Improving Road Safety in Tulsa, Oklahoma

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: May 17, 2024

The U.S. has more traffic-related deaths than almost every other developed country in the world. A traveler on an American road is six times more likely to be killed than in Norway, even when accounting for population differences. The Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) discretionary grant program funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law aims to change this. In one Oklahoma region, they’re using high impact, low-cost, proven interventions to start making roads safer for everyone.

The Indian Nations Council of Governments (INGOC), a voluntary association of local and tribal governments in the Tulsa, OK metropolitan area, was recently awarded $21.2 million to make road safety improvements on behalf of the six counties and four cities it represents. INGOC looked at data collected by local law enforcement and identified that 71% of crashes that result in fatal and serious injuries occurred at intersections. Now they’re implementing proven high impact, low-cost countermeasures as they work towards a goal of zero traffic fatalities.

How this all started: the need for speed

At the 1939 World’s Fair, Norman Bel Geddes unveiled “Futurama”, a vision for a 1960 utopia. Bel Geddes predicted the establishment of an interstate system where vehicles would move as fast as 100 miles/hour on 14-lane superhighways. To ensure safety, radio beams would regulate the space between cars. Curbsides would help keep drivers in their lanes. Elevated and depressed turning off lanes would enable drivers to exit motorways without interference from traffic continuing straight ahead.

 “The keynote of this motorway: safety with increased speed,” a film at the exhibit told the thousands of visitors.

As predicted, today adaptive cruise control comes standard on many vehicles, regulating the speed between cars. Lane-centering assist and lane-departure warnings are also common on all new vehicles, to help keep drivers in their lanes.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, data shows that these discretionary safety features and federally-mandated safety features like airbags in cars and protected bike and pedestrian paths reduced traffic fatalities and injuries. But since 2020, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has seen our roads get less safe. The culprits are many: distracted driving from phones, intoxication, speeding, and road rage.

Engineering Interventions

To help make greater Tulsa’s roads safer, INOC is focusing on installing three types of countermeasures: pavement markings, new roadway signs, and bright backplates on traffic signals.

Pavement markings will be retrofitted with reflective paint or tape to make them more visible to drivers. These “provide continuous information to road users related to the roadway alignment, vehicle positioning, and other important driving-related tasks,” FHWA researchers argue.

Some of the INGOC region’s roadway signs have lost their retroreflectivity and need to be replaced. Research shows that “good signage for both day and night conditions is believed to promote improved safety and traffic flow.”

Additional stop and yield signs are also expected to be added. In some of the communities INOC serves, the back plate of traffic signal heads have historically been painted black. “The current standard is to replace them not just with black back plate, but also with yellow reflective sticker behind it to draw the driver’s eye at night,” explained Thomas Dow, Director of Transportation and Programs at INOC.

Yet even with these technical interventions, safety is ultimately dependent on driving practices. “There is only so many things that engineers can do,” said Dow. “People need to wear seatbelts, wear motorcycle helmets, look both ways before crossing the street.”

Advice for Practitioners

The SS4A discretionary grant program is providing $5 billion over five years for regional, local, and tribal initiatives that aim to prevent roadway deaths and serios injuries. Using a “Safe System Approach”, the goal is to achieve zero roadway deaths.

Dow recommends examining crash data that has been collected by law enforcement agencies and compiled by state highway and other offices. Through this, teams can identify different technical problems, and identify different safety countermeasures.

“Going through developing the plan first is a good way to figure out what you need,” advised Dow. “You can apply for a planning grant first, and then apply for the implementation grant.”

The FHWA has compiled a website of Proven Safety Countermeasures and strategies aimed at reducing fatalities and serious injuries on all kinds of roads. Suggested interventions include speed management systems like variable speed limits, pedestrian and bicyclist safety interventions, roadway departures, intersection designs, and crosscutting measures.

“Everyone is in the early stages of this to create a safety culture for transportation,” said Dow. “This takes everyone working together.”

For more information, check out the Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) Grant Program’s website. Thomas Dow can be reached at


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