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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 - March/April 2000

Safety Leadership Today for A Safer Tomorrow

by Dwight A. Horne

The safety of the nation's traveling public is the top priority of the Department of Transportation (DOT). All DOT agencies are working together as ONE DOT -- a strategy of mutual collaboration to reduce duplication and save resources -- to promote the public health and safety by working toward the elimination of transportation-related deaths, injuries, and property damage.

DOT has a long history of promoting and providing safe transportation systems. The department has a clear, concise strategic goal about safety and has an organizational structure to implement its safety goal.

To further enhance public safety, DOT established aggressive and measurable strategic objectives. For example, an objective of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is to reduce highway fatalities and injuries by 20 percent within 10 years.

In addition, Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater set an objective to decrease the number of fatalities and injuries associated with commercial vehicles by 50 percent in 10 years. The newly established Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is the DOT lead agency for this strategic objective.

The bottom line is that DOT is in the business of saving lives -- protecting the lives of all users of the national transportation system. Secretary Slater has clearly and repeatedly stated that safety is DOT's "North Star" by which all programs and activities will be guided and judged. Success will be measured by how well DOT meets its strategic goal to reduce transportation-related deaths, injuries, and property damage.

FHWA plays a very large role in achieving this strategic goal because more than 90 percent of all transportation-related fatalities and injuries still occur on the nation's roadways. Each year, more than 41,000 people lose their lives in highway crashes. And each year, 36 percent -- more than 15,000 -- of those lives are lost in single-vehicle, run-off-the-road crashes; 30 percent -- more than 12,000 -- are lost in speed-related crashes; 13 percent -- more than 5,300 lives -- are lost in crashes with large trucks; and 12 percent -- more than 5,200 -- are pedestrian fatalities.

Ninety percent of all transportation-related fatalities and injuries occur on the nation's highways.

These numbers are not simply statistics; they tell the story of 41,000 tragedies. As Secretary Slater often reminds us, "Transportation is about more than concrete, asphalt, and steel -- it is about people."

Our past and ongoing commitments and efforts to improve highway safety are paying off. In 1998, the traffic fatality rate was at an all-time low of 1.6 fatalities per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled. That is less than one-third the 1966 rate of 5.5.

Unfortunately, as already noted, despite the lower rate, we are still losing 41,000 people annually, and the estimated annual overall cost of highway-related crashes is $150 billion. So, it is easy to see that DOT can and must continue to improve highway safety for the American people.

One response to the secretary's call to dramatically reduce transportation-related fatalities and injuries is the development of a seminar for managers to encourage and enhance:

  • Better understanding of highway safety issues and program delivery systems.
  • Development and implementation of systematic safety program planning based on careful safety data analysis.
  • Leadership roles in championing safety.

Opportunities and Investments

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) with many of its partners -- including FHWA, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and National Association of Governors' Highway Safety Representatives -- developed the AASHTO Strategic Safety Plan. The goal of this comprehensive plan is to substantially reduce vehicle-related fatalities and injuries on our nation's highways. The plan includes the traditional AASHTO concerns for infrastructure plus the driver, occupants, vehicle, and post-crash responsibilities in non-infrastructure areas. It contains critical strategies in 22 key emphasis areas that affect highway safety. More information about the Strategic Safety Plan is available at

FHWA and NHTSA will continue to be strong contributing partners with AASHTO and will build upon this AASHTO plan as an integral part of DOT's overall activities.

Strengthening the efforts to improve highway safety is a ONE DOT strategy. This strategy builds on the mutual collaboration among the DOT agencies by synergizing DOT's skills, talents, and knowledge; avoiding duplication of effort and programs; developing and implementing coordinated and complementary strategies; maximizing resources; and enhancing efficiency. Programs involving vehicles, motor carriers, roadway design, roadside hardware, work zones, human factors, human behavior, and/or driver qualifications are not ends in themselves; they are tools -- the tools DOT uses to reduce fatalities and injuries. The integration and coordination of these and related programs through ONE DOT enable us to better identify safety opportunities and to make more strategic, targeted investments.

FHWA division administrators and FMCSA state directors are accountable for developing and implementing programs to improve highway safety on the basis of an analysis of their state's safety data. (There is an FHWA division administrator and an FMCSA state director in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.) The performance measure of success is a reduction in the number and severity of traffic crashes on the nation's highways.

One of FHWA's strategic goals detailed in the agency's National Strategic Plan, is to "continually improve highway safety." To focus its safety efforts, the agency established safety priority areas to reduce run-off-road crashes, speed-related crashes, pedestrian crashes, and large-truck crashes.

Where Are the $$$?

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), enacted in 1998, maintained the sound safety programs of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) and provided several new incentives to create a safer highway network, safer vehicles, and safer drivers. TEA-21 authorizes $218 billion of total funding over six years, including $177 billion for highways. A key feature of the legislation ensures a guaranteed level of federal funds -- $198 billion -- for surface transportation through fiscal year 2003.

TEA-21 contains a guaranteed $500 million-per-year "Safety Set-Aside" for hazard elimination on highways and highway grade crossings. Sometimes, we have a tendency to look at these set-aside provisions as the primary programs for funding hazard-elimination projects and for making safety improvements to the roadway. However, the truth is that much more funding for such projects comes from the regular federal-aid construction programs.

The Interstate Maintenance Program, National Highway System program, and Surface Transportation Program (STP), along with the safety set-aside funds, will provide $120 billion to the states, much of which will go toward improving highway safety through improved geometrics, safety hardware, pavement and bridge conditions, signs, and markings. A change to STP will now allow a state to use up to 15 percent of the rural STP allocation for rural minor collectors, a roadway class that was previously ineligible for regular STP funds.

TEA-21 opened up the National Highway System (NHS) program to fund a wider variety of pedestrian projects. NHS funds may now be used for pedestrian walkways and for bicycle and pedestrian projects within interstate corridors. This will provide additional safety infrastructure enhancement opportunities.

TEA-21 also includes funding for research, development, and technology activities to improve the delivery of effective safety measures. There is special funding for technology deployment, training and education, and increases in funding for the University Transportation Center programs. All of these programs are directed, in large part, to the improvement of highway safety.

Title 1 of TEA-21 provides two new incentive grants that provide a very large pot of new money to states that qualify to receive these grants: seat belt incentive grants (Title 23, Section 157) and .08 blood-alcohol content incentive grants (Title 23, Section 163). Each grant is funded up to $500 million over the course of TEA-21, and they are not restricted to seat belt or alcohol programs. The money can be spent on infrastructure safety projects. In fact, after a state qualifies for one of these grants on the basis of having achieved progress in one of these areas, the state can spend the funds on any eligible activity under Title 23 of the U.S. Code.

In my view, the single most important gain in TEA-21 for advancing highway safety is a revision of the requirements for Statewide and Metropolitan Planning. The number of factors that states and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) must consider in these planning activities was reduced to seven, but for the first time, "safety and security" is a factor that must be considered. This change has enormous potential for all funds in TEA-21 to be applied to improve highway safety. FHWA is working with states and MPOs to revise their planning regulations accordingly.

Law enforcement promotes safety by deterring inappropriate driver and pedestrian behavior.


Identifying Safety Problems

The first step in improving safety is to recognize why more crashes occur at some intersections and sections of roads than at others. To address the cause or causes of a crash, safety engineers and analysts must identify the "what, when, where, who, and how" of the crash -- what happened, when did it happen, where did it happen, who was involved, and how did it happen -- before "why" can be determined. Once "why" is determined, appropriate crash countermeasures may be selected and implemented. These countermeasures may involve one, two, or all of the three "E"s of highway safety: engineering, enforcement, and education.

Highway engineers design, construct, operate, and maintain the streets and highways for safe travel. Law enforcement deters inappropriate driver and pedestrian behavior and promotes appropriate behavior. Mass communication of highway safety information increases public awareness of the potential consequences of unsafe driving or dangerous, pedestrian behavior. Real improvements are achieved by combining and coordinating engineering, enforcement, and educational actions.

Pointing the Way

The information about the "what, when, where, who, and how" is contained in state databases for accident, traffic, roadway, vehicle registration, and driver registration information. The merging of information from these databases provides excellent insight into the "why" of the crash and points to the appropriate countermeasures.

At the national level, NHTSA maintains the Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS). FARS is a census of crash-related information based on state crash data reported to NHTSA. The Highway Performance Monitoring System (HPMS) once included statistics about serious injuries on the highway system, but that information is no longer provided. Both systems compile statistics about highway crashes -- how many, seat belt usage, the involvement of alcohol or drugs, and so forth. These national databases help us on a national level to understand overall highway safety issues and to point to needed development of national programs and countermeasures.

To make substantial reductions in fatalities and injuries, state and local engineers and analysts must conduct specific studies of their streets and highways. The studies should use all the available data to identify specific safety issues and to implement programs and projects.

Availability of these data is often a problem. Most data are collected by local agencies, but the data are usually recorded, stored, and maintained by a state agency. With the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, there are well more than 52 different systems for compiling, categorizing, and storing safety data. Because of the length of time necessary to transfer, code, and often recode report details, information in safety databases may be more than a year out of date.

The sophistication of state safety data systems varies greatly. Some enforcement and safety personnel are using pen-based computers and hand-held printers to collect crash and other safety data, which upload directly into the state's accident database. Bar codes on drivers' licenses and digital cameras reduce the possibility of error in transcribing information and recreating crash reports. Global positioning systems (GPS) and geographic information systems (GIS) provide valuable location data for quicker access to incidents and resulting crash data.

A practical benefit of this high-tech approach to information and data gathering is that law enforcement agencies can assign personnel to respond to current situations. At the same time, engineers, analysts, and enforcement personnel have more immediate access to the data. This is especially important in newly developed and expanding residential and commercial areas with new traffic patterns. The most important aspect is that these data are more timely. In some states, the crash data are available within eight hours of the crash instead of the previous delay of 12 to 18 months.

Leading the Way

To assist managers in developing and implementing highway programs that make a real difference in reducing fatalities and injuries, FHWA's Office of Highway Safety Infrastructure, FHWA's National Highway Institute, and FMCSA are developing the Safety Leadership Seminar. This seminar is designed to give managers the tools that they need to access highway safety data, interpret and integrate the data into program-planning activities, and help managers be champions for safety.

Elimination of hazardous highway-rail crossings is an important part of the highway safety program.

The Safety Leadership Seminar will include discussions on the use and reliability of safety data, identification of areawide or state-specific safety issues, implementation of effective programs and projects, integration of safety into the highway program, and the demonstration of safety leadership.

Pilot sessions are scheduled for mid-2000. They will be followed by a series of seminars at several locations throughout the nation. The seminars are designed for FHWA division administrators, division highway safety specialists, and resource center personnel and for FMCSA state directors.


Safety goals are integrated into existing engineering and management processes throughout DOT. Our ability to foster safety as a core value to the department will be demonstrated by how well we improve safety program design, implementation, and evaluation and, ultimately, by achieving our goals and objectives.

Safety is our collective challenge, but perhaps more importantly, safety is our individual challenge. The most important of all safety tools are the recognition and acceptance that safety must be everyone's individual responsibility. It is up to each of us -- as drivers, pedestrians, designers, analysts, planners, enforcement personnel, traffic engineers, managers, and leaders -- to use our talents, skills, and knowledge to continually improve safety. We must look for opportunities to improve highway safety.

While it is true that DOT can and must continue to improve highway safety for the American people, Americans cannot depend solely on their government to prevent crashes and eliminate the resulting deaths and injuries. The government can fund promising programs, develop new technology, and disseminate good practices, but each individual must take absolute responsibility for his or her actions. Individuals must not drink and drive; they must always use their safety belt; they must ensure that their vehicle's safety features are operational and well-maintained; and they must always secure children in safety seats in the back of the vehicle.

Even in the 21st century, we must continue to reach out to our traditional and nontraditional partners and work collaboratively with old-fashioned zeal and determination to save lives.

For information about the Safety Leadership Seminar, contact Rudy Umbs at (202) 366-2177 or Taft Kelly at (202)366-1231.

Dwight A. Horne is the director of FHWA's Office of Highway Safety Infrastructure. He is the secretary of the AASHTO Standing Committee on Highway Traffic Safety. His career has included assignments in several FHWA field offices and at the headquarters. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the University of Florida. He is a registered professional engineer in Texas.