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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 2005

March/April 2005
Issue No:
Vol. 68 No. 5
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

New Focus for Highway Safety

by A. George Ostensen

FHWA's performance-based approach is addressing those initiatives where the prospects for improvement are greatest.

With national annual highway deaths at more than 42,000, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has initiated a new performance-based, results-oriented approach to safety. The concept is simple: Focus attention and resources on those areas where the data indicate the problem is the greatest.

Speaking at a Nevada news conference, FHWA Administrator Mary E. Peters emphasized the importance of community involvement in roadway safety, citing the pedestrian safety campaign of a Sun Valley, NV, task force following the death of a 9-year-old girl.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has established safety as its top priority, and recent statistics indicate why the issue is particularly critical on the Nation's highways. In 2003, one person died in roadway crashes nearly every 12 minutes. Of that number, 25,136 died in roadway departure crashes, 9,213 in intersection crashes, and 4,749 in pedestrian crashes.

In response to the national safety challenge, USDOT has set an aggressive goal to reduce the national highway fatality rate from 1.5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled to 1.0 by 2008. The FHWA Office of Safety's new approach is designed to help the Nation meet that goal by more effectively supporting State and local efforts to make headway on improving these safety numbers.

This new approach essentially redefines FHWA's safety program. Rather than the first-come, first-served method used to distribute assistance in the past, the new philosophy is to manage the program strategically, allocating the finite resources available to address the greatest challenges. Under this approach, FHWA will focus activities and additional resources on initiatives where the prospects for improvement are greatest.

FHWA's new safety focus also calls for the transportation community to think beyond traditional approaches to safety. The new approach includes applying lessons learned from States and localities that already are improving safety.

"FHWA has asked States to step up to address the national safety challenge," says FHWA Administrator Mary E. Peters. "We, too, at FHWA are stepping up and changing the way we do business. By focusing our resources [on] areas where the challenges and opportunities for advancement are greatest, we believe we can achieve the 1.0 goal we have set as a Nation by 2008."

Given the annual highway fatality rates shown in this graph, FHWA's goal is to reduce the national fatality rate from 1.5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2003 to 1.0 by 2008.

Opportunity States

The new focused approach involved FHWA reviewing data to identify States with the greatest opportunities for contributing to the reduction of the national highway fatality toll. Sixteen States, each with a fatality rate above the national average of 1.5, or with a fatality improvement trend over the past 5 years below that of the national average, were identified as "opportunities" for safety improvements and are called "opportunity States." In terms of overall roadway fatality numbers, opportunity States were chosen among those that rank in the highest half of all States. (All analysis was based on 2002 data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.)

The 16 opportunity States will have access to three new resources from FHWA: additional funding, additional staff, and priority assistance from leadership in advancing safety goals. Each opportunity State will receive $50,000 in seed money in fiscal year (FY) 2005 to advance its highway safety program. FHWA is reallocating the funds from the Office of Safety to FHWA field offices, a shift in agency philosophy on where the money can be put to the most effective use.

FHWA has asked these States to develop proposals on how they intend to use the funds—either to develop a comprehensive highway safety plan or to make progress on an existing plan. Each State is at a different point in the development and implementation of a comprehensive highway safety plan, so the funding is designed to move each State's efforts to the next level.

For example, Tennessee recently adopted a strategic highway safety plan through a partnership of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, Tennessee Department of Safety, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Governor's Highway Safety Office, and FHWA.

"New resources from FHWA will allow our partnership to advance safety to the next level here in Tennessee," says FHWA Tennessee Division Administrator Bobby Blackmon. "We are using the resources of our Office of Safety [personnel] at the leadership level and will use our $50,000 to begin implementing the highway safety plan."

Highway agencies in opportunity States like Tennessee are working with FHWA division offices to ensure that the plans address the four "E's of safety"—engineering to deploy safety countermeasures, education on roadway safety, enforcement of safety laws and regulations, and effective emergency medical services.

Other important elements that FHWA expects the plans to include are safety goals and targets for reduced crashes, injuries, and fatalities; accurate crash records systems that identify priority locations for attention; and partnerships with other agencies and organizations to address the safety challenge in a comprehensive way.

FHWA is providing additional safety funding and resources to 16 States with the greatest opportunity to contribute to reducing the national highway fatality toll, along with several States and cities focusing on roadway departure, intersection, and pedestrian fatalities.

Pilot Program Using Loaned Staff

In an age of staff streamlining at public agencies across the country, finding the funds to address safety challenges is just one component of the equation for States that are trying to improve their safety numbers. In addition to providing new safety funding for opportunity States, FHWA is loaning three staff members for a pilot program to help States advance safety. Out of 16 opportunity States, 10 FHWA divisions submitted proposals on how they would leverage the loan of a staff member for a minimum of 2 years, and FHWA's Office of Safety chose programs in Arizona, Missouri, and Texas.

Arizona will use its staff person to work with the Governor's safety representative to provide technical expertise to help local governments, including metropolitan planning organizations and tribal governments, implement safety strategies.

Missouri will use the loaned staff member to implement its recently adopted Missouri's Blueprint for Safer Roadways. The staff member will work with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) and other groups to advance the plan's "essential eight" strategies, which include passing a safety belt law, increasing enforcement on roadways with high crash numbers, and expanding installation of rumble strips and median barriers.

In Texas, where a recent $3 billion highway improvement bond earmarked $600 million for safety enhancements, the loaned staffer will provide leadership and technical assistance to the Texas Department of Transportation's (TxDOT) 25 district offices in the advancement of their safety programs.

FHWA also will provide staff on a short-term basis to help with safety initiatives. For example, FHWA Chief Safety Engineer Rudy Umbs recently spent several weeks helping the Illinois DOT develop and implement a comprehensive highway safety plan.

Finally, to augment the funding and staffing resources that the agency is offering opportunity States, FHWA's leadership will work with leaders in those States to advance the national safety agenda. FHWA's leadership support can take such forms as speaking at safety conferences or workshops, meeting with State leaders about safety issues, and hosting safety forums that bring together several opportunity States at a time. (See also "The Many Faces of Safety".)

Safety "Focus" States

FHWA also identified several "focus" States and cities, defined as those with the greatest challenges in the FHWA focus areas of roadway departure, intersection, and pedestrian fatalities. Focus States and cities have a fatality rate above the national average and/or are above a fatality number threshold for that category of crash. The difference between an opportunity State and a focus State is that FHWA is providing increased support to advance a State's overall safety program in opportunity States, while it is providing increased support to specific safety focus areas in focus States.

FHWA encourages focus States and cities to identify and apply countermeasures to address their particular highway safety challenges, whether they are roadway departure, intersection, or pedestrian fatalities. Although States and cities are expected to develop a range of solutions to address their unique needs, FHWA can offer technical assistance on a number of proven countermeasures.

One effective countermeasure for roadway departure crashes is rumble strips, like those shown here, which are raised or grooved patterns in the roadway that warn drivers they are leaving the driving lane.

Roadway departure fatalities represent 59 percent of the Nation's total fatalities and are thus a major focus area. The roadway departure category includes single vehicle run-off-the-road, head-on, and opposite direction side angle crashes. Many of these fatalities occur on the Nation's two-lane rural roads, where traffic volumes are typically lower and crashes are dispersed over much greater distances. These characteristics require the consideration of safety improvements on a systemwide and project-level basis. Potential countermeasures include shoulder and centerline rumble strips with raised or grooved patterns in the roadway shoulder providing both an audible warning (rumbling sound) and a physical vibration to alert drivers that they are leaving the driving lane; rumble stripes, which are rumble strips with pavement markings painted on the grooves to increase nighttime and wet weather visibility; the safety edge (a device that provides a sloped edge on new pavements, thus potentially reducing crashes related to severe edge dropoffs); pavement shoulders; improved signing and markings; speed management; and a variety of other options. Rumble strips are one of FHWA's priority technologies, a compilation of 27 technologies and innovations that have proven benefits and are ready for deployment. (See for more information.) Any countermeasure must be tailored to needs identified through proper data analysis.

Intersection fatalities represent 21 percent of the total and are the second of FHWA's focus areas. These fatalities are grouped into signalized and unsignalized intersections, with strategies unique to each. Intersection safety strategies include improving sight distance, influencing driver behavior through enforcement programs such as red light running cameras (an FHWA priority technology), minimizing conflict points through the introduction of new intersection designs such as roundabouts (another FHWA priority technology), improving signal timing and visibility, adding turn lanes, and many more.

Research shows that well-designed roundabouts, such as this one in Clearwater Beach, FL, can reduce intersection crashes, which account for more than 40 percent of all crashes.

Pedestrian fatalities, representing nearly 11 percent of annual roadway deaths, are the third focus area identified for improvement. Potential countermeasures include traffic calming techniques, such as raised pedestrian crosswalks and speed humps to encourage vehicles to slow down; traffic signal enhancements, such as signal phases to give pedestrians sufficient time to cross intersections safely; roadway design enhancements, such as sidewalks and walkways that separate pedestrians from traffic; and community involvement activities.

To provide leadership to opportunity States and cities with a pedestrian safety focus, FHWA's Office of Safety recently awarded a project to develop a "how to" guide for developing and implementing a pedestrian safety plan. The purpose of the project is to help States and cities with a pedestrian safety focus to:

  1. Develop and implement pedestrian safety plans in cities with the highest fatalities per year
  2. Commit to developing pedestrian safety plans for States with pedestrian fatalities above 150 or a fatality rate above 2.5 per 100,000 population

The project also provides funding for varying degrees of technical assistance to the focus States and cities.

Many other countermeasures are available to help States reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities involving roadway departures, intersections, and pedestrians. "By breaking the overall safety challenge into these focus areas, we are able to do two things: look at manageable, systematic improvement opportunities, and focus resources to support our partners in addressing those needs," says Christine Johnson, FHWA's director of Field Services-West.

The FHWA Resource Center and Office of Safety will provide priority technical assistance to both opportunity and focus States. In addition, the Office of Safety will give priority to the needs of opportunity and focus States for ongoing training and safety programming activities.

Focus on Rural Safety

Another important focus is on local safety, particularly in rural areas. Approximately 43 percent of roadway fatalities occur on two-lane rural roads, many of which are owned by local jurisdictions. To help local agencies enhance roadway safety and reduce fatalities, FHWA provides training and technical assistance through its Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP).

Under a 1-year pilot project called the Safety Circuit Rider Program, FHWA is making funding available to provide full-time safety experts at LTAP Centers in Florida, Kentucky, and West Virginia, and at the Northern Plains Tribal Technical Assistance Center in North Dakota. The safety experts will offer safety technical assistance and training to local governments and other groups throughout those States.

"Our new Safety Circuit Rider Program fits comfortably into already established LTAP client relationships," says Gib Peaslee, coordinator of the Florida Safety Circuit Rider Program at the University of Florida. "Now we can actually work hand-in-hand with municipalities of all sizes on specific safety projects and, in telling their success stories, can raise safety as a priority among responsible local decisionmakers. Frankly, I have been gratified by the groundswell of enthusiasm occurring as we introduce this program to local municipalities around the State."

FHWA has developed tools to improve safety on two-lane rural highways, such as the Interactive Highway Safety Design Model (IHSDM), which is a decision-support tool. It checks existing or proposed two-lane rural highway designs against relevant policy values and provides estimates of a design's expected safety and operational performance. (For more information, go to

Focusing on pedestrian safety to reduce injuries and fatalities is one goal of FHWA's new safety approach. Here, a pedestrian crosswalk is well defined with high-visibility markings and lights.

Nationwide Safety Effort

The availability of additional safety resources for opportunity and focus States does not mean that other States will be left out. FHWA is committed to continuing its support for safety activities in every State across the country. To that end, FHWA will make $250,000 available in FY 2005 through the Accelerating Safety Activities Program (ASAP). Funding through this new program is intended to supplement, not replace, monies that FHWA already provides for State and local safety programs.

FHWA division offices may apply for ASAP funds for specific safety-enhancing initiatives, such as workshops, technology demonstrations, implementation of innovative approaches, and data analysis. Initiatives selected under ASAP will be those that address a critical safety need and those with the potential to reduce roadway fatalities in a State.

"While we are focusing our limited resources in key areas, we also need to support safety advances in all States," says Margie Sheriff, team leader for the FHWA Office of Safety's new focused approach. "We will not achieve our goal of 1.0 by 2008 unless we do. The ASAP program is designed to get safety efforts moving ASAP, just as the name implies."

FHWA's move to a performance-based approach to highway safety is part of a sea change in the way Federal, State, and local transportation agencies are addressing highway safety. Collectively, the transportation community is making safety a true priority, focusing attention and leveraging resources to make a difference.

An example is the Strategic Highway Safety Plan developed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to help States improve their safety programs. The plan, which focuses attention on 22 emphasis areas that can reduce highway deaths and injuries, complements FHWA's effort to concentrate on initiatives with the greatest potential to reduce the national fatality rate.

Another similar approach is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's focus on the behavioral aspects of safety to reduce fatalities, including campaigns to encourage safety belt use and discourage impaired driving.

FHWA's new safety focus is a significant change in the way the agency addresses safety issues and deploys resources. It is expected to be a multiyear effort that gains momentum as early successes in reducing roadway crashes, injuries, and fatalities in individual States encourage highway agencies across the country to adapt how they approach safety and leverage their resources.

This new focused approach to safety is driven by FHWA's commitment to help States achieve their safety goals and the aggressive safety goal we have set as a Nation. Over time, the success of the effort will be measured in terms of lives saved and injuries prevented on our Nation's highways.

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 division administrator in Michigan, director of Field Services-Midwest, and director of Safety and Traffic Operations Research and Development at FHWA's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center. He retired from FHWA after almost 36 years of service on April 1, 2005.

For more information on FHWA safety programs, visit