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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 - May/June 2016

May/June 2016
Issue No:
Vol. 79 No. 6
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

A Sidekick for Rural Safety

by Janet Leli

Thanks to the creation of a next-generation center, rural agencies have a strong partner to help address safety challenges on their roads.

Rural roads, such as County Road 215 in Montana, shown here, comprise 80 percent of the national road system and play a critical role in the national economy by creating the network that links rural and urban communities, and connects commercial and industrial activities.

Despite an overall trend in decreasing fatalities on U.S. roadways in recent years, almost 33,000 people still lose their lives in traffic crashes annually. Rural road safety is a particular concern. Although only about 20 percent of the U.S. population resides in rural areas of the country, crashes on rural roads account for more than half of all roadway fatalities. Current statistics indicate that even with the national number of fatalities decreasing, the fatality rate in rural areas is 2.4 times higher than the fatality rate in urban areas.

Rural road owners and stakeholders face significant challenges in addressing safety problems adequately. The diverse nature of safety issues on rural roads requires assessment of human and environmental factors. Road agencies may lack strategies to address rural road safety issues and may be hampered by limited access to or awareness of available resources.

Funded by the Federal Highway Administration, the National Center for Rural Road Safety opened in December 2014 to identify the most effective current and emerging road safety improvements and help local agencies deploy them on rural roads. In the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), Congress explicitly created competitively selected centers of excellence in the areas of the environment, surface transportation safety, rural safety, and project finance. The National Center for Rural Road Safety covers both rural and surface transportation, with an emphasis on rural. It embodies the Federal transportation goal fora center focusing specifically on enhancing safety on rural roadswhile supporting surface transportation in general.

Partnering for Excellence

The center’s team of subject matter experts is led by the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University. Other members are from Iowa State University’s Institute for Transportation; Rutgers University’s Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation; and the Local Technical Assistance Programs of Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, and New Jersey. In addition, the center receives critical support from contractors who are an integral part of the team. This group has a robust background in transportation safety issues, including workforce development and training; engineering; research and outreach in human factors; planning; operations; and State, local, tribal, and rural challenges.

As part of a federally sanctioned center focused on rural road safety issues, the team is in a unique position to access and leverage FHWA’s expertise and training resources. The center will integrate, coordinate, and accelerate the knowledge transfer of safety solutions.

“With over half of fatalities occurring on ruralroads, and safety being a top priority, there needs to be a national, focused center that fulfills the role of a one-stop shop for research, technical assistance and transfer, and training,” says Steve Albert, the center’s director. “It will include, but also move beyond, engineering as a principal focus. It also will include culture and behavior because at least 90 percent of crashes are due in some part to the driver, not the infrastructure.”

Two Guiding Forces

In addition to the team, two more groups lead the guidance and management of the center: a national stakeholder group and an FHWA technical panel. The team felt that it was important to keep the advisory groups small enough to encourage a high level of participation, while keeping them diverse enough to represent the interests of multiple fields and professions.

The stakeholder group brings together individuals from multiple disciplines in the name of rural road safety. The center’s management team selected the members of the stakeholder group with geographic diversity in mind, as well as for their complementary expertise in representing the “4 E’s” of engineering, education, enforcement, and emergency medical services. The project team chose the members of the stakeholder group to represent the primary disciplines with road safety interests. The group includes the National Local Technical Assistance Program Association for its role across the country as a link to local public agencies.

Also in the group are engineers from State and county departments of transportation and representatives from public works, rural planning, law enforcement, trauma and emergency response, and local and tribal technical assistance programs. These stakeholders and transportation professionals serve as a sounding board for the center’s work to ensure that its activities are not only comprehensive, but also holistic in nature. The stakeholder group is convened several times per year to provide direct input.

The technical panel has representatives from multiple FHWA offices and programs, including the FHWA Office of Technical Services’ Resource Center, Technology Partnership Programs, and National Highway Institute; the Office of Federal Lands Highway; the Office of Safety; the Office of Safety Research and Development; and the Montana Division Office. This link to FHWA serves to increase accessibility to opportunities for technology transfer for local and rural users. The center uses its communications tools--a conference exhibit, electronic newsletter and announcement list, Web site, social media, webinars, and onsite training--to market available technical resources, outreach materials, and training provided by FHWA.

Long distances between destinations and the varied terrain presented by rural roads, such as this one in Maui, HI, often restrict options for alternate routes, severely limiting mobility when collisions or delays from development or increased tourism occur.

The center’s goal is to empower as many State, local, and tribal agencies as possible with the most effective safety tools and strategies currently available. Building on a growing body of multidisciplinary research, best practices, and successful deployments in rural environments, the center is poised to help agencies with their immediate challenges for rural road safety.

“Addressing rural safety challenges is not straightforward,” Albert says. “It requires a comprehensive assessment of needs and a multidisciplinary approach to investigate the many factors that have an impact on safety. Safety issues must be viewed through a wider lens, rather than addressing only one piece of an issue at a time.”

To improve safety on rural roads, a multidisciplinary, context-sensitive, and teamwork approach can be effective in training efforts, new construction projects, and maintenance work. Here, engineers, ecologists, public lands representatives are conducting a site review on I–70 in Colorado.

There is no silver bullet to address all rural challenges.Albert’s philosophy for the center, he says, is to employ a methodology “for training and technology transfer that provides safety solutions that address systemic needs, targeted not only at roads, but also driver behavior, vehicle capabilities, infrastructure, and cultural understanding, too.”

The goal is to deliver training that accelerates change and makes it possible for agency managers, planners, operations staff, and maintenance crews to do their jobs better by the very next day.

Making a Difference

By using proven strategies and reaching further into rural areas with knowledge sharing and educational outreach, the center helps these jurisdictions maximize use of their available resources.

The center approaches roadway safety from every angle, drawing noteworthy practices and information from a wide variety of assets that are suitable for technology transfer. For example, almost one-third of fatalities in rural areas are speeding related. Targeted and aggressive educational and enforcement campaigns by local agencies advised by the center might help reduce that number. Identifying examples of successful campaigns of this nature is not limited to rural areas; the center’s staff examines best practices from all location types to highlight and replicate effective strategies and programs. This approach can help jumpstart an agency’s safety culture without having to start from scratch.

Although many roadway safety issues, like speeding, are equally germane to rural, suburban, and urban environments, rural geography compounds some challenges. The time that it takes for crash victims to reach hospitals, for example, is substantially longer for rural crashes, taking an average of 42 minutes compared to 25 minutes in urban areas. That time differential directly correlates to higher mortality rates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that severely injured crash occupants who receive care at Level I trauma centers have a 25-percent reduction in risk of death. It is also well known that the sooner a crash victim receives surgical attention, the better the chances of survival--often referred to as the “golden hour.” Rural crash victims find themselves already dangerously close to that 1-hour window upon arrival at the hospital. And that’s if they even make it: With increased time for help to arrive at the scene and longer distances to an appropriate level of care, victims of rural crashes make up 68 percent of patients who die en route to treatment centers.

The center works to increase awareness and education among practitioners in rural areas to increase the implementation of appropriate countermeasures and technologies to minimize crash rates, improve response times, and maximize safety and survival rates when crashes do occur.

Getting the Word Out

The center maximizes communication options to reach rural agencies and road users with the rural safety message. These methods include using social media, such as Facebook, and the center’s electronically distributed newsletter, the Safety Sidekick, to support information exchange.

The center’s Web site,, functions as a clearinghouse of technical resources, training, and events. Because rural access to technical assistance is a priority, the site includes a help desk feature. This function is designed to address quick-turnaround requests for rural safety guidance by offering resources or a subject matter expert to provide direct help. With technology transfer as the cornerstone of the center’s activities, the site emphasizes collecting noteworthy practices to share across the United States. To that end, it includes a library of videos and recorded webinars to accelerate implementation of practical, low-cost solutions to safety challenges.

Training from Coast to Coast

Traditionally, educational opportunities are considered the workhorses of technology transfer. By improving the understanding of safety data, analysis, design and maintenance countermeasures, and multidisciplinary and holistic approaches, the center helps to expand the tools and technologies put into practice. With the many facets of safety in mind, the team works with the technical panel and stakeholder group to determine topics for educational offerings that range from inperson classroom settings to webinars available 24/7.

The center uses a variety of communication methods, some of which are shown here, to reach rural agencies and other stakeholders with its safety messages. Methods include social media, a Web site, and an electronic newsletter.

In November 2015, the team produced its first webinar as an introduction to the National Center for Rural Road Safety. The webinars that followed, Understanding Organizational Culture and Its Impact on Safety Culture in December 2015, Application of Systemic Safety to a Non-Engineering Issue in January 2016, and Rural Signing and Marking Resources in February 2016, demonstrate the diversity in training topics. The webinars each drew more than 100 attendees, and are recorded and archived on the center’s Web site for future use. These monthly offerings provide an efficient way to reach a large audience that is often impossible to reach with traditional classroom training.

Putting concept into practice is the goal of the technology transfer activities of the center. Teri Sanddal, the associate director of research and prevention for the Critical Illness & Trauma Foundation, a rural EMS driver, and a member of the stakeholder group representing emergency medical services, attended the center’s first webinar. “This presentation gave information that calls all of us to walk the talk,” she says.

The center does not use a one-size-fits-all approach. By offering archived presentations, videos, webinar recordings, conference proceedings, and the ability to receive one-on-one assistance through the help desk, the center is able to reach more users at all levels. In addition, to further promote accessibility and provide additional connections for stakeholders, related training events from other organizations are posted on the center’s calendar.

The center also collaborates with and supports existing safety initiatives and organizations such as the National Association of County Engineers (NACE). Hosted by NACE, the center presented Road Safety 365: A Workshop for Local Governments, an updated preconference training held at the 2016 Annual Meeting/Management and Technical Conference in Tacoma, WA, in April. The center is also scheduled to present a train-the-trainer workshop on Road Safety 365 at the annual conference of the National Local Technical Assistance Program Association in Madison, WI, in July. This workshop will enable many State LTAP instructors to return to their home States and provide this training to their local constituents.

Bringing Together a National Audience

Rural communities provide food, energy, resources, and more to keep the Nation running. They need safe, viable roads and multimodal systems to move both people and goods from place to place. Recognizing that rural roads are a foundational building block for commerce, agriculture, tourism, and technology development, the center is coordinating the National Working Summit on Transportation in Rural America: Advancing Safe Transportation Systems to Enhance Economic Development and Quality of Life. Attendees will discuss and debate road safety and transportation issues that impact quality of life and economic prosperity in rural areas and identify collaborative opportunities.

The center is using this save-the-date postcard to market an upcoming summit on rural road safety.

Unlike many conferences and events, the summit will present a multidisciplinary agenda instead of focusing on a single theme. This strategy will be reflected in both the audience and the session topics. The center aims to bring together those who build and maintain roads with those who set policy and provide funding, attendees with a variety of economic and public safety interests, and road users including cyclists, pedestrians, and transit users. The summit will examine economic concerns, community and livability issues, policy development, and safety culture in a collaborative environment. The summit’s format will include working sessions both in silo groups and in cross groups, providing for facilitated discussions by interest area as well as in a multidisciplinary environment.

The expected outcomes of the summit are (1) the identification of key strategies to promote meaningful and productive dialogue to continue well after the summit, (2) preparation of a white paper based on the thematic sessions that occur during the summit, and (3) use of the momentum from the summit and white paper to establish partnerships and coalitions that promote positive change for rural road safety.

The summit will be held September 7–9, 2016, in Denver, CO. For more information, visit

Supporting Critical Networks

Rural roads serve the travel and commerce needs of the whole Nation, including approximately 60 million people in rural areas. About 80 percent of the Nation’s roadway miles traverse rural terrain. The vastness and importance of rural roads make safety issues a very real concern. Mitigating those issues through training, education, and interdisciplinary safety strategies has the potential to make roads safer and to save lives.

The National Center for Rural Road Safety provides a valuable resource and partnership for rural stakeholders because of its ability to provide coordinated and scalable safety measures unique to rural roads.

“Ultimately,” says Clint Dicksen, director of public works for Fanwood, NJ, “the center offers services that help to deliver the safety message by empowering local stakeholders, hindered by limited resources, to take strategies for road safety into their own hands and to develop and implement safety programs and methods that address the needs of their roads. Many of us have small towns, with small staffs. We always have a need for help.”

Janet Leli is the associate director for technology transfer at Rutgers University’s Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation and a member of the National Center for Rural Road Safety team. She is also the director of the New Jersey Local Technical Assistance Program Center. Leli has a master’s degree and graduate certificate in advanced governmental administration from Rider University and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Rutgers University. She serves on the Transportation Research Board’s Highway Safety Workforce Development and Technology Transfer Committees.

For more information, see or contact Janet Leli at 848–445–2906 or