The Role of Traffic Incident Management in the Safe System Approach
Hundreds of times each day around the Nation, a law enforcement officer will arrive at a traffic crash scene. The officer will work to secure the scene, aid the victims, collect information, and document the crash facts on traffic crash forms. Police assistance is generally required by State traffic crash reporting laws. Often fire department and/or emergency medical services (EMS) personnel will also be present to assist with the injured, extricate victims from vehicles, and mitigate fires and chemical spills. Transportation agency and towing and recovery company personnel may also be present, lending necessary support to protect and clear the scene. Public safety dispatchers and traffic management center operators work remotely to coordinate resources. Collectively, this group of responders works together to perform traffic incident management (TIM) with a goal to shorten the duration of incidents, restore traffic back to normal, and improve safety for everyone on the scene, as well as approaching motorists.
Although the United States has enjoyed many years of downward-trending traffic crash fatality statistics, those numbers are now ratcheting back upward. While total vehicle miles traveled decreased by 11 percent in the United States from 2019 to 2020, roadway deaths increased by 6.8 percent to 38,824 in 2020. In 2021, an estimated 42,915 people died in traffic crashes, a 10.5 percent increase over the previous year. Traffic incident responder line-of-duty deaths have seen similar increases from 2019 through 2021, culminating with over 60 responders struck and killed by vehicles while working at roadway incidents in 2021.
“I wish I could say otherwise, but the recent trend of increased line-of-duty deaths continues unabated. An unknown number of responders are also injured in ways that are often life changing and career ending. To fully recognize the service of these responders, we owe it to them to adopt the traffic incident management practices we know will work to make our roads safer,” states Martin Knopp, FHWA associate administrator for operations.
In response to the crisis on America’s roads, the U.S. Department of Transportation released the National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS), which adopts the Safe System Approach as a model to bolster roadway safety. Unlike traditional safety countermeasures that apply treatments to a problem behavior or location, the Safe System Approach applies multiple layers of protection and uses redundancy to mitigate failures of any part of the system. The principles of the Safe System Approach prioritize the elimination of crashes that result in death and injury. People make mistakes and humans are vulnerable, so a system of shared responsibility and proactive tools are needed to address safety issues.
The Safe System Approach focuses on five key elements: safer people, safer roads, safer vehicles, safer speeds, and post-crash care. TIM is specifically called out to be a part of the actions for post-crash care. One of the key departmental actions needed, as noted on the USDOT website (https://www.transportation.gov/NRSS/PostCrashCare), is to advance TIM training and technologies targeted at improved responder and motorist safety. The following sections describe TIM and how it is an integral part of the Safe System Approach, particularly post-crash care.
What is TIM?
TIM has likely been around since the early years of the automobile but has certainly been formalized over the past five decades. The concepts of quicker detection, response, and clearance evolved in the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s, transportation management centers and intelligent transportation systems gained traction, helping to bolster the overall TIM effort. Laws requiring motorists to move over for responders stopped on the roadway and to remove drivable cars out of travel lanes after minor crashes worked to codify TIM principles.
In the past two decades, the Federal Highway Administration has led national TIM efforts that have engaged State and local stakeholders in workshops, training, and self assessment. Because of these efforts, State and local agencies have not only embraced TIM but, in many cases, institutionalized it.
Current training and outreach efforts include enhancements to the National TIM Responder Training Program, support for local TIM teams and committees, and outreach, which is brought to greater focus through the nationwide Crash Responder Safety Week, taking place each year in November.
The outcomes from TIM practices are demonstrated by the operational, environmental, and safety benefits that many EMS and transportation agencies have experienced. From the Maryland Coordinated Highway Action Response Team TIM program’s estimated reductions in secondary crashes, delay, fuel consumption, and emissions, to the Houston (TX) Fire Department’s reductions in scene time and fire apparatus struck at incident scenes, TIM benefits continue to be documented.
Advancing Safety and Resiliency Through Next-Generation TIM
The nexus between TIM and the Safe System Approach lies with the stated action to improve responder and motorist safety through training and technology. Fortunately, the FHWA Every Day Counts Program was on the forefront of leveraging advancements in training, data collection, and technology with the Next-Generation TIM innovation.
FHWA and responder organizations have made a significant and long-term investment in training. TIM training focuses on responder and motorist safety. The training promotes accepted standards of practice necessary to minimize responders being struck by incident, as well as secondary, crashes. International Association of Chiefs of Police President John Letteney notes, “We can’t always see the benefits of TIM training, but we know from the comments and reviews of former students that they think it is important to their job and their safety.”
The National TIM Responder Training Program has trained more than 600,000 responders over the past decade. Optimized through in-person interaction, but also available as a self-paced online course, the program will soon be available as a virtual, instructor-led course. These platforms mean that responders can take the course without significant time away from their primary responsibilities. The national TIM program training products are currently undergoing a second refresh to ensure that the material stays current, relevant, and credible.
Rather than offering this training as an optional course, States with advanced TIM programs have institutionalized TIM training. For example, Texas requires all police and fire personnel to complete TIM training, and Georgia requires this training for all EMS personnel. Training academies in many States have also incorporated the National TIM Responder Training Program within their curriculum, ensuring that responders are TIM trained.
As part of the ongoing maturation of TIM training, the National TIM Responder Training Program will soon offer a stand-alone lesson that targets response in rural and remote environments. This lesson further reinforces the fact that TIM is applicable to anywhere that incidents might happen. Supplemental lessons on technology topics are also available to enhance responder understanding of the most current concepts for response, like those described in the Technology section to follow. Finally, online and classroom training are often enhanced with practical application of TIM concepts. Many locations are using driver training facilities to provide hands-on training for responder students, furthering their ability to operate safely at incidents.
TIM data will be instrumental in defining safety performance targets and contributing key performance indicators for performance management dashboards. The essence of TIM data is performance measures for secondary crashes, roadway clearance time, incident clearance time, and responder struck by incidents. Agencies like the Arizona Department of Public Safety found that introducing and training officers about TIM performance measures reduced their time at crash scenes.
Free and low-cost crowdsourced data also provide a basis for better incident response and response planning. State and local agencies are using anonymized data from roadway users, connected vehicles, and navigation applications for faster detection of incidents and congestion. Both the Maricopa Association of Governments in Arizona and the Indiana Department of Transportation (DOT) have begun using anonymous speed and acceleration information from cars that are using the roadway in this way.
TIM technology focuses on systems that improve safety by increasing responder and motorist situational awareness, hardening the target at incident scenes, and by otherwise improving the efficiency of response activities.
The exposure of responders is reduced when overall incident duration is reduced. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have greatly reduced the time necessary for law enforcement to measure, map, and photograph serious incident scenes. Field tests in Washington State showed a reduction in road closure time of 80 percent, and in Tippecanoe, IN, overall scene time was reduced by 60 percent when UAS was used over traditional technology approaches. Meanwhile, agencies like the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and North Carolina DOT are testing tethered UAS, deployed from safety service patrol vehicles, to improve situational awareness and roadway surveillance. According to Todd Leiss, TIM program coordinator for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, “A tethered UAS gives us a unique vantage point to provide real-time information to our emergency responders and ultimately motorists.”
Many locations are using technology to notify drivers of upcoming dangerous slowdowns and roadside incident response activity. Alerts are delivered to motorists through their mobile navigation app or in-vehicle system. For example, Kansas City, MO, has deployed systems that alert motorists of responder activity along their route, while North Carolina, New Jersey, and Colorado are able to warn commercial vehicle drivers using systems specific to their vehicles. Other locations are improving traveler information systems to reflect the presence of incidents and responders better.
While a picture may be worth a thousand words, access to real-time video is significantly enhancing responders’ ability to perform TIM activities. Indiana, Florida, and Maryland are States that have made sharing video from incident scenes possible using cameras mounted on safety service patrol vehicles. Timely information helps fellow responders deploy appropriate resources and choose more effective response routes.
Emerging technologies are now just gaining traction in TIM and are poised to make an impact on responder and motorist safety. The Grand Prairie Fire Department in Texas has outfitted truck-mounted attenuators on surplus fire apparatus to serve as barriers at freeway incident scenes. Several locations are affixing special devices to safety service patrol vehicles that allow them to scoop up roadway debris without stopping. A host of new smart temporary traffic control devices are being tested to provide drivers with early warning of potential dangers ahead.
Evolving TIM to Meet New Challenges and Capture New Opportunities
One cornerstone to the practice of TIM is the multidisciplinary TIM team or committee, which had traditionally focused on urban areas. Collegial TIM activities are now being undertaken in suburban and rural communities as well. For example, the Colorado DOT recently established 27 local, geographically focused TIM teams and produced a supporting toolkit that provides templates and tips for starting a TIM team.
Advances in vehicle safety systems, connected vehicles, automated vehicles, and connected infrastructure hold the promise of fewer roadway crashes, injuries, and fatalities. The FHWA CARMA℠ Program recently conducted a successful test demonstrating the slow-down and move-over functionality for an automated vehicle passing a roadside law enforcement response vehicle. Dale Thompson, FHWA team leader of the transportation enabling technologies team, notes, “FHWA in collaboration with industry is conducting research that demonstrates emerging technologies such as connectivity between vehicles and smart infrastructure are foundational to achieve safer roadways for travelers, public safety officers and maintenance crews.”
Separate research seeks to use machine learning to detect Move Over law violations, and still other work is underway testing wearable technologies to alert responders of wayward traffic when they are working on the roadway.
In the coming years, new funding will allow States to rebuild roads, bridges, and railways across the country, creating new opportunities for TIM to improve responder and motorist safety. Traffic management plans are typically part of work zone planning, and a greater focus on TIM in the planning and operation of work zones presents a tremendous opportunity for advancing safety.
Embracing TIM for Safe System Approaches
TIM programs have and will continue to offer proven strategies that embrace a “systematic, planned, and coordinated use of human, institutional, mechanical, and technical resources to reduce the duration and effects of incidents and improve the safety of motorists, crash victims, and emergency responders” (United States Government Accountability Office. 2020. Emergency Responder Safety: States and DOT Are Implementing Actions to Reduce Roadside Crashes. Report No. GAO-21-166. Washington, DC: GAO). Thus, agencies should continue to focus on traditional and Next-Generation TIM policies, tools, technologies, and training as part of their Safe System Approach.
TIM Program Benefits
James Austrich is a program manager with FHWA’s Office of Operations, TIM Program Office. His career spans over 30 years of public and private sector work in traffic operations, homeland security, and as a TIM subject matter expert for the DC Metropolitan Police Department. Jim studied Business Administration and is a graduate of the University of Maryland Senior Management Operations Academy.
Paul Jodoin has been a traffic incident management program manager for FHWA’s Office of Operations since July 2009. Before his current assignment, Paul had a 38-year career with the Massachusetts DOT where he was the intelligent transportation systems programs operations manager for the last 12 years. He was responsible for management of the Traffic Operations Center and various other emergency management programs.
Joseph Tebo has been a member of FHWA’s TIM Program team for the past 2 years and brings four decades of on-the-ground TIM expertise. He is a former paramedic and rescue specialist and has served for over 40 years as a volunteer firefighter, including leading crash scene investigations with the National Transportation Safety Board and time as the deputy emergency management coordinator at the Federal Transit Administration.
Grady Carrick is a retired Florida highway patrol commander with a combined 40 years of TIM, traffic safety, and public management experience. He holds graduate degrees in Transportation Engineering and Public Administration.
Vaishali Shah is a senior program director with a consulting and development agency, helping Federal and State transportation agencies innovate through technology and process change. She holds a master’s degree in Transportation Engineering from the University of Texas.
The authors thank Katherine Belmore, National TIM responder training program coordinator, for her contribution to this article.
For more information about the Safe System Approach, see the Winter 2022 issue of Public Roads: https://highways.dot.gov/public-roads/winter-2022.