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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
FHWA Highway Safety Programs

1.0 Introduction

In 2012, 30,800 fatal motor vehicle crashes resulted in 33,561 fatalities. Rural areas accounted for 53 percent (16,443) of the fatal crashes; and 54 percent (18,170) of the fatalities.1 Some of the major factors contributing to crashes on rural roads include:

  • Exposure – people who live in rural communities generally travel more in their automobiles and over further distances, increasing the likelihood of a crash;
  • Public transportation and bicycle and pedestrian networks may be insufficient, forcing people to travel by car or risk unsafe circumstances on alternative modes;
  • Rural roadways typically have higher speed limits, which increase the severity of crashes when they occur;
  • Physical limitations of rural roadways, some constructed between mountains or waterways, creates narrower lanes;
  • Wildlife and weather conditions, such as rock slides, often affect rural roadways more significantly than urban areas; and
  • Rural roadways may have more curves, making roads longer and more challenging to navigate.

In nonmetropolitan areas,2 where crashes are occurring at higher rates, regional planning organizations (RPO)3 are in place in about 30 states4 to assist state departments of transportation (DOT) and work with the public and local officials to understand the transportation needs for the region. Multimodal safety is often identified as a major issue in rural areas, but challenges, such as limited staff, a shortage of financial resources, inadequate data and analysis gaps, and other issues, may prohibit safety from being addressed in planning documents. This report presents opportunities and strategies for regional planners to consider safety throughout the transportation planning process for rural areas.

This technical report is based on available literature, web resources, and input from a technical oversight working group (TOWG) composed of practitioners at regional planning, state, and federal agencies.

1.1 Project Objective

The objective of this project is to develop a technical report to assist RPOs with the integration of safety into their transportation planning and programming process.

1.2 Target Audience

The main target audience of this technical report is planners at RPOs and state DOTs. Regional planners typically have a number of job responsibilities, but for many this includes assisting state DOTs with completing the requirements for statewide transportation planning in rural areas. This report provides regional planners with information on the resources, strategies, and ideas for considering safety in their transportation planning processes. DOTs often have planners on staff to liaise with the RPOs in their states. In this role, they support and provide technical assistance to RPOs to help them carry out transportation planning functions. This report will provide strategies for DOTs to better assist RPOs in understanding the safety issues in their regions, and incorporate solutions through the transportation planning process.

1.3 Research Approach

Results from a review of recent literature and web site resources and the perspectives from the TOWG informed this technical report.

Web sites reviewed for resources and literature included the Transportation Research Board (TRB) TRID database; the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO); Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sites, specifically the Rural and Small Community Transportation Planning page, the Safety page, and the Planning page; the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC); and the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA).

The literature search revealed that publications do not specifically address safety integration in the RPO transportation planning process. However, a number of literature and web resources were useful and relevant to this research. They fell into four broad categories, including: 1) transportation safety planning from the urban or statewide perspective; 2) discrete safety tools and/or strategies; 3) different processes or frameworks for transportation decision-making; and 4) other issues important to RPO planners (i.e., economy, land use). Appendix B documents and provides links to these resources, while Appendix A offers short case studies identified in the research process of how two states are working with the RPOs in their states to address safety.

In addition to the literature search, this report also is based on input from the TOWG. The TOWG comprised planners from seven regional planning agencies and two state DOTs, and three representatives from FHWA.

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2The term "nonmetropolitan area" means a geographic area outside designated metropolitan planning areas

3RPOs are also known as regional transportation planning organizations (RTPO), regional planning affiliations (RPA), planning district commissions (PDC), councils of governments (COG), or regional planning commissions (RPC) (who also have a rural transportation program). This report will refer to rural planning agencies as RPOs, unless using the name of a specific agency or when referring to RTPO designation as part of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP­21) legislation)