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Public Roads - January/February 2017

January/February 2017
Issue No:
Vol. 80 No. 4
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Championing Safety on Local Roads

by Rosemarie Anderson, Pamela M. Beer, and Danena Gaines

Engaging officials and the public is essential to successfully implementing innovations on tribal, county, city, and other municipal roads.


Innovations like this roundabout, which accommodates motor vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists, can have many safety and operational benefits but require buy-in from local officials and the public.


Improving safety and operations on local roads is no easy task. Local roads are defined as those owned and operated by local jurisdictions (county, township, or other municipality) and not restricted by functional classification. The sheer number of these roads and their owners and operators presents a challenge. Approximately 75 percent of the Nation’s roadways are local roads, and they are owned and operated by more than 30,000 agencies, including county, city, town, tribal, and other owners. Further complicating the matter is that these agencies have significant diversity in resources, including traffic expertise and funding.

Transportation agencies implement safety improvements through coordination and collaboration with a variety of traffic safety professionals and stakeholders. Local safety practitioners serve an important role in choosing new and innovative approaches to make roads safer. However, transportation professionals and safety practitioners depend on local officials who approve budgets and make decisions on the use of resources. Because of this essential link, engaging local officials in adopting innovations in transportation can greatly assist safety practitioners in improving roadway safety for the traveling public.

Increasingly diverse innovations in traffic safety (such as roundabouts, enhanced delineation and high friction surface treatments for horizontal curves, road diets, and signing inventories) also make it more important than ever for traffic safety practitioners to work with local public officials. Practitioners can help officials understand the importance of these improvements to the safety of their communities and become champions for their use.

Transportation professionals also need to inform public officials that the methods to identify and prioritize improvements have advanced. For example, the systemic approach to safety improvement process identifies potential locations for improvements based on risk rather than simply locations where crashes have occurred.

Local transportation and public works professionals should always engage appropriate decisionmakers, including public officials, on innovative practices to gain the necessary buy-in and resources needed to implement improvements.

Engaging and Informing Local Officials

Local officials must address many public concerns, including transportation, public safety, economic development, and city or county services, often with limited budgets and revenue. They represent cities, counties, consolidated governments, and tribal lands. Local public officials are the ones who make decisions about how Federal, State, and local transportation funds are spent, as well as how resources (staff, equipment, materials) are used. These decisionmakers may include city councilpersons, county commissioners, mayors, county or city managers, public works directors, city or county engineers, and law enforcement officials.

Proactively engaging local officials in the process of adopting new traffic safety innovations can keep them informed and supportive, ease the implementation process, and, most important, improve local road safety. Safety professionals should inform local officials of the most pressing traffic safety challenges in their jurisdictions and arm them with the knowledge of potential solutions so they can act as champions for safety improvements in their communities. Henderson, NV, for example, has found a champion in Councilwoman Debra March.

“It’s important to involve elected officials in traffic safety issues as we meet regularly with our engaged constituents,” says Councilwoman March. “These meetings provide an opportunity to communicate the initiatives and programs our traffic engineers and police officers are implementing to improve traffic safety. Delivering a compelling story, backed with empirical data, resonates with our constituents, gains their support, and improves safety for everyone in our community.”

Greater collaboration and coordination with safety practitioners benefits public officials because they better understand the technical approaches available to address specific issues relevant to their constituents.

“The biggest challenge is education,” says James Nall, traffic division director with the Public Works Department in Mesa County, CO. “Anyone who has a driver’s license often believes [he or she has] expertise in safety, but there is a great deal of science behind it. That is why we need to educate our elected officials.”

Preparation Is Key

To begin, practitioners should identify key local officials to determine their interest in traffic safety issues and their information needs related to road safety. Also vital is gathering pertinent data on the traffic safety issues within the jurisdiction (such as crash, roadway, trauma, citation, adjudication data) and identifying proven innovations to address the issues.


Councilwoman Debra March of Henderson, NV, is shown here with State Senator Mark Manendo at Nevada’s Traffic Safety Summit in May 2016.


The information that practitioners use to make their case will vary depending on the traffic safety challenge, the innovation being discussed, and the local official’s position (for example, elected or appointed) and established interest. Some examples of sources of information include public needs and preferences gathered from public involvement activities, expected demographic and socioeconomic changes, and information gathered from road safety audits. It is also important to identify the nature of the safety problems, where they are occurring, and the risks associated with them, as well as crash data, causes, and citizen concerns relevant to the issue. In addition, prepare information on potential safety strategies, countermeasures, and funding options for implementation.

After collecting and compiling key information, practitioners often will make initial contact through local official’s staff. Practitioners should be prepared to present the facts--data, proposed solutions, and costs with an eye for solutions scaled to a level that officials are able to address. For example, instead of proposing enhanced delineation and friction treatments for every horizontal curve in a county, propose implementing the improvements on only the higher risk curves initially, within a reasonable budget for the agency. Most important, practitioners should be prepared to educate officials and their staff members on proven, effective, low-cost solutions. Preparing a one-page summary with main points to leave behind might be helpful, as officials can refer to it in the future or use it to educate other decisionmakers.

Michigan LTAP Workshop for Elected Officials

The Michigan Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) hosted a workshop on “What Elected Officials Need to Know About Traffic Safety” to educate local officials on technical issues and provide an informed basis for decisions.

The participants were exposed to real-world examples of commonly misunderstood traffic safety concepts such as the safety benefits of roundabouts. The workshop content included Michigan crash data, factors influencing crashes on Michigan roadways, and other technical information and resources.

A followup study on the effectiveness of the workshop showed a 15:1 ratio of secondary transfer of information after training elected officials. The data were gathered through surveys of attendees within 12 months after the training event. Individuals self-identified the number of people they transferred material to and how they transferred the materials.

Engaging Federal and State agency safety experts can assist local practitioners in their outreach to local officials. In addition, Federal and State agencies often can provide training and technical assistance needed for the identification and implementation of proposed safety improvements.

Strategies to Engage Local Officials

Because local officials receive many requests for funding and demands for their time and attention, several strategies can help make every minute with them count.

Understand the issue/innovation by researching the facts, benefits to the local community or State, and potential costs. Supplement facts and figures with stories of crashes in the community and explain how the innovation may reduce or prevent such crashes. Make the issue personal to the local official and the community.


The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission held a public visioning workshop as part of its Connections 2045 long-range plan update. At the workshop, these participants discussed their values, concerns, and future forces, and identified their vision for transportation in the region.


Steve Latoski, public works director for Mohave County, AZ, suggests an effective formula for making this personal connection to traffic safety issues. “Emphasize results, especially lives and dollars saved,” says Latoski.

Acknowledge the arguments against the innovation and, to the extent possible, identify information that overcomes the argument. Emphasize results seen in similar cases, gather information on proven countermeasures, and synthesize common results to make your case.

“Any time you’re [asking someone to consider] spending money it could be a tough sell,” said the late David Brand, who served as county engineer in Madison County, OH. “There are going to be questions, but part of that sell is to have those answers and to present the information in a way that the elected officials can then get their arms around it and also return support for it.”

Identify partners (organizations and individuals) who can support the cause. Share the results of public outreach. Get involved in any local, regional, or statewide efforts on traffic safety (such as strategic highway safety plans) to build connections that can be beneficial to safety improvement programs. In many instances, local officials are already involved in efforts to develop regional and local transportation efforts. Working toward safety goals together can help to build and strengthen essential relationships.

Determine an approach to communicate with local officials. Be brief, concise, and clear on what is needed, use nontechnical (common) language to explain concepts, and provide graphics and other visual aids when possible. The approach should be similar to communicating with the public about traffic safety.

Joseph Marek, traffic safety program manager in Clackamas County, OR, has worked hand in hand with local officials. “You don’t need tons of technical jargon to talk about things that are really common sense, and when you talk to citizens they get that.... They can’t rattle off equations, but they know when that [road] sign shouldn’t be there,” he says.

Identify opportunities to engage local officials. Use town hall meetings and one-on-one meetings or briefings to present data, proposed solutions, and costs. Be concise when presenting information. Public comment during regular city council or county commissioners meetings are also potential opportunities for practitioners to make presentations on innovative practices.

Metropolitan planning organizations have technical advisory committees made up primarily of representatives from local jurisdictions, departments of transportation, transit agencies, and the Federal Highway Administration. The technical advisory committees usually meet monthly or quarterly to provide input and guidance into all transportation planning activities. These committee meetings may be another opportunity to engage local officials on traffic safety issues and present information on proposed improvements and countermeasures.


This county engineer (far right, pointing) explains design features of a partially constructed bridge during a road tour for elected officials in Iowa.


Provide information on available resources. Information on proven effectiveness along with the cost and examples of best practices can go a long way to promote an innovation. General background information on local and rural road safety needs and reports on projects and countermeasures are available on FHWA’s Local and Rural Road Safety Program Web site at

Follow up after your meeting with local officials. Send a thank you and offer to provide additional information or presentations if needed. Invite the local official and his or her staff to attend upcoming open houses and road safety events. Offer public knowledge of the official’s support, such as a speaking role at a ribbon-cutting ceremony or safety meetings.

A Downtown Revival in Grand Junction, CO

The city of Grand Junction, CO, has been a leader in roadway innovations since 1962 when it proposed the first “road diet” for Main Street. A more recent showcase of how the city embraces innovation is the redesign of its downtown.

“Grand Junction has always supported innovations,” says Trent Prall, engineering manager for the city. “We did road diets before they were even called road diets, have converted numerous intersections to roundabouts, and, in partnership with the Colorado Department of Transportation, had the first [diverging] diamond interchange in the State.”

The city’s downtown is virtually the “heart” of the community. However, residents had begun to go to areas outside the city for shopping and entertainment instead of the downtown area. To develop a plan to make the downtown area an appealing place for residents to visit, the Public Works, Utilities, & Planning Department reached out to stakeholders including business owners, residents, visitors, road users, commercial vehicle operators, pedestrians, bicyclists, event organizers, and other special interest groups. The plan included implementing a road diet and other improvements to encourage walking and biking along with accommodations for vehicles.

Resources to Improve Communication With Elected Officials

FHWA has developed a brochure, Communicating About Local Road Safety with Elected Officials (FHWA-SA-16-019), and a video of the same title, with tips for communicating about road safety with local elected officials.

To download the brochure, visit

The video is available at

Prall notes the importance of the Grand Junction Public Works, Utilities, & Planning Department articulating its goals. “We had a comprehensive plan for the city, which called for complete streets, pedestrian and bicycle improvements, and other safety improvements,” he says. “It was also helpful that many local councilmembers were also active in the Colorado Municipal League, which made members aware of new improvements in roadway design.”


Grand Junction, CO, revitalized its downtown after innovations to increase public use through a road diet. The improvements encourage walking and biking, and parking on side streets provides easy access to the businesses in the area.


For example, most members of the city council understood the safety benefits of road diets, but wanted to make sure that the reduction of traffic lanes from four to three could handle future traffic growth. “For road diets, we are very specific about how we address capacity and balance the needs of automobiles, trucks, transit, and pedestrians [and] bicyclists,” Prall says.

As the public works department proposed additional improvements, the agency made sure to understand the concerns and arguments against the innovations in order to address them effectively. “We did a lot of upfront work to get to know our elected officials, so we knew their concerns and could identify who was pro-bicycle and who was more interested in capacity, and address their concerns,” says Prall. “We also tried very hard to put ourselves in the shoes of each stakeholder and anticipate his or her needs.”

The department also did a lot of preparation to have all the facts and to demonstrate to officials how the innovation worked in comparable cities. “We also met one on one with all of our local officials, adjacent property owners [and] tenants, and other key stakeholders,” says Prall. “We discussed the change in detail. This is a much better strategy than presenting the information in a large meeting or hearing.”

The redesign of downtown has led to a thriving area with shops, restaurants, hotels, and other services. Rather than reducing capacity, the improvements have helped the downtown compete with other, newer shopping areas by providing an attractive, walkable environment for shopping and dining.

In addition, the Public Works, Utilities, & Planning Department has not limited innovations to just downtown. The valley now has 18 roundabouts, a testament to the effectiveness of engaging local officials in adopting innovations.

Prall provides this advice on gaining support for roadway innovations from local officials and stakeholders: “If you bring them in early, they are your partners; bring them in late, and they are your judge[s].”

Working Together

When local safety practitioners and officials work together to implement traffic safety innovations, everyone in the community benefits. Safety practitioners can do their part by thoroughly researching the facts about their transportation challenges, identifying the best potential solutions, and making the case to local officials for implementing proposed improvements. Local officials can examine the information provided by practitioners and consider the proposed alternatives, work with transportation agencies to develop a proposed plan of action, and champion the cause for funding.

Rosemarie Anderson is the local and rural roads manager with the FHWA Office of Safety. She has more than 30 years of experience in transportation planning and engineering. She holds an M.S. in transportation and an M.S. in financial planning from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Pamela M. Beer is a senior associate with Cambridge Systematics, Inc. She has nearly 30 years of experience in the areas of highway safety, strategic planning and analysis, communications and community outreach, public awareness, media relations, and transportation safety planning. Beer has worked with FHWA to develop marketing plans and materials for many programs, including Improving Safety on Rural Local and Tribal Roads: Safety Toolkit (FHWA-SA-14-072) and the National Center for Rural Road Safety. She has a B.F.A. from The University of Utah.

Danena Gaines, Ph.D., is a senior associate with Cambridge Systematics with 10 years of experience in transportation safety planning, data collection and analysis, traffic safety research, and local and rural road safety culture. Gaines has worked with FHWA to document local road safety practices. She holds an M.S. and a Ph.D. in civil engineering, with a concentration in transportation, from Georgia Institute of Technology.

For more information, see or contact Rosemarie Anderson at 202–366–5007 or