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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 2003

Putting The Pieces Together

by Dan Sunde

Washington State's safety management system helps communities to reduce crash rates and save lives.

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991 mandated that each State develop and implement a safety management system (SMS)—a set of systematic processes used to identify opportunities to improve driver and vehicle safety during each phase of highway projects and in the development of other vehicle and transportation programs.


WSDOT describes the LASMS in an 83-page manual, shown above. The manual includes an overview of the system and some of the tools necessary to implement it. Source: WSDOT


Although the original ISTEA mandate was later repealed, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) embarked on a mission in 1991 to develop a manual to help local agencies implement safety management systems, known as local agency safety management systems (LASMS).

In 1998, WSDOT completed the 83-page LASMS manual, which is now posted on the WSDOT Web site. The manual provides local agencies with a detailed explanation of how to develop and structure an LASMS. It also contains a 25-page appendix of forms and reports that an agency can use to help implement its system.

Manual Nuts and Bolts

WSDOT designed the LASMS manual as a tool to help local agencies take a broader approach to transportation safety and design projects that would prevent and reduce the number and severity of roadway collisions, transportation-related injuries, and property damage. The manual provides local agencies with a framework for establishing an objective and flexible decisionmaking process for selecting and implementing cost-effective safety strategies.

"The manual gives local agencies the framework for selecting, quantifying, and tracking the performance of safety projects and for monitoring how effectively transportation funds are being used," says Dave Sorensen, traffic technology engineer at WSDOT. "It also will help ensure that safety projects are being implemented consistently throughout the State."

In developing the manual, WSDOT incorporated many of the SMS guidelines originally proposed in ISTEA, such as encouraging the development of a formalized communication process involving all four "E" activities—engineering, education, emergency services, and enforcement—in selecting safety projects. The manual also includes roadway, human behavior, and vehicle safety elements within safety programs.

To develop the manual, WSDOT's Highway and Local Programs Division (previously called TransAid) worked with a team of technical and nontechnical representatives from numerous city, county, and State agencies. The group held monthly brainstorming sessions to determine how an LASMS should be structured and to develop an effective process for persuading local agencies to collaborate on incorporating transportation safety into their projects.

Safety Tools

The WSDOT LASMS has two primary components: a local SMS committee and an eight-step transportation safety decision-support process. The manual contains information on the tools and processes needed by local agencies to implement these two components, including a list of the positions that should be represented on the SMS committee, a description of steps involved in developing a comprehensive safety policy, and information on the data elements needed to identify high-collision locations.

"Most of these tools and processes already are in use and have been proven effective in many communities," says Sorensen. "However, most communities take a piecemeal or departmental approach, rather than a community approach, with each department or agency implementing its own processes and with some departments unknowingly performing the same tasks as others do."

The manual illustrates this departmental approach, compared to the community approach, in the following example: At a local high school, students departing the school frequently were involved in accidents due to a dangerous curve in a nearby road. The engineering and public works agencies' solution to the problem might be to install roadway safety devices such as guardrails near the curve to mitigate crash impacts. At the same time, the police might choose to place a patrol car near the dangerous curve to guide traffic. However, another effective—but overlooked—solution could be to include an extra lesson on this dangerous driving condition during the students' driver education course. Without an LASMS, educators probably would not be involved in identifying this solution.

If the community implements an LASMS, the various agencies would have the framework needed to bring them together to take a broader approach to solving transportation problems. The LASMS manual provides information on how to cooperate to implement the most effective solutions, using the community's shared resources. The manual also outlines various feedback mechanisms and performance measures that can be used to determine if problems are being solved effectively and efficiently.


Safety Assessment Model

The chart shown above provides a detailed map of how communities can assess their safety needs.



The SMS Committee

One of the two primary components of any LASMS is the SMS committee, comprised of representatives from all of the local agencies within a community with an interest in transportation safety. The SMS committee serves as a standing, cross-disciplinary advisory council that meets regularly to identify transportation safety needs and issues; identify low-cost and no-cost safety resources to address safety needs; coordinate community and interagency partnerships; and assist in determining transportation safety policies, goals, and strategies.

The committee can be small, perhaps involving the police chief, public works director, fire chief, school superintendent, and a safety officer from a large local industry meeting once a month, or it can be more sophisticated with a complex structure of subcommittees involving dozens of people. The regular meetings provide a forum for these stakeholders to discuss their thoughts on projects and identify creative safety solutions that leverage their agencies' limited resources.

Vancouver, WA, is the first city in the State to implement an LASMS and form an SMS committee. "We started the LASMS process by bringing together local transportation engineers, police enforcement personnel, school district officials, and a performance analyst from the mayor's office to form our SMS committee," says John Manix, P.E., P.T.O.E., traffic engineer/neighborhood traffic management with the City of Vancouver. "The committee members were instrumental in identifying the transportation safety problems common throughout Vancouver, such as high-speed crash locations and red-light running, and in trying to find solutions to these problems."


Vancouver was the first city in the State of Washington to form an SMS Committee, pictured here.


The Vancouver committee went on to develop goals and performance measures to guide the city in choosing countermeasures to solve these problems. "The committee determined that Vancouver's long-term goal should be to reduce the overall number of crashes using traditional crash-reduction techniques, such as roadway infrastructure changes," says Manix. "In the short and medium term, the goal will be to implement enforcement and education programs that reduce crash risk. The short- and long-run goals will help us use the full resources of all four "E" agencies."

In addition to advising that communities form a local SMS committee, WSDOT established a Statewide SMS Standing Committee to provide a forum for local committees to gain perspective on the safety problems faced by other agencies throughout the State.

The Decision-Support Process

After an SMS committee is formed, one agency typically takes the lead in implementing the LASMS decision-support process, with the goal being to provide decisionmakers with sufficient information to recommend, select, and implement remedial actions to address the community's transportation safety problems.

The first step in the decision-support process is development and adoption of a local agency safety policy that explains how the local agencies will approach transportation safety and assigns responsibilities to different departments and agencies for implementing the LASMS. At a minimum, the policy should contain a detailed project list and provide clear direction and instructions to implementing agencies. The list should be updated routinely.

WSDOT recommends that elected officials adopt the policy as either a formal ordinance or resolution. "Formal adoption of the safety policy is integral to the LASMS process," says Sorensen. "It provides legal protection to the LASMS to ensure that the goals of the LASMS are met and that agencies are performing their assigned duties."

Data collection is the second step in the decision-support process. In this step, agencies define and collect the data that decisionmakers will need to recommend and select safety projects. The LASMS manual describes five types of information necessary for identifying a community's historical, emergent, and future safety needs:

  • Historical collision information detailing the type, location, and cause of vehicle crashes.
  • Safety action requests made by the public that call attention to specific locations where driving conditions are unsafe and require immediate corrective action.
  • Information brought to light at SMS committee meetings.
  • Roadway feature information collected during roadway inventories that identify natural and man-made objects along local streets and highways.
  • Safety condition information identifying high-probability collision areas from evaluation of the roadway inventory and the geometric features of the local transportation network.

To streamline the data collection process, the LASMS manual includes forms that agencies can use to record data throughout the year or to supplement their existing data collection efforts. In Vancouver, transportation engineers are gathering information based on public complaints and are using their existing database system that can track and plot pedestrian-, bicycle-, and speed-related crash locations.


The Eight Elements of an SMS


After the lead agency collects the necessary data, it can continue to the third step: data analysis to identify safety needs using one of three methods. The first method is to evaluate safety action requests and SMS committee information to identify emergent safety concerns and to determine how agencies should address them.

Officials also can identify safety needs by performing collision investigations, the second data analysis method. Collision investigations can vary from review of a single incident to a comprehensive evaluation of all crashes on a particular day or at a specific location. The LASMS manual contains a detailed outline of how agencies should perform collision investigations.

The third data analysis method is to conduct a risk analysis that evaluates the roadway network for potential crash locations.

Once the data are analyzed, agencies should develop a series of system outputs, the fourth step in the decision-support process. "In this step, agencies essentially transform the data into a more practical format that decisionmakers can use to select countermeasures and to identify the resources needed to implement these countermeasures," says Sorensen. Examples of system outputs include lists of problems that should receive top priority and recommendations for resource allocations.

In Vancouver, data analysis and the resulting system outputs showed that the city should focus its programs and resources on school zones, speed-related collision locations, and red-light running. According to Manix, the city hopes to start education and enforcement programs soon to mitigate these problems.

Project prioritization and program development is the fifth step in the decision-support process. In this step, agencies use a modified benefit-cost approach called the Safety Benefit Index (SBI) to prioritize projects and programs. Traditionally, transportation professionals calculate benefit-cost ratios by converting the mitigating project's estimated reduction in injuries, deaths, and property damage to a societal cost in dollars. The cost benefits from those improvements then is divided by the estimated cost of implementing the mitigating project, thus calculating the benefit-cost ratio in terms of dollars saved per dollars spent. Although this method is used frequently, it is problematic because it forces decisionmakers to place a dollar value on human life.

The SBI, on the other hand, converts the reduction in property damage to an equivalent life saved, rather than converting the reduction of deaths and injuries to dollars. Thus, the SBI is the benefit-cost ratio estimated in terms of lives saved per dollar spent. Projects resulting in the greatest number of lives saved rank highest in the SBI and should be selected for implementation.

"The SBI lets decisionmakers focus on programs that save lives and reduce injuries," says Sorensen. "It eliminates the dilemma of confronting the question, 'How can you place a value on human life?'"

Once the necessary benefit-cost analyses are performed, the local agencies move on to the sixth step—implementation of the selected safety projects based on the SBI results. The projects can be small in scope and focus on improving a specific intersection or a particular roadway, or they can be much broader and cover an entire transportation network—programs such as speed enforcement, driver safety education, and emergency response routing.

Performance monitoring of the implemented projects is the seventh step. One key reason for including this step is that local agencies need to evaluate whether programs are meeting their goals, whether assumptions used in selecting projects and countermeasures are correct, and whether resources are being allocated effectively.


This crossing guard is helping young people cross a street in Vancouver, WA, where the SMS Committee identified pedestrian and school zone safety as two areas of concern.


To monitor project performance, the data collection and analysis tools provided in the LASMS manual will help agencies develop comparison reports at the project and programmatic levels. The tools enable agencies to compare the performance of each project and program against the safety conditions that existed prior to its implementation.

Sorensen says, "If a program does not meet expectations or produce the desired results, agencies immediately should reevaluate the program and implement any necessary corrective actions."

The final step in the process is for agency officials to develop an annual report or series of reports to update decisionmakers on the effectiveness of the SMS system and whether safety goals are being achieved. The annual safety report helps improve a community's decisionmaking capabilities by presenting areas where policies need to be changed, safety has to be emphasized, assumptions need to be modified, and funding has to be increased or shifted.


Officers enforcing traffic laws, such as this policeman, are central to Vancouver's efforts to reduce crashes related to school zones, speed, and red-light running—concerns identified during the city's LASMS process.


Flexible and Fitting

Like Vancouver, many communities may benefit by implementing WSDOT's local safety system. "We decided to try the LASMS because it emphasizes flexibility," says Manix. "Prior to implementing the LASMS, we did not have a formal approach to identify and address common safety problems. Each department was working individually. With the LASMS, we have the framework and tools necessary for a formal process tailored to meet Vancouver's needs."

Manix admits that in the short-run, implementing the LASMS is a lot of hard work. However, he believes that the economic and social benefits of reducing the number and severity of vehicle crashes will pay off in the long term.

WSDOT's system is intended to help communities prevent crashes, reduce property damage, and, most importantly, save lives in an organized and flexible fashion, by teaching agencies how to cooperate, communicate, and collaborate. The City of Vancouver is pioneering the implementation of the LASMS in Washington State, and WSDOT is confident that more cities will follow suit in the future. In the meantime, WSDOT is revising the original manual and developing software to accompany it.

Dan Sunde, PE, is the technology transfer engineer for WSDOT, where he directs the Washington State Technology Transfer Center. He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in civil engineering. During his 24 years with WSDOT, he has gained experience in bridge and structure design and maintenance, construction program management and, for the past 10 years, local agency engineering/technical support, management systems, and training. Prior to his present position, he was the management systems engineer and project manager of the local agency safety management system, and he is the editor and coauthor of the Local Agency Safety Management System manual.

For more information, see the LASMS manual posted on the WSDOT Web site at