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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - January/February 2003

Saving Lives: A Vital FHWA Goal

by A. George Ostensen

The agency has developed six agency-wide strategies to reduce fatalities on our Nation's roads.



Improving highway safety in the United States has been a primary focus of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) since the agency was established more than 100 years ago. Due to FHWA's efforts, as well as the hard work of highway engineers, State departments of transportation (DOTs), local transportation agencies, and the automobile industry, driving has become an increasingly safe activity. From 1966 to 2001, the rate of fatalities declined from 5.5 per 100 million highway vehicle miles traveled (HVMT) to 1.52 fatalities/HVMT.

Despite advances and improvements, however, many people still lose their lives each year on the Nation's roadways. In 2001, as Americans traveled 2.8 trillion miles, more than 42,000 people died in automobile crashes. This equals one person dying every 13 minutes—far too high a price to pay for mobility.

For its part, FHWA is continuing to keep safety at the centerline of its efforts as one of the agency's three "must-do" priorities. The three "Vital Few" goals——safety, environmental stewardship and streamlining, and congestion mitigation—are essential to FHWA's success over the next 3Ð5 years, requiring the full strength of the agency to succeed.

This guardrail is a reminder that although the rate of fatalities has declined, the number of deaths remains high, with the equivalent of one person dying every 13 minutes.

A Clear Vision and Strong Mission

A critical element of any agency's success is developing an organizationally shared vision. FHWA recently reviewed and updated its vision, "Improving Transportation for a Strong America." Flowing from this vision is FHWA's mission of "enhancing mobility through innovation, leadership, and public service." This mission provides a succinct description of what we want to accomplish and highlights the roles that FHWA plays within the transportation community.

FHWA's vision and mission alone, as is true for most organizations, do not provide sufficient focus to assure success. Therefore, after developing the vision and mission, FHWA's leadership undertook the process of defining priorities. Three priorities became known as the "Vital Few": safety, environmental stewardship and streamlining, and congestion mitigation. These three areas are the ones where the agency needs to take action to close key performance gaps. Everyone in the agency "owns" the Vital Few in that they need to support them, though not every individual will always be involved in a task associated with a "Vital Few" area.

FHWA is fully committed to the Vital Few and plans to make them resource-intensive efforts. The agency will be accountable for its successes and failures in these areas. The keys to success are specific initiatives carried out at the State and local levels, based on determination of what best fits local circumstances.


Pedestrians cross a brick-lined crosswalk in Annapolis, MD.

Safety as a Priority

To drive innovative thinking on safety, FHWA made a conscious decision that the key performance measure for safety under the Vital Few is lives saved, rather than reducing fatality or injury rates. Fatality and injury rates remain important national metrics, and the agency will continue tracking them as well as other measures. By selecting lives saved as the performance measure, however, FHWA is focusing on the truly compelling notion that it is imperative for the transportation industry to reduce deaths on the Nation's roadways.

From analyzing crash and fatality data, FHWA identified three areas directly related to infrastructure safety: reducing intersection and pedestrian fatalities and cutting deaths from roadway departures (including run-off-road and head-on crashes). The overall safety objective is to lower the deaths resulting from these three types of crash situations by 10 percent by 2007, thereby saving 3,617 lives.

Encouraging people to buckle up, as this woman is doing, is one of the most effective steps that a State transportation agency can take to improve highway safety.

FHWA's National Safety Strategies

The next step was to discuss the strategies best suited to save lives in these three types of crash situations. Recognizing the value of a comprehensive approach, the agency developed a set of six national strategies.

Encourage the implementation of strategic safety programs. The first strategy is to encourage the implementation of strategic safety programs at the State, local, and metropolitan planning organization (MPO) levels. The goal is to make safety consciousness a part of project planning, development, and operations.

Successful implementation of this strategy will result in State and local decisionmakers having the necessary data and analysis tools to consider safety benefits in conjunction with other factors when prioritizing proposed transportation improvements. Implementation also will enhance the ability of safety experts to recognize problems and improvement opportunities, design effective countermeasures, and plan and implement safety-specific programs in a timely and efficient manner.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' (AASHTO) Strategic Highway Safety Plan offers a comprehensive framework for implementing programs that address the "4Es" of safety: engineering, education, enforcement, and emergency response. Critical elements of a comprehensive approach include: (1) collection and analysis of substantive, accurate, reliable, accessible, and timely crash data; (2) consideration of safety as an integral part of statewide and metropolitan planning efforts; (3) active leadership support and participation from all appropriate highway safety "4E" entities; and (4) cooperation from the Federal safety partners, including FWHA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Buckle Up

A NHTSA study found that three-point seat belts reduce fatalities by 45 percent in passenger car crashes and 60 percent in light-truck crashes.

“Seat belts are absolutely our most effective safety device,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. “If everyone buckled up, thousands of lives could be saved annually.”

A number of FHWA Division Offices are planning to support seat belt efforts through outreach and education, primarily working with NHTSA and its partners in State and local campaigns. Connecticut plans to use Federal funds to support initiatives to increase seat belt use. In Arkansas, FHWA is continuing outreach efforts with local, State, and Federal partners in promoting the passage of safety laws and increased seat belt usage.

“FHWA can assist in education and awareness on the use of safety belts,” says David Bartz, safety coordinator for FHWA’s Texas Division Office. “FHWA can use its contacts with the transportation community to keep the safety belt issue as a topic in meetings and discussions. We also can use our contacts with the law enforcement community to promote active enforcement and to heighten awareness of the importance of wearing safety belts and the need for effective enforcement.”

Frank Julian, FHWA’s safety management engineer for the Southern Resource Center, notes that the corridor safety approach uses engineering, enforcement, emergency response, and educational approaches to improve safety along targeted roadways. He says that such programs directly use FHWA funds to support efforts targeted at seat belt, DUI, and speed enforcement in high-crash corridors.

Jack D. Jernigan

Several States already have initiated a strategic approach to highway safety. Iowa, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have designed their approaches around the AASHTO Strategic Highway Safety Plan, and Florida and Mississippi have started similar efforts. Minnesota has an aggressive and comprehensive program called "Toward Zero Deaths," and Washington State has developed a program around a vision of "zero deaths."

Protect vehicle occupants. Under this strategy, FHWA will support Federal, State, and local efforts to increase seat belt use nationally. Within the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), NHTSA is the lead agency in these efforts, and FHWA headquarters and field offices are well-positioned to work in cooperation with NHTSA, FMCSA, and State transportation agencies on activities to raise seat belt use.

Several FHWA Division Offices have taken innovative approaches to encourage seat belt use. The Illinois Division Office has held seat belt activities at rest areas during busy travel periods and also sponsored a booth at a State fair. The Oregon Division Office encouraged the use of car seats and undertook an outreach initiative targeted at children. In the North Carolina and Oklahoma Division Offices, outreach efforts are underway targeted at geographic areas where the rates of seat belt usage are especially low.

Prevent roadway departures. FHWA's third national strategy is to prevent roadway departures by helping drivers stay on the road, primarily through enhancements to roadway visibility and installation of effective warning systems to alert drivers to lane departure situations. Potential actions to support this strategy could include statewide review of the quality of sign and marking visibility followed by implementation of improvement programs wherever deficiencies are found. Another effective method for minimizing roadway departures is installation of rumble strips along problematic roadway segments and possibly throughout the highway system.

FHWA already has issued a technical advisory on shoulder rumble strips, and more and more States are implementing rumble strip technology. Significant potential also exists with the use of centerline rumble strips to prevent head-on crashes and fatalities. National metrics related to the roadway departure objective include tracking the number of States implementing the shoulder advisory, using the centerline rumble strips, applying systematic processes to ensure nighttime visibility of signs and markings, and developing programs to reduce crashes due to adverse weather.

Minimize the consequences of roadway departures. Some roadway departures will always occur, although there are many ways to reduce the number. The fourth strategy is to minimize the consequences of roadway departures through removal of hazardous roadside conditions. Improving the methods and practices used to select high-priority areas and identify the causes of roadway departures in these areas, and then implementing proactive programs to reduce this kind of crash gives State and local agencies the flexibility to implement area-specific countermeasures. Elements that could be part of a State's program include aggressive action to improve clearzone characteristics on priority roadway classes, enhancing safety design of new projects and rehabilitation projects, systematic use of road safety audits, and speed management programs.

A variety of indicators can show how States are addressing road departure strategies, including tracking the number of programs to eliminate cross-median head-on crashes, state- and area-wide programs to create and maintain clear roadsides, system-wide programs to pave shoulders, system- and/or area-wide programs to eliminate edge drop-offs, training on roadway and roadside safety design, and speed management programs.

FHWA's Indiana and Iowa Division Offices have initiated efforts to target two-lane roads throughout the States where run-off-road crashes are potential problems. Also, successful cross-median crash reduction programs already have been implemented in both North Carolina and South Carolina.

Shoulder rumble strips help prevent roadway departures, and FHWA is investigating centerline rumble strips to help prevent head-on crashes.

Conduct comprehensive intersection analyses. The fifth strategy is to conduct comprehensive intersection analyses to determine where safety problems exist and then to develop cost-effective countermeasures. Under this strategy, States could conduct operational studies that evaluate a targeted set of intersections and then allocate resources toward improvement actions such as:

  • Cost-effective countermeasures for addressing problems at unsignalized intersections, especially in rural areas
  • Installation of traffic signal progressive movement timing
  • Installation of turn lanes and other geometric improvements
  • Enforcement of red light running, including consideration of automated enforcement cameras where warranted

Statewide intersection safety plans are underway in both New Hampshire and Washington State, and the number of communities implementing Stop Red Light-Running programs continues to rise. In New York, the FHWA Division Office is working with the New York State DOT to implement a traffic signal re-timing and improvement program.

Comprehensive countermeasures to increase safety at intersections, such as this one in Washington, DC, are the focus of the fifth of FHWA's six safety strategies.

Systematic approach to community safety. The sixth and final strategy is to foster a more systematic approach to community safety, including implementation of comprehensive pedestrian safety programs. Elements proposed to support this strategy include: (1) increasing public and political awareness of pedestrian safety issues, (2) educating and training for State and local officials on pedestrians safety issues, (3) improved design elements for safe pedestrian accommodations and widely distributing analytic tools such as the Pedestrian and Bicycle Crash Analysis Tool, and (4) emphasizing pedestrian safety within MPOs and other organizations such as the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations and the National Association of Regional Councils.

Success under this strategy would include increasing the number of communities with an active pedestrian safety program, the number of MPOs emphasizing pedestrian safety, and the number of State and local entities using FHWA's Pedestrian and Bicycle Crash Analysis Tool.

The FHWA Georgia Division Office is showing leadership in this area by working with State agencies and MPOs to improve identification of the pedestrian crash problem and to use this information in the evaluation criteria for future plans and programs.

Saving Lives—The Ultimate Measure of Success

Successful implementation of these six strategies to save lives will depend on the efforts of States and localities to address their specific needs. FHWA is prepared to identify and share best practices and success stories from our partners in each of these strategic areas, and by doing so spur innovative thinking among the States about options for improving highway safety and saving lives. The ability to link these early actions to saving lives will help the transportation community develop a better understanding of the effectiveness of these actions, leading to saving even more lives in the future.

It is important to reiterate that improving highway safety is a primary focus for FHWA. And although the Vital Few safety goal is stratified into the three specific objectives related to roadway departures, intersections, and pedestrians, by no means is this meant to de-emphasize the importance of highway safety strategies in other areas. Ongoing FHWA efforts are continuing in other areas like work zones, rail/highway grade crossings, and speed management activities. Older driver efforts also will help to improve highway safety.

Finally, FHWA recognizes that any success in saving lives is possible only through the actions of its many partners and especially the State DOTs. To this end, FHWA is fully prepared to assist States in order to raise the bar on highway safety in the United States.

The "Vital Few" for Safety

Objectives and Gaps


1. Reduce fatalities involving roadway departure crashes (run-off-road & head-ons) by 10% by 2007 •Save 2, 292 Lives
2. Reduce intersection fatalities by 10% by 2007 •Save 860 Lives
3. Reduce pedestrian fatalities by 10% by 2007 •Save 465 Lives
Source: FHWA, based on estimated 2002 data.

Associate Administrator for Safety A. George Ostensen is a career FHWA employee and has served in several significant leadership positions at the field and headquarters levels, including the division administrator in Michigan; director of Field Services—Midwest; and the director of Safety and Traffic Operations R&D at FHWA's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center.