Structures of Stakeholder Relationships in Making Road Safety Decisions

R1: Structures of Stakeholder Relationships in Making Road Safety Decisions

Research Team:

Principal Investigator
Seth LaJeunesse
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Co-Principal Investigator
Steve Marshall
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Jill F. Cooper
University of California, Berkeley

Funding Organization:

Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety (CSCRS)


Traffic fatalities on U.S. roadways have risen in recent years. Meanwhile, the transportation system and the society it serves is growing increasingly complex. What is needed are systems, tools, and methods that can advance the state of road safety practice. Thus, with the aim of uncovering and accelerating productive cross-sector collaboration and effective safety countermeasure implementation, the R1 research team drew upon Diffusion of Innovations theory and strategies to “design for diffusion” to devise a three-phase exploratory study. Three key research questions guided our approach:

  • Which organizations and actors are involved in influencing the safety of cities’ transportation systems?
  • How do these organizations and actors make transportation safety decisions?
  • Which U.S. municipalities serve as opinion leaders in the realm of road user safety?

Map of US inter-municipal network identifying road safety practice leaders

Phase I. In the project’s first phase, the team surveyed a diverse group of road safety professionals to assess their awareness and involvement in Vision Zero programming and identify U.S. municipalities that serve as opinion leaders in road safety. We discovered that awareness of Vision Zero was high across professional disciplines (i.e., engineering, EMS, law enforcement, planning, public health). However, planners and engineers reported being aware of Vision Zero earlier than did professionals in law enforcement, EMS, and public health. Moreover, as opposed to professionals based in the Northeast, South, and West census region, fewer respondents from the Midwest region had heard of Vision Zero, suggesting that this may be a market to engage.

In terms of identifying opinion-leading cities in the realm of road safety, a social network analysis identified seven opinion leaders and four boundary spanners. With their central positions in the network of road safety professionals, opinion leaders can help accelerate the adoption of traffic safety innovations. Boundary spanners can complement opinion leaders with their exposure to divergent strategies and network position to facilitate exchange between seekers and providers of road safety advice.

Phase II. In the second phase of the project, the team carried out a content analysis of early-adopting cities’ Vision Zero action plans in the interest of learning how cities frame their safety issues and how they propose to address them. We discovered that most cities have tended to describe their traffic safety in global, or “whole network” terms, to illustrate a high degree of cross-sector collaboration, yet one which might encourage coalition members to operate independently of one another and not in concert with identified safety issues (e.g., law enforcement focusing on distracted walking enforcement without a city’s Vision Zero action plan referencing distracted walking as a safety issue).

Phase III. In the third and final phase of this project, the research team interviewed professionals working in opinion-leading U.S. cities to understand respondents’ relationships with other organizations in their cities’ Vision Zero coalitions in terms of these relationships’ frequency, patterns of sharing, and perceived cross-sector productivity. Respondents across four opinion-leading cities cited the importance of political support in catalyzing Vision Zero implementation. Similarly, all respondents reported increases in collaboration with other agencies. Given the high amount of missing data from two of the four cities in the initial sample, the quantitative organizational network analysis focused on the remaining two cities. In City 1, the identified lead agency was in the government, acting as a Vision Zero command center, controlling the flow, content, and spread of program-related information. Respondents across agencies in City 1’s Vision Zero coalition perceived their professional relationship with one another as productive, openly sharing information and safety-related data. In City 2, though the lead agency was a governmental entity, it did not occupy as central of a position as the lead agency in City 1. When it came to respondents’ reports of productive relationships with other agencies, government agencies other than the lead occupied central positions in the city’s Vision Zero coalition. Project-related implications

Findings from this three-phase study suggest that Vision Zero and safe systems strategies can diffuse across U.S. cities in accelerated fashion. Further, though it will require more time before cities document significant improvements in road user safety, the organizational network analysis carried out in Phase III of this R1 project holds promise as an exploratory technique to employ toward identifying adaptive, resilient cross-sector partnerships. Researchers and practitioners can complement the work described here by experimenting with innovative safety practices in coordination with opinion-leading cities and organizations. Future work can also incorporate applied research on ways to develop safety supportive cultures in the spirit of ushering in a new traffic safety paradigm that adapts and conforms to the ever-shifting needs of increasingly diverse road user groups.


Learn more about this project on the CSCRS website.