems like a lot of the grants that you get are focused around enforcement. And I’m wondering how, particularly over the past year, have your views changed around, particularly the idea of police enforcement?

Director Baldwin: I think that we find ourselves in a very unique position. Right now, given not just discussion that’s happening about police enforcement, but also what’s going on with COVID and what we’ve seen change in traffic safety during this COVID time, and yes, we’re asking ourselves lots of really big questions about our role in enforcement. So, as I said, the funding that we get comes with lots of strings. And one of the prerequisites for receiving any federal funding is that we participate in high visibility enforcement periods: we do this over the holidays for DUI in May, through Memorial Day for seat belts, occupant protection and again in mid-August through Labor Day for DUI. And typically we do this, the high visibility theory is that we create deterrents, not that we make a ton of arrests or write a lot of citations. We advertise beforehand. And typically up until the “Together We Get There” campaign [which was recently unveiled], we’ve been advertising specifically to the cohort of people most likely to be killed in impaired driving crashes, which is young men, twenty-one to thirty-four. And we did all of our advertising to them to let them know that the extra enforcement was happening, that would be focusing on impaired driving. We do both a paid media campaign and an earned media campaign hoping to get the word out so that people are maybe a little more cautious than they might normally be. And then we do pay for overtime for law enforcement officers…so that the idea is that these enforcement patrols would be really visible. And yet it’s a little difficult because impaired driving happens late at night when there aren’t as many people on the road to see the officers are out. This is very old at this point, I think, you know, 20 years ago, it was the new hope and I think we’ve been doing it now for a long time.

We’re not the only highway safety office saying, how can we make these changes? What is our role with law enforcement? How do we monitor their outputs? Just tons of questions about equity, and diversity, I’m not going to say that we have the perfect answer yet, but I will say that our “Together We Get There” campaign is part of the equation.

We’ve spent a long time shaking our finger at people, telling them what not to do, and in public health and psychology, that’s probably not super effective. Typically, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who is our funder, puts out lots of big crash scene PSAs: lights are flashing, fires are burning. You know, people are feeling bad about driving after drinking or somebody’s dead, you know, it’s like the more impact, the more people feel, which is what we think makes something effective. But what I’ve come to understand is that it hits people, especially if you’ve ever been traumatized in a situation like that…you’re seeing it play out on the screen. You’re actually re-traumatizing that person with a message they don’t need to hear. We’re talking to a small percentage of the population that actually engages in any of this behavior.

We’ve done surveys as part of the “Together We Get There” campaign…81% of people don’t drive after drinking. 91% percent of people never drive after using marijuana and drinking, which is one of our most common fatals right now. So we’re spending a lot of money to talk to the small percentage of people who are hard to reach and probably not inclined to listen and are not the majority of the population, even if they happen to be men between the ages of 18 and 34. So what we have done is to turn that kind of around and think about talking to the people who are doing the right thing and eventually, through this campaign, not just showing them the right things to do so they can feel good about the fact that they are doing the right things to help eliminate fatals, but encouraging them to have those conversations with their family, in their workplace, at school. Maybe doctors can be talking a little bit more to people when they’re doing their alcohol screening. You know, just looking at trying to deliver a consistent message from friends and families and people who are connected to the people we’re trying to reach, because we think that would be a much more effective method of reaching someone. The other problem with a fear-based messaging is that we really scare someone, we trigger their lizard brain, their brain stem goes off and it’s a fight or flight response. So they’re either going to fight the message…”that will ever happen to me, that’s ridiculous”. Or they’re going to flee from the message, close down and not listen to it. So that’s that’s how we got to that campaign.

So when you ask about officers, I can tell you that we’re working to change our model up and our messaging. What we’re looking at with officers right now are more community policing aspects such as in Yakima. There are a couple of drug recognition experts, officers that receive extra training. So the officer, Officer LaMay, told us a story about how this was being implemented and he was called to a crash because he was a drug recognition expert and the woman that had caused the crash, he took her through the DRE [Drug Recognition Expert] process and determined that she was impaired by methamphetamine. He completed the arrest here. After he had her in his car, he had a conversation with her and it went like this.

How long have you been using methamphetamine? And she told him, you know, the last few years it’s been really bad. I’m addicted. I don’t want to be addicted. And she said, and I’m pregnant and I’m very worried about my baby. And he said, so tell me about your mental health. She says, I’m incredibly depressed and that’s why I use methamphetamine. It’s the only thing that gets me through the day. And he said, have you ever thought about suicide? She said all the time. So instead of, you know, booking and releasing her, which is a typical DUI experience, he took her to the hospital. He called his community health partners in to help. And before they released her that they had a safety plan in place for her, they had treatment connections signed up, ready for her to go to. And that’s the kind of policing that can really make a difference.

Seattle Bike Blog: Going back to Target Zero, as we proceed into the third decade of that goal…and you talked about how it came from Norway and the emphasis in Norway on engineering is very heavy. And you have engineers like Dongho Chang in Seattle on your active transportation commission. And so I’m wondering if that needs to be more of an emphasis of the commission, what you see as needing to be done in the engineering area.

Director Baldwin: Absolutely. Engineering is the best tool at hand. Engineering is the best way to keep walkers and rollers safe. They need to be separate from traffic. We can’t enforce our way out of problems that we’re having, and engineering is the big solution. Engineering in Washington, you know, that you listen to Roger Millar talk in his state of the transportation address, you know, he’s absolutely right. We focus on congestion, we focus on projects, on building more roadway. And safety is our biggest issue. Safety is where we’re losing the most money…when we lose a life that’s expensive, not just tragic, but expensive. You know, DOT has really embraced the safe systems approach. All of us, however…as aligned as we can get our philosophies to be, our funding is tied. So, for example, we can’t fund anything engineering wise. We have done projects where we work with engineers in counties and cities when they’re doing a new road safety project. High Friction Surface in Thurston County was one example where we developed an educational campaign around why this was being done. It’s a new kind of way to think about combining our skills with engineering skills.

This current Target Zero plan from 2019 has a chapter on the safe systems approach, which is more what they do in Norway or what they’ve embraced in Australia, you know, looking at it through that lens. And I think that as we right now are starting to write our next target zero plan, that that’ll be more in the forefront. But you still need people, in order for that system to work, to follow the rules.

So there’s still a behavioral piece, even when you switch it around to focus more on the engineering aspects, and that’s what our funding will allow us to do.

Seattle Bike Blog: You mentioned Roger Millar talking about how it’s almost $15 billion dollars a year in safety impacts, which is multiple times even the entire budget of WSDOT. Do you think that that the that the Safety Commission should have a bigger role in terms of choosing what what projects go into, say, the yearly budget or the transportation package that’s being discussed this year?

Director Baldwin: Yes, I certainly do think that we should have a bigger voice in it. They haven’t traditionally, in the past, we haven’t really sat at the table for those funding discussions. And in the past, to be honest, those funding discussions have been more about how can I get a transportation package passed by building a coalition of enough other legislators that want these projects in their districts so that we can roll out something. And there isn’t a lot of room for safety in that discussion…or there has not been traditionally a lot of room. The Joint Transportation Commission did a study on what was going to be needed for the next 30 years of transportation funding, where they were going. And when I showed up at that meeting, safety wasn’t even on the discussion plate. There wasn’t a category for safety in their budget. And that’s that’s the way it’s been, and I was able to raise enough of a point that they included in some of their slides, in their presentation…but they didn’t budget for it. And that’s how, traditionally, those processes happen- we do safety on the side, and I think Roger’s really pushing, and some legislators are listening to this idea that safety has to be first and that when we engineer and spend those dollars for safety issues first, we can do tons of things.

Traffic crashes are hardly ever just one thing. For example, with an impaired driving crash, we see lack of seatbelt use, we see speeding, we see them hit a fixed object on the side of the road. We see all of these things coming together that could be addressed if you address speeding. You know, if the impaired driver wasn’t driving as fast he might have survived that crash. As long as we keep building big, wide, straight roads where people can drive really fast on them, it’s going to be hard to keep that person safe from themselves.

Seattle Bike Blog: I know that WSDOT has looked at doing more project prioritization that actually would factor safety, multimodal improvements, as an actual factor to rate projects as opposed to having legislators line up to figure out which ones they want to fund. Do you think that that is something that needs to move forward?

Director Baldwin: From a safety standpoint, every time we put safety first we’re going to be ahead, save money, and it’s going to be a good deal for the state. What legislators do for policy is…I work for the Governor. My priorities are aligned with what the Governor’s priorities are. And my lobbying of legislators is curtailed. It’s not within my power to reach out to legislators and say, I really think you should do this unless I’ve been given explicit permission, because I put a bill in.

Seattle Bike Blog: So it seems like it’s more systemic. And so, what’s the biggest low hanging fruit that we could be doing in a systematic way?

Director Baldwin: I wish that there was a magic bullet. I think that in the twenty-five years I’ve been watching traffic safety do its thing, we’ve gotten a lot of the low hanging fruit. So where is the next low hanging fruit? It’s a really interesting question. I think that we’re at that point where it’s big things that have to happen. Forty-six, forty-seven other states have sobriety checkpoints, for example, which is another real high visibility thing to do and Washington has never done that.

Seattle Bike Blog: Would you be concerned about disproportionate enforcement that could come from having that?

Director Baldwin: It could if you don’t have the right policies in place to prevent it. So certainly one of the reasons that we don’t have it was because it was done poorly in 1981, 1982, where it wasn’t really being run effectively. Since that point in time, the states that have adopted it later put a lot of restrictions in place. You can say things like you’re not even checking I.D, you’re just simply looking for impairment. If there’s suspected impairment, you can do a further look, but otherwise you’re just passing cars through. You use a number system to decide which vehicles get stopped. You either stop every other vehicle, or you stop every fifth vehicle, but you plan that out ahead of time. You don’t leave it to chance. You’re not choosing a vehicle because it looks funny. And the truth of the matter is very few arrests come out of sobriety checkpoints. You make them very well publicized. You put up lots of signage. People don’t go through the checkpoint if they are worried about it. But it is a deterrent that we haven’t had.

I think the most promising thing we could do right now is photo enforcement. That’s speed [enforcement], especially, in places like walk routes to school. We already allow photo enforcement in that five hundred feet of school zone. But kids still have to feel safe walking to school, to get those healthy habits established and providing that whole route, making sure drivers are keeping their speed under 20 could be a very big benefit in how we are perceiving speed. Australia is using cameras to detect cell phone use. They have cameras that can blur out the faces but still get a very clear picture of how someone might be holding or using their phone and they take that picture and send that person a ticket.

We’ve explored- we’ve seen presentations, let me put it that way- on how we might be able to use that technology to perhaps use it on the freeways to watch time over distance, speed over distance. So, for example, when we were having all of those crashes on I-5 at the Tacoma Dome during construction, speed was a big factor. And WSDOT went to the national DOT to get permission to lower the speed limit there. And they did. But it’s an unenforceable area. There’s no shoulders, there’s there’s just no way to do it. But what if we had a camera when you entered and a camera when you exited and could point out those people who were doing egregious speeds through that area, and had officer at the other end who could stop them. You know, I think what we’re always interested in is not cameras being used to make money or officers writing tickets to make money, what we’re always interested in is how can we get compliance? Well-advertised, well-looked-at camera in certain aspects of our daily lives could really help build compliance for speed. Especially where it’s so important that speeds are low around pedestrians and bicyclists.

Seattle Bike Blog: Is there anything else that you want people to know about what the Safety Commission does?

Director Baldwin: Yeah, I think the one thing that we’re going with, with the “Together We Get There” campaign, is really building pride in our state safety culture. I always think about how I recycle, I recycle all by myself. There’s no one there to pat me on the back, but I still feel good about it. When I travel to another state that’s not as good at recycling and I’m in that hotel room and I have a glass bottle, I don’t know what to do with it, if they don’t have a recycling bin. If I have to throw it away, I feel horrible. Why? Why do I feel that way? It’s part of our culture. And if we could accomplish one thing, it would be to get everybody to embrace traffic safety the way we embrace recycling. We do the right thing because that’s who we are.

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