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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 - Summer 1994

Safety on the Washington, D.C., Capital Beltway

by Ilona Orban

This article is adapted from the March 1994 Beltway Safety Bulletin, distributed by the Capital Beltway Safety Team.


Public safety is central to the mission of transportation officials in the Washington metropolitan area. However, safety challenges on the Washington Capital Beltway--the 63-mile highway that rings the nation's capital--are compounded by the fact that improvements require the attention and coordination of two states, the District of Columbia, and nearly 20 counties and cities as well as the federal government. This article presents the regional, coordinated efforts that are underway to improve safety on the Beltway. However, the approach and the actions taken are applicable to urban highways nationwide.

How It Started

In August 1993, a succession of serious accidents on the Capital Beltway prompted Federal Highway Administrator Rodney Slater and Acting National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Howard Smolkin to call for a regionwide, coordinated look at the Beltway--its problems, trouble spots, and future. They assembled more than 120 representatives from federal and state agencies, local jurisdictions, private industry, public interest groups, and citizens to analyze the Capital Beltway and to recommend ways to make it safer.

Participants tackled their assignment and moved swiftly to define the challenges by forming three work groups to examine driver, highway, and vehicle issues. Their efforts culminated in the Washington Area Highway Safety Initiative, a report issued in November 1993 that presented 53 recommendations to improve safety on the Beltway and adjacent roadways.

Capital Beltway Safety Team

In January 1994, the Capital Beltway Safety Team was created to evaluate and implement the recommended safety improvements. To accomplish this, the core group and seven work teams were formed. The seven work teams are:

  • Enforcement.
  • Incident Management.
  • Construction and Maintenance Work Zone Safety.
  • Traffic Management Systems.
  • Operation and Design Enhancements.
  • Education and Public Information.
  • Regional Initiatives.

These work teams are evaluating each recommendation and determining specific short- and long-term implementation strategies. Further, the teams are committed to act on specific short-term recommendations by August 1994. The work teams include representatives of transportation and enforcement agencies, private organizations, and citizens. The seven teams have been meeting since January, and they report their progress to the core group. The work teams are using accident studies, along with engineering data analyses, to evaluate the recommendations.

Report in August

The Capital Beltway Safety Team has targeted August 1994 for its first report to the public on the group's accomplishments. Capital Beltway Safety Team Chairman Thomas Farley of the Virginia Department of Transportation said, "Our goals are ambitious. However, we believe that our combined efforts and commitment to seeing the Washington Area Highway Safety Initiative recommendations become reality will result in a safer Capital Beltway for all drivers."

Ilona Orban is a transportation engineer at the Virginia Department of Transportation's Northern Virginia District Office in Fairfax, Va. She is the project coordinator of the Capital Beltway Safety Team and has been with VDOT for four years. She received a master's degree in transportation engineering from the University of Technical Sciences of Budapest in 1981 and is currently completing a master's degree in civil engineering at the University of Virginia.