Seat belt illustration

Despite efforts, Robeson County ranks last for traffic deaths. What needs to happen?

By Rachel Baldauf 

The N.C. Department of Transportation had an idea in 2018 to reduce traffic deaths in Robeson County, which has ranked the worst in the state for traffic safety for the past 20 years. 

The goal was to assemble a task force of community leaders to brainstorm solutions to traffic problems and educate drivers on how to stay safe on the roads. Robeson County Vision Zero continues to meet four times a year, bringing together representatives from local law enforcement, public schools and health care organizations.

Other North Carolina cities, including Charlotte, Durham and Greensboro, have their own Vision Zero programs run by city government officials and traffic engineers. But Robeson County’s program is the only one in the state that brings together an array of local leaders from different backgrounds.

“We’d never done this before in our state where we had a county-wide Vision Zero with people across city borders and across institutions,” NCDOT spokesperson Andrew Barksdale said. “We figured, you know what, we’re going to try something new.”

Despite the group’s efforts, the number of fatal crashes in Robeson County has almost doubled since 2018, NCDOT data shows. Last year, 65 people in Robeson County died in car accidents, according to preliminary data.

Many traffic accidents in the county boil down to “bad driving habits,” Barksdale said. From 2019 to 2021, 42.3% of fatal crashes in Robeson County involved people not wearing seat belts, compared with 31.4% statewide. About 30% of drivers in fatal crashes in Robeson County were speeding at the time, compared with 24% statewide.

The statistics leave the task force with a key question: How do you convince people in a sprawling, rural county to change their driving habits? 

“Even though this is a statistic, these are real people,” Barksdale said. “These are friends, family members, co-workers. A lot of people in Robeson know someone who has died in a car crash.”

In January, the task force met to begin developing a comprehensive safety action plan that seeks to reduce traffic deaths and raise awareness. The plan is set to be finalized by next year.

“We welcome a fresh look at the crashes taking place in our county, and what strategies and safety projects we should pursue to save more lives,” Grady Hunt, the group’s chairman, said in a statement.

Most traffic deaths in Robeson County are preventable, Barksdale said. “If people were buckled up, if they were not driving intoxicated, or looking at their cell phones or speeding, for the most part they wouldn’t even crash,” he said. “And if they did, they would survive.” 

In 2019, law enforcement agencies in Robeson County began issuing more tickets to people not wearing seat belts and started handing out Vision Zero fliers about the risks of driving without a seat belt. The next year, a $2,400 marketing campaign put banners on four county buses that encouraged drivers to buckle up.

The group also advocated for the revival of a seat belt safety course that had been operated by the district attorney’s office years prior but was canceled due to budget constraints. Using a $44,740 grant from the N.C. Governor’s Highway Safety Program, what is now UNC Health Southeastern relaunched the program in 2019. Now, people who receive tickets for not wearing their seatbelts have the option to attend the class instead of paying a fee for their first ticket.

Other efforts have focused on outreach in the community. In 2021, Vision Zero organized a roundtable discussion with faith leaders to come up with ways to encourage congregations to buckle up and drive safely.

“We have many churches and other organizations doing important ministry that reaches people across our county,” Hunt said in a statement. “We need the faith-based community to help us spread the word about the dangers of bad driving.”

Bad driving habits are exacerbated by the abundance of poorly lit two-lane roads in Robeson County, which tend to be more dangerous than interstates, Barksdale said.

“You have people flying on the interstate, but it’s fully controlled access,” he said.

Since 2000, NCDOT has installed 350 all-way stops at rural intersections throughout the state, including 30 in Robeson County. The new stops helped reduce crashes by 55% and crashes causing death or severe injury by 92%.

Hunt said there was initially community pushback about the installation of all-way stops and roundabouts. But now, said, the feedback is positive.

“Now that there’s enough of them in place, it’s a completely different reaction,” Hunt said. “Communities are asking about these three-way stops and roundabouts.”

Earning the community’s trust is key. “It’s like anything else, if you try something new, try something different, you get a little resistance,” Hunt said. “But when people see it’s working, then they’re much more prone to support it.”