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Road Safety and Nature: Everything is Connected

By: The Honorable T. Bella Dinh-Zarr & guest author, Dr. Robert Zarr

In Ottawa, we often walk, bike, or drive past the National Gallery of Canada, with its iconic spider sculpture by the artist Louise Bourgeois. A couple of years ago, following conversations with Algonquin Elders from the unceded territory upon which the National Gallery is located, a banner was added to emphasize their purpose to “amplify the communities we serve.”  In large letters, the banner said Ankosé, an Anishinaabemowin word, along with translations into English (Everything is Connected) and French (Tout est Relié). This long-held philosophy in many cultures of everything being connected struck a chord with us and it is integral to the Safe System Approach, a foundational principle of much of TIRF’s work and the work in road safety around the world today.

The relationship between road safety & nature

In road safety, the Safe System Approach simply means we must take the entire system into account and provide many layers of protection against crash risk and injury for ourselves as fallible, vulnerable humans. We consider preventive measures that intervene before, during, and after the crash to prevent serious injury and death. In the broadest sense, however, a safe system considers many other aspects of well-being and community health – mental health, physical activity, the environment, social connections, and equity.  And nature touches on all of these areas and more.

The relationship between road safety and nature is not one we traditionally think about, but as a public health scientist working in transportation safety (Bella) and a physician-researcher and pediatrician investigating the linkages between nature and human health (Robert), who are married, we are finding our work can and should overlap for the benefit of community health and safety. We are working together in ways we did not initially imagine and finding that our different occupations are intersectional.

Through the lens of road safety, nature is often thought of first as a risk, and understandably so, given the very real issue of wildlife-vehicle collisions (WVC). Yet, while being aware of the risks posed by wildlife and using tools such as the Wildlife Road Sharing Resource Centre created by TIRF and sponsored by Desjardins Insurance to prevent such crashes, we also can take advantage of the strengths associated with  the interconnectedness of nature to promote active transportation and other benefits to communities. In a similar way, many people are afraid to spend time outside given the risks of being outdoors in nature. In addition to being a scientist, Robert also works as a nature and forest therapy (NFT) guide. In the work of an NFT, guides like Robert prefer to use the word awareness rather than risk. Being aware of your environment, sometimes known as situational awareness, has two advantages – safety and increased focus, which is itself therapeutic. Increased focus on nature has been used in programs to improve anxiety, energy level, memory, and stress.

How the Safe System Approach benefits different communities

TIRF, the FIA Foundation, PRA, and other partners are working with two communities to provide supplemental efforts to complement their U.S. Department of Transportation Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) comprehensive road safety action plan efforts. These two communities, the Blackfeet Nation and the East End District, may seem very different in many ways (rural compared to urban, an area of 1.5 million acres in Montana compared to a relatively small but densely populated area within the City of Houston, a tribal nation compared to a bilingual Spanish/English speaking community with a large number of immigrants). Yet, they share the characteristics of being vibrant, culturally rich communities that experience transportation inequities and highly value both nature and road safety. They inherently understand the Safe System Approach and they recognize that everything is connected.

The Blackfeet Nation, Montana

The Blackfeet Nation is a federally recognized tribal nation with lands located within the State of Montana. Initially spearheaded by the Blackfeet Honor Your Life Office which focuses on public health efforts, the project then transitioned to the Blackfeet Tribal Transportation Office which is now working with a diverse coalition of partners (including Honor Your Life) to create the most ethical and inclusive safety action plan possible for the Blackfeet Nation. This is a challenging but rewarding task for a community with roads that traverse 1.5 million acres of tribal land. At the same time, great emphasis is being placed on creating an environment where people of all ages and abilities can stay healthy and safely mobile in order to enjoy the benefits of their beautiful nature-rich lands, as well as make the most of, and further develop, the knowledge and culture present within the Blackfeet Nation. Although this effort is in its very early stages, we all look forward to the safe systems work we will be doing together.

The East End District, Texas

The East End District (EED) is an independent political subdivision of the State of Texas located within the boundaries of the City of Houston. PRA, with grant funding from the Mental Insight Foundation, collaborated with El Centro de Corazón, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), in 2023 to provide not only indoor plants and nature photographs inside their health centres, but a nature and forest therapy walk/experience in lieu of their staff meeting.

Dr. Young, CMO of El Centro de Corazón, Texas with indoor plant

With pending funding from other sources, in 2024, El Centro hopes to continue safe outdoors, nature-rich active transportation experiences and tree planting/tending opportunities – not only for the healthcare professionals, but for the entire health centre staff! Texas A&M engineering students are also currently volunteering their time to determine the most common routes taken by staff and patients to access health services such as clinical care, vaccines, nutrition assistance for pregnant women and children, and more. These engineering students will help determine potential safety improvements that can be piloted as part of the SS4A action plan efforts.

When active transportation meets nature

Given the level of burnout and moral injury among healthcare professionals, and their overall receptiveness to active transportation nature-based activities, like nature and forest therapy walk/experiences, it’s easy to see how we can work together to create opportunities for communities to be more active, safely, in nature-rich environments.

Photo credit: Rene Gonzalez/WOW

TIRF and the FIA Foundation are also working with Wellness on Wheels (WOW), a new nonprofit based in the East End District, that provides bicycles, helmets, training, and rides to high school students at a large East End high school. Inspired by a mental health improvement effort led by a high school counselor with an interest in biking, WOW has evolved to focus also on road safety, physical activity, and being in nature.

On a more personal note, TIRF and PRA are the recipients of a fundraising effort by TIRF COO Dr. Ward Vanlaar who is completing the equivalent of a full Ironman by himself on May 28, 2024. He has named his effort “Iron Ward for Roads and Parks” because of his longtime work in road safety and his love of the outdoors. You can contribute to two excellent causes, nature and road safety, at the same time, by clicking here.

Yet another creative example of blending nature and road safety in action!

Nature and road safety seem to be two very disparate topics but, like the two different communities highlighted here which are the Safe System communities of the future, these fields share important values and priorities. Nature and road safety both impact our physical and mental health, our well-being, and our interconnectedness. They are intertwined and should be considered together as complementary priorities for overall community health. Nature and road safety, together, are clearly important to our communities today, and prioritizing them will continue to be important to our communities in the future.

Everything is connected.

#MySafeRoadHome blog co-authors: The Honorable T. Bella Dinh-Zarr, PhD, MPH, is the former Vice Chairman and 42nd Member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and currently serves as Senior Advisor for Public Health & Transportation to TIRF and the FIA Foundation.  Dr. Robert Zarr, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician, researcher, and founder of PRA/Nature Prescribed.  He also is a certified Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) Guide.  Bella and Robert have been married for 26 years and enjoy outdoor activities such as ice skating, cross-country skiing, hiking, biking, and kayaking.

David Bird

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