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FHWA Highway Safety Programs

5: Summary

Approximately 60 percent of all road miles in the U.S. are non-Interstate, rural roads owned and operated by local entities, such as towns, counties, and Tribal governments. In 2009, over 1,500 persons were killed in non-motorized crashes on rural roads in the U.S. Pedestrians and cyclists comprise the vast majority of these fatalities, and two-lane roads exhibit the greatest number of rural bicycle and pedestrian crashes while also having the highest crash frequency. Local practitioners who operate and maintain local rural roads should have a clear understanding of the needs of non-motorized users, as well as potential issues and countermeasures to mitigate them.

The challenge in addressing non-motorized safety in rural areas is that crashes involving non-motorized road users tend to be widely dispersed in time and location, defying a simple approach to reduce crash incidence. The significant number of lane-miles and the often dispersed nature of crashes may make it difficult to target specific locations for assessment and improvement. Yet, the potential for a severe crash involving non-motorized users may be high. Applying a systemic approach to addressing the safety of non-motorized users may be beneficial. Rather than concentrate on the locations of crashes, the focus of a systemic approach is to identify the common risk factors in crashes.

There may be opportunities to apply a systemic approach in conjunction with the State's SHSP, which may include local and/or rural roads as an emphasis area for safety improvements. In particular, some of these areas may provide data or other programs to address non-motorized roadway user safety.

When seeking to address non-motorized safety within the local agency, the local practitioner may also look for opportunities to leverage non-motorized safety through other projects or may use data to identify non-motorized road user safety problems. Data that are readily available to many State and local agencies can facilitate the identification of the factors affecting non-motorized user safety. Detailed crash data provide the most substantive source of information to use in understanding the effects of roadway features and roadway user behaviors. Considering the relatively infrequent nature of rural non-motorized crashes, five years of crash data are recommended; however, practitioners should be aware of deficiencies in non-motorized user crash data. Other primary sources of data may include traffic data, speed data, local law enforcement records, emergency service data, hospital reports, and State and Federal databases. When historical data are insufficient to define issues, supplemental data should be obtained from other sources, such as data from stakeholders and observational data collected in the field.

Organizing and presenting data in a clear and concise manner aids in the process to define and understand factors affecting safety. Crash summary tables detailing severity, lighting, time of day, day of week, and month can be helpful in highlighting issues. Annotated maps can be created ranging from simple "push pin" maps that identify crash locations to more detailed maps illustrating crash characteristics and the roadway environment. Anecdotal information can also be shown on a map with a simple description of the observed concern written on the appropriate location of the map.

Once relevant data describing non-motorized safety have been assembled, the study area can be defined. The extent of the study area can be either a spot location, a corridor, or a network. A detailed assessment of the factors affecting non-motorized safety should be conducted. The assessment consists of two parts:

  • An in-office analysis of data to determine issues.
  • A field assessment to provide a more complete understanding of conditions and factors affecting non-motorized safety.

Crash data may not provide a comprehensive understanding of conditions and behaviors that affect non-motorized users; therefore, a field assessment should be conducted by local practitioners to collect additional information. The field assessment may be conducted at all or selected key locations to verify analysis findings and provide more detailed information regarding roadway conditions, transportation operations, and user behaviors that can help identify issues and select countermeasures. Various walkability and bikeability checklists that provide guidance for field observations of pedestrian and cyclist safety are available to practitioners, and some of these resources can be used as part of the RSA process. RSAs, which include a field review, are a valuable tool used to evaluate safety and to identify opportunities for improvement.

Once the issues are well understood, the issues should be prioritized and countermeasures identified. Safety issues associated with more frequent crashes and higher crash severity levels are higher priority than issues with less frequent and severe crashes. Countermeasures should address specific safety concerns identified through the data analysis and field reviews. The type and application of safety countermeasures will largely be based on the identification and analysis of non-motorized needs, behaviors, and conditions that affect safety. Proposed countermeasures must be appropriate for the local land use and roadway conditions.

Non-motorized safety cannot be completely addressed through engineering countermeasures alone. Communication and coordination among the 4 E's of safety with State and regional planning organizations are essential to ensuring that safety is comprehensively addressed. Representatives from each of the 4 E's may need to communicate regularly to ensure that countermeasures and strategies are coordinated to address the safety of all road users in rural areas. Implemented improvements should work collectively to address as many operational and safety concerns for both motorized and non-motorized users as possible. Detailed information on effective countermeasure selection may be acquired through partnerships with State and local agencies, including the State's LTAP. Funding for non-motorized safety programs is available from several local sources. Federal funding relies on a data-driven process that places emphasis on crash data. Local agencies can set their own priorities on spending using their own funds.

Monitoring and evaluating the implementation of countermeasures can help contribute to the success of a non-motorized safety program. Monitoring helps provide accountability and can be used to keep stakeholders informed and engaged. Evaluating the effectiveness of non-motorized countermeasures after installation can provide valuable direction. A before-and-after study comparing crashes before verses after implementation can be conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of measures implemented as part of a program. However, because crashes involving non-motorized users tend to be rare, conducting a before-and-after study using crash data may not be feasible. Other MOEs, such as vehicle speeds, may be used to evaluate the safety performance of an implemented strategy. Evaluations should include user volume data to verify the validity of results and confirm that improvements are attributable to safety measures.

Addressing the safety of non-motorized road users on local rural roads can be challenging. Employing a systemic approachthat is supported by data and field reviews and considers the input of relevant stakeholderswill better position agencies to address the safety needs of non-motorized users on rural roads.