Follow the data, follow the science. That aptly describes Dr. James “Jim” Hedlund’s highway safety philosophy, which he has honed over the past 37 years. A mathematician by training, Jim is skilled at taking complex, sometimes abstract problems and boiling them down into understandable parts. While his work is grounded in evidencebased research, his down-to-earth yet innovative approach to addressing highway safety’s most vexing issues is lauded by his peers. He is also that rare researcher who is sought out by the press for his ability to translate complex ideas into clear sound bites that have helped make highway safety a “hot” topic.
Jim’s contributions to highway safety are many. As Chief of the Mathematical Analysis Division at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA), he oversaw implementation of the National Automotive Sampling and General Estimate Systems, which are used to identify safety problems, provide a springboard for regulatory and consumer initiatives, and form the basis for cost benefit analyses of interventions. He also conducted analyses of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) to identify trends in traffic fatalities and factors affecting fatality rates. Jim’s “hands-on” approach to building and assessing these and other data systems proved invaluable as they led to numerous efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of motor vehicle safety and traffic safety programs and interventions.
While at NHTSA, Jim also served as Director of the Office of Alcohol and State Programs, where he led many significant national impaired driving initiatives and demonstration projects, including the “Checkpoint Tennessee” program, which led to the nationwide promotion of sobriety checkpoints as a proven traffic enforcement strategy. A skilled facilitator and convener, Jim led the first summits dedicated to promoting collaboration between prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and highway safety professionals. He also spearheaded “Partners in Progress,” which brought together more than 100 representatives from government, private industry and advocacy groups to adopt bold new strategies in the fight against drunk driving. He helped guide the “20 by 2000” goal (20 percent reduction in alcohol-related fatalities by the year 2000) set by MADD in 1990, which was achieved five years early in 1995. Thanks to Jim’s leadership, the effectiveness of critical laws – including the 21 minimum legal drinking age and zero tolerance – were studied and proven, and alcohol-related fatalities fell by 32 percent during the 1990s.
Jim was also at the forefront of several Presidential initiatives, including the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign. Under his tutelage, high visibility enforcement strategies were coupled with paid media, giving rise to the Click It or Ticket campaign. Seat belt use, as a result of his efforts, rose from 42 to 65 percent between 1987 and 1997.
Despite retiring from federal service in 1997, Jim began a new phase in his safety career as a consultant with Pruesser Research Group, Inc. and later Highway Safety North. While he has published more than 80 papers and reports on subjects ranging from truck safety and mathematical models to impaired driving and motorcycle fatalities, two projects stand out for their long-term impact on highway safety. Countermeasures That Work, first published in 2005 and now in its 6th edition, is considered the definitive desk reference for federal, state and local highway safety officials seeking evidence-based traffic safety countermeasures proven to address highway safety problems.
Jim also facilitated and guided the work of an expert panel tasked with establishing a minimum set of performance measures for use by state and federal agencies in developing and implementing behavioral safety plans and programs. Traffic Safety Performance Measures for State and Federal Agencies, published in 2008, identified 14 performance measures which were incorporated into state highway safety plans and annual reports two years later. Performance measures focused on changes in attitude about highway safety issues and initiatives followed in 2011. Most recently, Jim facilitated a similar effort to develop performance measures for traffic records systems and oversaw revisions to the 4th Edition of the Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria (affectionately referred to as MMUCC).
Dr. Hedlund’s latest venture, serving as special consultant for safety coordination to the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) II, seems fitting given his penchant for taking on complex tasks. This naturalistic driving study, which is composed of innumerable moving parts, is sure to yield significant findings under Jim’s watchful eye.
A consummate professional, who has trained, coached and mentored scores of NHTSA and state safety officials, Jim has set a standard for both excellence and professionalism that is unsurpassed. He truly is a highway safety “giant.”