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FHWA Highway Safety Programs

2.0 Background

2.1 Literature Review

Previous work has synthesized the state of the practice in safety target setting by States and regions. For the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) A Compendium of State and Regional Safety Target Setting Practices,1 the research team catalogued national and international safety targets and methods for setting safety targets.

Establishing road safety performance measures and setting targets are widely advocated practices in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe and Australia. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests setting targets can improve road safety by encouraging more realistic and efficient road safety programs, communicate the importance of road safety to people who can affect it, give direction to policy-makers, motivate stakeholders to act, and hold road transport system managers accountable. The effectiveness of setting road safety targets has been evaluated in only a few studies; however, the available evidence shows reductions in fatalities and fatality rates are associated with target setting.2

Numerous countries throughout the world (with the majority in Europe) have pursued and achieved safety targets over the years. While limited examples of well described target setting methodologies are available, current practice involves a combination of top-down long term goals and bottom-up interim targets of shorter duration. A few agencies are developing interim targets aligned to selected countermeasures, their estimated effectiveness, deployment of vehicle safety technologies, and the extent to which countermeasures are successfully/effectively implemented. Such a process requires defining the country's level of ambition for road safety, taking into account institutional arrangements, developing methods to measure the effectiveness of strategies needed to improve safety, and identifying available resources. This target setting approach combines an idealistic long-term goal with realistic short-term targets.3

The Safety Target Setting Final Report4 catalogued the state of the practice in safety target setting by reviewing key safety documents and surveying safety practitioners. However, first it is important to define the terms "goal" and "target." Goals provide a framework and focus for safety efforts. They may be aspirational, such as "zero fatalities", or numerical, such as the number calculated to "halve fatalities by 2030." Most States establish measurable objectives in State Strategic Highway Safety Plans (SHSPs), although this is not Federally required. Targets are quantitative, typically evidence-based and have shorter timeframes (i.e., up to five years). As noted previously, HSPs set targets and track performance measures for most countermeasure areas.

Some international safety performance measurement literature makes reference to tracking progress in urban and rural contexts separately or addresses how safety programs may be implemented differently in urban and rural areas. Norway tracks fatality and injury trends in urbanized areas and notes in its National Plan of Action for Road Traffic Safety 2010-2013 the proportion of fatalities and serious injuries in densely built-up areas has decreased from 35 to 40 percent in the early 1990s to 20 percent. In Vision Zero on the Move, the Swedish Road Administration notes highly developed areas require a speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour for pedestrians and cyclists to survive a collision. New Zealand's priority safety programs focus on high-risk urban intersections and high-risk rural roads.5 However, the safety performance management literature provides little information about setting safety targets for urban or rural areas.

A NHTSA research study6 evaluated the location of fatal crashes with respect to urban boundaries and concluded 86 percent of all traffic fatalities in the nation occurred in urban areas or in rural areas within 10 miles of the urban boundaries7. Therefore, it is important to understand that while a large proportion of crashes are classified as rural, most occur close to the urban boundary. States will want to understand whether "rural" crashes are located in areas far from urbanized areas or clustered around the fringes to tailor appropriate countermeasures.

2.2 Benefits of Setting Urbanized/Nonurbanized Safety Targets

Under MAP-21, each State is required to set statewide safety targets that reflect the measures cited in the legislation: fatalities, fatality rate, serious injuries, and serious injury rate. The legislation also provides an option for States to establish targets for urbanized and nonurbanized areas, in addition to the four required targets. The Safety Performance Management Notice of Proposed Rulemaking8 (NPRM) proposes this option to allow one statewide target for each measure for the aggregate urbanized area and the aggregate nonurbanized area. Another option is to set safety targets for individual urbanized areas. In this case, States could set targets for one, several, or all urbanized areas in the State and one target for the nonurbanized area. Therefore, States could choose to set a large number of urbanized safety targets

States considering the option to set urbanized and nonurbanized area targets will want to consider the benefit of setting these additional targets. They may decide to set targets separately for urbanized and nonurbanized areas for a variety of reasons. Some States have more evolved performance management programs and experience setting targets. They may wish to set targets for urbanized and nonurbanized areas because they see the benefits of performance management to track trends and use targets to motivate improvement. Additionally, some metropolitan areas are establishing aggressive safety programs (i.e., New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have all established Vision Zero as an overarching goal). Therefore, States might wish to establish targets for the urbanized areas in which these cities are located to support the emphasis on safety in these areas.

States vary significantly in the amount of urbanized and nonurbanized areas, and the proportion of fatalities and serious injuries in the two areas may vary substantially. The first step when considering setting urbanized and nonurbanized area targets is for States to track safety trends separately for urbanized and nonurbanized areas to understand the safety performance in the two geographies. Agencies can determine if they are achieving safety progress in both urbanized and nonurbanized areas equally or having greater success in one area or the other. Setting urbanized or nonurbanized safety targets also may drive increased focus on how safety programs are developed for and resources allocated to urbanized and nonurbanized areas.

As part of this research effort, a Peer Exchange with representatives from eight State DOTs was conducted in September 2014 to discuss urbanized and nonurbanized safety target setting. Additional benefits for urbanized/ nonurbanized safety target setting were identified through those discussions.

  1. DOT-established urbanized and/or nonurbanized area targets may increase collaboration with State Highway Safety Offices (SHSO) which are encouraged to track progress in urban and rural areas.
  2. DOT establishment of urbanized and/or nonurbanized area targets by DOTs may increase collaboration with metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and improve understanding of safety trends in urbanized areas, conducting safety planning in these areas, and coordinating on statewide and individual urbanized area targets.
  3. Long-term consideration of urbanized/nonurbanized area geography would help States track expenditure distributions in these areas. The impending Model Inventory of Roadway Elements (MIRE) requirement for fundamental data elements under MAP-21 (23 U.S.C. 148(e)(2)(A)) and other data improvements may help optimize resource distribution.
  4. MPOs receive urban Surface Transportation Program (STP) funding; therefore, setting safety targets at a regional level for urbanized areas may create an incentive to increase the focus on safety when using other transportation funding sources. For example, in Louisiana, the MPO Unified Work Programs are required to address safety to receive approval. MPOs can obtain funding for a staff person if a regional safety plan is in place. Having a regional safety plan supports addressing safety in the regional Long-Range Plan.
  5. Setting a target for urbanized areas might stimulate more collaboration between MPOs, counties, and local jurisdictions on safety strategies.
  6. Agencies might find benefit in using urbanized and nonurbanized area performance measures to track statewide and emphasis area progress. If States find they are not meeting emphasis area goals, analysis of the emphasis areas by urbanized/nonurbanized areas could help identify where future focus is needed and provide a reason for reassessing their safety practices.
  7. Examining safety data through an urbanized/ nonurbanized area lens could draw attention to the need for increased outreach with certain safety partners (i.e., counties or local agencies).
  8. An overarching benefit of the process is the potential for creating consistent definitions of urbanized and nonurbanized geography, which can be used by all agencies as they establish performance measures and set targets.


2FHWA, Safety Target Setting Final Report, 2013.

3FHWA, Performance Management Practices and Methodologies for Setting a National Safety Performance Target, 2011.


5Safer Journeys: New Zealand's Road Safety Strategy 2010-2020.

6Subramanian, Rajesh, Geospatial Analysis of Rural Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities, NHTSA, 2009.

7 The study used data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which codes the functional classification of land use as urban or rural as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau

8Released March 11, 2015.