Talking Michigan Transportation

Meet Garrett Dawe, MDOT’s new engineer of traffic and safety

January 23, 2024 Season 6 Episode 169
Talking Michigan Transportation
Meet Garrett Dawe, MDOT’s new engineer of traffic and safety
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with Garrett Dawe, who was recently named engineer of traffic and safety at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). Dawe succeeds Mark Bott, who is retiring.

Dawe talks about what he’s learned in a variety of positions at MDOT, including as a Transportation Service Center manager and North Region operations engineer, and his keen interest in traffic safety.

He also discusses the perils of drivers becoming too complacent behind the wheel, prompting them to indulge in distractions. 

Speaker 1:

Hello and welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranston. Garrett Dogg is nearly a two decade veteran of the Michigan Department of Transportation. He's held a number of positions in the North region mostly, which is the northern lower peninsula of Michigan, a vast, very rural area encompassing several counties. He's been a Transportation Service Center manager and an Operations Manager and throughout all of that he's had a major focus on traffic and safety. It's fitting that he will become the new engineer of traffic and safety for MDOT, assuming a role that has statewide responsibilities, replacing Mark Bott, who has been in that position for several years and is retiring at the end of January. So Garrett talks about everything, from his background and how he got to where he is now and why operations and traffic safety still stoke his passions. He'll talk about what he sees coming in the future as he and his colleagues and people across the country try to find more ways to build and design safer systems for all. So I hope you enjoy the conversation. So again I'm with Garrett Dogg, who is about to take over as engineer of traffic and safety for the entire state for trunk lines that are managed under the jurisdiction of the Michigan Department of Transportation. Garrett, thanks for taking time to talk with us. I appreciate you having me, jeff, thank you. So let's start a little bit with your background. You've got a pretty extensive background in operations. You obviously care a lot about operations and traffic and safety. And tell me as part of that what it means to you, because I still have a feeling that outside of the industry a lot of people don't understand why we call it operations, because they think if I drive the vehicle I'm the operator.

Speaker 2:

Oh right, yeah Well, I mean, traffic safety is near and dear to me and it's not because of any single crash or event that impacted me or my family, fortunately. But it's just a. It's something that when you work in it, you recognize the personal ties that it has to people and how people's lives can be so impacted by a single event. It really provides you a lot of motivation to make sure that those things don't happen or to reduce the likelihood that they're going to happen as much as possible. So that's my primary motivation in working in traffic safety and operations.

Speaker 1:

How did you get here? Talk about the other things you've done at MDOT and transportation in general.

Speaker 2:

Sure. Well, I started with MDOT back in 2004. I actually started in the Metro region in the engineering development program, worked at the Oakland and McComb TSCs there, and then, within a year and a half or so, I transferred up to the North region at the then grayling TSC, and Northern Michigan is where I grew up, so that's the reason I came back up here. I've worked in several different roles within the North region as a design engineer a brief statement in pavement management, but the majority of my time has been spent working as a traffic and safety engineer, both at the TSC and the regional level. I also spent three years at the Alpina TSC as the TSC manager at that location too, so I think that gives me a pretty unique perspective on how TSCs and regions operate in the serena.

Speaker 1:

Yeah. So do you think, going back to your younger years, even high school and college, did you have a particular interest in the design and traffic and safety aspect of civil engineering, or did that kind of evolve as your career developed?

Speaker 2:

I think that probably evolved. I always had an interest in maps as a kid. My grandfather worked for undot as a surveyor.

Speaker 1:

Oh, wow, yeah.

Speaker 2:

So I always had a feeling I might end up in the in the DOT in some, in some respects. So that's why I went to Michigan Tech to the civil engineering program. But it wasn't until I started working at MDOT and I had an EDP rotation in the Metro region and traffic and safety and then was a traffic and safety engineering grailing. It wasn't until those that I really kind of realized that this was a bit of a calling for me and it was really became a passion For the uninformed explain EDP. EDP, it stands for engineer development program and it's something that MDOT puts new engineers through in many cases to see many parts of the department.

Speaker 1:

And it works. It's a good system. It's what exposes people like you.

Speaker 2:

Absolutely, and we're still doing it today. And yes, it's a great way for folks to see the whole department and maybe understand what part of the department might fit them best longterm.

Speaker 1:

I guess to jump right into the safety aspect of this, do you wonder sometimes, with all the education, all the technology, all the things that we've developed, all the avenues for messages, that it just still seems just very difficult that we make some strides here and there and lowering the number of crash deaths, but overall it's still an alarming number. And I know that people at MDOT I didn't know this before I came to the department how personally people that do what you do take that and it just must be really frustrating.

Speaker 2:

It can be yes, it can be very frustrating. It can be rewarding at the same time. I think you have to look at it in smaller scales. Sometimes, for example, if we look at the North region and we look at trunk lines only and we look at the last five years, we've actually have seen a downward trend. Now it's not a steep trend that we're seeing, but a downward trend. You find little wins here or there, but I think if you look back decades for the whole state, I think we are doing quite a bit better than we used to be. But it does feel like maybe we've hit a plateau a bit statewide and I think it's just a new challenge for us to figure out how to get those numbers moving down again.

Speaker 1:

Well, yeah, obviously there was a blip in the overall trajectory because of the pandemic and, even though there were fewer people on the road, the people who were on the road were driving faster and there were fewer crashes. But the crashes that did occur were more severe and more people died there for a while, and I know you would say that that wasn't as noticeable in the very rural parts of the state where the North region is, but you're still aware you follow it from a national and statewide perspective. So I mean, how do you feel like? I mean, talk about some of those things, some of the small wins that you've been a part of and how you can build on those.

Speaker 2:

Right. Well, it can be things as simple as, maybe, a roadside delineator or something like that, where we've actually developed a kind of a statewide standard up here in the North region that we're proud of, and to see that the deployment of those on rural unlighted trunk lines, whether it's freeway or non-freeway, that they have had an impact Like, in some cases, up to a 30% reduction in fatal and serious injury crashes occurring in dark conditions. I think looking at small wins such as that's just one example I think it can help direct you down the road and say, well, some of these lower cost systemic treatments, while they're not gonna have the same impact on every road, the more we deploy them, the more of an overall impact I think we'll have, and I think that's what the goal ought to be.

Speaker 1:

So yeah, when you talk about those delineators and those kind of dovetail with, you know, rumble strips and with making sure that the paint lines are properly reflective, not to mention signs, as you know, the Facebook warriors like to hit us up all the time about why we're replacing perfectly good signs because during the day they can't see that that sign has, you know, lost its retro reflectivity at night. Right, so all those things are incremental, but they do make a difference. I mean, do you feel like, in your new role, with more of a statewide presence and opportunities for influence, that you can spread some other ideas, things you borrow from other states, maybe that you know from peer exchanges, or just? I mean, it's a lot to take on and you got to be practical about it, I guess. But how do you feel going into that job?

Speaker 2:

Well, I feel confident. I mean, there's some nervous excitement there. I think anytime you start a new role like this and there's, you know, more responsibility with it, I think it's probably wise to take it slow. I think MDOT, you know, in both central office and across the regions is doing some very, very good things in traffic and safety. So I think it's important for me to make sure I completely understand what it is that we're doing now and then really start to focus in on what's working. What safety treatments are we applying that are proven? They're proven to reduce fatals and serious injuries, and let's focus on those what. And then, on the flip side, what is not working? What do we invest in quite a bit that maybe isn't having as much of an impact on those numbers, and maybe let's look at it closer and see if maybe we can make a change. There's so, again, that will all become or that will come gradually. I have no intentions of stepping into the role and making immediate changes, but you know, as I observe and as we learn things and learn each other, I think we have the opportunity to make some improvements and I'm looking forward to that.

Speaker 1:

We will continue the conversation right after a quick break. The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you that when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, person or other object, it is a crash, not an accident. By reducing human error we can prevent crashes and rebuild Michigan roads safely. So one thing I know that you're aware of, it's been discussed elsewhere and you seem like an inherent to the principle that maybe our vehicles, with all the creature comforts, all the technology that we've made driving, feel so comfortable that it's easy to indulge in the distractions. Is that something you feel like you want to tackle?

Speaker 2:

Absolutely. I don't think it's just vehicles either. I think sometimes the roads themselves and the way we design them and build them can play into that. It's very easy to blame, and rightly so blame a driver that's distracted for the reason that a crash occurred. Of course that's the reason. But should we just leave it there and say, well, it's the driver's fault, let's move on? I don't think so. I think we can design and build our system perhaps to accommodate those issues not to allow someone to use their phone, for example, while they're driving and make that comfortable. But let's design a system perhaps to make someone a little bit less comfortable, make it feel more dangerous to do some of these things that people do on the roads Not unreasonably so. But the more comfortable I think we get with making drivers a little bit less comfortable, I think that could translate into safer operations on our roadways.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, talk a little bit more about that. I guess more specifically what you. I mean, I get it from a complete street standpoint when we're talking about, especially the very disturbing rise across the country and pedestrian crashes and things that we could do to make drivers in urban areas or areas where there are, whether in conflict with pedestrians or cyclists. So is that kind of what you're talking about, or you're talking about taking it behind that?

Speaker 2:

Well, I'm certainly talking about that aspect the complete streets and the vulnerable road user crashes that we experience in urban areas. It could be applied to work zones, certainly. I think the more you know as long as it's not taken to an unreasonable level but more uncomfortable you make drivers driving in those environments that safer. I think they tend to drive through them. But I think it can also be applied to the rural two lane, two ways or rural freeway applications. I'm not saying that we need to remove all of our safety features and make it feel dangerous. That's not where I'm going with this. What I think we can do is, you know, maybe instead of a 12 foot lane it's an 11 foot lane. Maybe that rumble strips a little closer to the edge line or on the edge line, something that makes a driver feel as though they should keep both hands on the wheel in order to avoid some of those nuisances that we can put out there, such as a rumble strip. I think little steps like that probably can make a bigger difference in actually reducing some of these numbers.

Speaker 1:

So talk a little bit. I brought that up earlier and what you said just triggered a memory that early on I heard complaints around the state about rumble strips. I don't hear that as much anymore. I suppose in some cases near a lake community perhaps, where people are really tuned into the noise, you still hear that. But overall do you feel like there's been broader acceptance of rumble strips?

Speaker 2:

I think there has. You know, I was a brand new traffic and safety engineer when we started deploying those, and so I got daily calls from folks primarily folks that lived along the roads that were complaining about them. But I think once you start seeing the data come back and how impactful they are at reducing lane departure crashes, I think those complaints start to subside and it's just something that people tend to get more used to and, frankly, we have more tools in the toolbox now than we used to have. With regard to rumble strips, there's a sinusoidal version that doesn't create as much noise outside of the vehicle that perhaps could be used in these areas that traditionally had noise concerns. So, you know, I think you know rumble strips is just one example, but it's a very good example of, you know, safety tools that I think we can really look at utilizing more even more than we do now.

Speaker 1:

So a friend of mine recently who's a township trustee here in Kent County asked me about a road trunk lined in intersex with a county road and he feels like anecdotally and a lot of people he talks to feel that you know there's been a higher crash rate and that they should look at a traffic light. I explained a little bit I know about this and how the warrants work. This is a conversation I know you've had several times in your call. So talk about that. And how do you deal with that when somebody, a local official or just a resident, when that's there to them, that's the go-to safety measure. You know that a traffic signal will solve everything. How do you frame that conversation?

Speaker 2:

Well, it is y'all and sometimes, frankly, jeff, sometimes a traffic signal is the right answer to a certain intersection. If you're continually having angle or t-bone type crashes at an intersection and there's just enough traffic maybe to meet one of those warrants, sometimes that is the best decision to install one. But often it's not and we do have to meet those federal warrants, or at least one of them, to justify installing a traffic signal. So in those cases where signals just not in the cards, right, I think there are many other options that sometimes we overlook. Is there a skew to that intersection that's limiting someone's ability to see in both directions? And, if so, is there something simple, perhaps with pavement markings, to improve the site angles that drivers are looking at? Do we have multiple approach lanes on that side road to where, if some, if both cars are sitting next to each other, they're blocking each other's site? Do we need both those approach lanes? I think going beyond just the well, it doesn't warrant a signal, so we're just going to table it and move on. I think sometimes that's a mistake. I think you can look at other, maybe lower class, treatments to improve the situation.

Speaker 1:

So that's usually how I approach those yeah, so the average citizen, the average driver, looks at it from the standpoint of what's the downside? Right like you can at least do this, do something and put up traffic light, but there can be a downside, so can you talk about that?

Speaker 2:

well, you can I mean traffic signals in general, and what I was always taught coming up the ranks right was that traffic signals tend to increase the number of crashes that you have, and and usually you're switching from a maybe an angle crash pattern to a rear end crash pattern by introducing new stops on a on a main road. So you always have to look at that and if you're even you know if you're not looking at traffic or you are, there are technologies that can maybe mitigate for that. Could you repeat the other part of that question, jeff?

Speaker 1:

I started rambling, I forgot no no, no, that's fine, just that, just that. I think people just tend to think you know well, why wouldn't you do this? Because what's the downside and I think you just explained it very well that, well, there there can be a downside unintended consequences could be that crash rates go up.

Speaker 2:

There are different kinds of crashes, but there's more of them so right, and it's very dependent on the the environment that the intersection is in. You know there's many factors that go into it and I think we also have to. It's not a popular answer, but you have to consider the cost of them. I mean, it costs about half a million dollars these days to install traffic signal and then we must maintain them. So I think we need to ensure, before it's installed, that it is justified and that we, that those expenses are are reasonable so you're, you're a dad.

Speaker 1:

I don't know if your kids are old enough to drive yet, but uh, not quite yet. Okay, so, as you look to that day with both fear and and and you know trepidation, what do you think about drivers training? And how will you be if you're in the car and they're being taught things? And you know, you think, well, maybe that's not quite right, or they should be emphasizing this. I mean, have you? Thought about that and how you'll you'll approach that.

Speaker 2:

You know I have and I think that you definitely have to support the the information that they're getting from the instructor. I can't imagine that they'd be being taught things that are wrong, but I think the fact that they're going to have a traffic and safety and you're sitting in the passenger seat next to them they won't like it. But I think you know, I think they'll get some other advice perhaps that a safety instructor won't get you know. Having read thousands of of crash reports throughout my career, I tend to see crashes before they happen. So little things like well, don't pull out yet because this car is turning right, and and there might be someone behind them that that's being screened. Um, little things like that that I've picked up from reading crash reports I think will probably be introduced to my children as they're learning how to drive. But yeah, the same anxieties that everyone has, I think, but maybe enhanced a little bit knowing what I know well and nothing else.

Speaker 1:

You'll teach your kids that the word is crash, not accident, right? Yeah, oh for sure. Yes, that'll be installed. Yeah, well, garrett, thanks, I, uh, I want to wish you luck. It's, uh, it's such an important role and, uh, you've done really good things in north region and, um, I'm really excited about uh having you take this on and bring some, some new perspective to the, to the role.

Speaker 2:

So, I want to wish you luck. Thanks, jeff, I appreciate it and I. I should also mention that I'm replacing mark bot, who's been in the position for many years and it's been a pillar in the traffic safety community, so very big shoes to fill, but I'll do my best yes, big shoes to fill indeed.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, okay, thanks Garrett, thanks, jeff. I'd like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talents of people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debbler, who skillfully edits the audio, jesse Ball, who proves the content, courtney Bates, who hosts the podcast of various platforms, and Jackie Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.

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