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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66· No. 2 > Spotlight on Safety

Sept/Oct 2002
Vol. 66· No. 2

Spotlight on Safety

by Kristine Lee Leiphart and Kenneth Epstein

The need for safe highways seems obvious. But when it comes to putting highway safety solutions on paper—and ultimately on the road—the challenge is enormous, given the Nation's diverse topography, weather, roadway speed limits, and construction materials. With the right tools and training, however, knowledgeable highway safety and transportation professionals can handle the diverse variables and implement measures that save lives.

Photo of people attending workshop

In April 2002, FHWA held a workshop on workforce planning in San Antonio, TX, to discuss training and professional development needs for the safety community (above).

Between 1966 and 2001, fatalities and injuries caused by motor vehicle crashes dropped by 18 percent and 42 percent, respectively—due in part to improvements in highway infrastructure, implementation of automobile safety features, and traffic and safety law enforcement. But there is much yet to be done.

Safety professionals at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) are sounding the call for renewed awareness of the value of highway safety education and workforce development. They are taking highway safety to the next level by producing a new software tool for safety engineers and transportation professionals, and launching a new training course, Fundamentals of Highway Safety Improvement.

"To meet realistic national safety goals, we need to make a concerted effort to bring safety to the forefront of our decisions," says Eugene Wilson, professor of civil engineering at the University of Wyoming and a subject matter expert who teaches several FHWA safety courses.

Valuing Highway Safety

Crashes are a preventable cost to society. As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. By anticipating problems before they happen, highway safety professionals help minimize crashes, save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce property damage.

In 2001, more than 42,000 fatalities and 3 million injuries occurred on U.S. highways. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data for 2001, one crash occurred every 5 seconds, and more than 4,900 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes. (See also "Walking the Safety Walk".)

Photo of crash
Photo by: FHWA, NY Division Office

A low gravel shoulder contributed to this crash on a newly paved road. Bringing the shoulder gravel up to the pavement surface and replacing guardrails where appropriate are some of the safety elements that should be implemented before returning traffic to normal patterns.

In addition to the devastating impacts on human life and safety, vehicle crashes also exact enormous economic costs. In 1926, when researchers first began studying the impacts of vehicle crashes, economists estimated that the loss due to traffic crashes was about $600 million per year, in addition to another $2 billion per year in losses from congestion and other costs to society. By the year 2001, the annual economic cost of traffic crashes had risen to $230 billion.

Beyond personal safety and economic impacts, safety also has direct implications for national security, mobility, productivity, and the environment.

Reaching the Right Audiences

Safety training must reach two distinct audiences—highway safety professionals and the broader transportation community. Whether your job is to determine the best curve geometry to improve a crash-prone section of roadway or to develop new concrete mixes, being familiar with safety concepts is of utmost importance. Even if you are not "in safety" as Rick Pain, transportation safety coordinator for the Transportation Research Board (TRB), puts it, you have to have an "awareness of safety" so you can avoid unintentionally designing something that is inherently unsafe.

According to Eugene Wilson of the University of Wyoming, understanding the target audience and customizing training materials is key to delivering effective training. "There is a tendency among training developers to try to be all things to all people, developing comprehensive training courses covering every aspect of highway safety," he says. "But to be truly effective, training needs to target specific audiences. And we need to build in provisions for subject matter experts to maintain and update the material over time."

Developing customizable training curricula helps ensure that safety is incorporated in all phases of highway planning, design, construction, maintenance, and operation.

The Vital Role of Highway Safety Education

"When you work in the transportation field, safety is not something that just happens on its own," says TRB's Rick Pain. "You have to design specifically for safety. Training in safety techniques, technologies, and methods is crucial to achieving a safe transportation system."

Photo of someone measuring the height of the asphalt relative to the height of the guardrail
Photo by: FHWA, NY Division Office

When roads are resurfaced, the new layers of asphalt reduce the relative height of the guardrail compared with the road surface, compromising the safety feature's performance.

Highway safety education accomplishes the following three essential goals: (1) provides the safety community with the tools to make scientifically based decisions about how to reduce fatalities and injuries; (2) communicates emerging safety concerns and new safety technologies to transportation professionals, and (3) develops a highway safety engineer workforce.

In order to reach scientifically based decisions to reduce crashes, engineers need to be able to analyze before-and-after crash data to identify appropriate countermeasures and safety improvements for preventing future incidents. The most important factor in guaranteeing quality baseline data is training transportation professionals to know how to collect the appropriate data in the field—information that can be used for investment decisions and research purposes. The information might include, for example, data on annual average daily traffic volumes for the highway section under analysis or data on interchanges or intersections.

Back in the lab or office, specially trained safety engineers combine that information with long-term crash data to make statistical inferences about appropriate countermeasures. To ensure consistency among data and analysis methodologies, safety engineers need to agree on how to measure injuries and fatalities, how to apply statistical methods to crash counts, and how to calculate long-term averages.

Since collision counts are subject to randomness, safety metrics frequently are shown in comparison with mean expected numbers and by using long-term samples to minimize the influence of random fluctuations. Traditionally, in evaluating highway safety by comparing before-and-after roadway, vehicle, and driver factors, collision data, traffic data, and information collected from site visits have been used to diagnose problems and to derive alternatives for potential improvements.

Photo of curved road before resurfacing Photo curved road after resurfacing
Photos by: FHWA, NY Division Office

The New York State Department of Transportation improved this stretch of rural road by straightening the curve and smoothing a bump, while also upgrading roadside hardware, removing some of the vegetation, and widening the shoulders to improve the sight distance around the curve, allowing more room for corrective actions if a driver happens to leave the road.

Technology Transfer

Although highway safety improvement programs may feature the same themes today as they did a decade ago, paradigm shifts in technology have changed the way highway safety professionals collect and analyze safety data. New generations of highway engineers learn about transportation engineering through mechanisms such as Web-based tools and other innovative means.

"With training courses, what we're really trying to do is interject new tools that are useful for State departments of transportation in evaluating safety," says Wilson.

Although much remains to be learned in the science of highway safety, researchers and highway safety practitioners over the years have identified, and continue to identify, design standards, innovative techniques, and new technologies that result in safer highways. With new technology comes novel ways of operating and interpreting traffic systems and the relationships among infrastructure, vehicles, and drivers.

Clark Martin, workforce programs coordinator with FHWA's Office of Professional Development, points to the need for a "more seamless and efficient transfer of knowledge and technical information, from research to training to application." Training is the primary mechanism for technology transfer—communicating best practices and safety improvements to the people in the field—to those responsible for analyzing problems and ultimately implementing the solutions.


Workforce Development

Continued safety research and the development of safety training are necessary not only to share the latest knowledge concerning highway safety with the transportation community, but also to build and maintain an energetic and qualified workforce of safety professionals.

According to Clark Martin, 40 to 50 percent of the transportation workforce will be eligible to retire in the next 5 to 15 years. "As more and more people are approaching retirement, the industry is having an increasingly difficult time finding qualified people to fill those jobs," he says.

Martin asserts that the transportation industry needs to realign its focus on a "cradle-to-grave approach" to developing and maintaining a knowledgeable workforce of transportation professionals. "We need to reach back and be more proactive in working with the education community to develop interest and prepare young people for careers in transportation," he says. "In high school, if students want to be engineers, they need to get not only the math and sciences, but they should develop multidisciplinary skills as well, like strong communication skills, an understanding of financial concepts, and an appreciation for environmental issues."

Some schools mention safety in their courses, but safety training in general is limited in scope and extent. Many people coming into the safety field are learning on the job or learning from mentors, which can be a much slower and less systematic approach than training courses.

Photo of Joe Toole speaking

At the workshop, Joe Toole, associate administrator for professional development with FHWA's National Highway Institute, explained the priorities for safety workforce planning and training.

Herbert Hoover Called Attention to Highway Safety

The need for education of highway safety professionals is well documented in U.S. legislative history. As early as the 1920s, politicians and engineers alike recognized the value of upfront investments in safety education, training, and professional development as necessary to achieving long-term safety and economic benefits for society.

Not long after the first automobiles rolled off the assembly line, public officials recognized the need for establishing guidelines to ensure driver and pedestrian safety. In 1926, in what would become a significant milestone in the history of highway safety, President Calvin Coolidge's administration sponsored the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety. Coolidge's Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, appointed a committee to assemble a report on the conference. (For more information, see: http://dotlibrary.specialcollection.net/.)

The diverse groups that cooperated and jointly financed the conference included organizations with backgrounds in research, commerce, and multimodal transportation. Many of these groups still exist today as prominent stakeholders in transportation safety, including the American Automobile Association, the American Electric Railway Association, the National Association of Taxicab Owners, the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, the National Bureau of Casualty and Surety Underwriters, the National Research Council, the National Safety Council, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This list illustrates both the interdisciplinary nature and enduring importance of transportation safety.

Hoover's committee recommended that the Report of the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety be divided into eight categories, one of which was education. The language of the 1926 conference report mirrors today's vision of highway safety education: "Education in safety and crash prevention should be incorporated in the curricula of elementary schools, both public and private... boy and girl scouts ... engineering schools and universities, including training of traffic engineers."

The report further explains the importance of developing a uniform driver's safety manual and providing safety training to the public. An idea so fundamental and rudimentary to our daily lives—such as safety—does not change much over time.

Safety Became a National Priority

Three decades later, in the late 1950s, road crashes were more frequent as more cars traveled the roads. To alleviate the number of highway injuries and fatalities, safety became a key component of highway research and development.

In 1966, the Eno Foundation led a symposium, sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering, to analyze safety as a national responsibility. The symposium highlighted that in 1965, Americans traveled 1.5 trillion passenger-miles and that the transportation industry represented $120 billion of the country's gross national product.

On September 9, 1966, as a result of the information revealed at the symposium, the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 89-564, the Highway Safety Act of 1966—landmark legislation that documented 18 highway safety standards, many of which continue to influence DOT programs today. FHWA focuses on three highway-related standards, recently combined under the heading of "Roadway Safety," which include the identification and surveillance of crash locations; highway design, construction, and maintenance; and traffic engineering services. NHTSA manages the standards involving vehicle-driver interactions, including alcohol and drug use; police traffic services; occupant protection; traffic records; emergency medical services; motorcycles; and bikes and pedestrians.

"The 1966 Act is really the heart of DOT's safety program," says Rudy Umbs, chief highway safety engineer with FHWA's Office of Safety. "Even though times have changed, the essence is still there; it's just more concentrated and focused."

Attacking the Problem at Its Source

Ensuring safe, smooth, and timely movement of people and goods from place to place involves balancing three complex elements: highways, vehicles, and drivers. Highway safety professionals focus on highways—designing, modifying, operating, and maintaining safe roadways. Among the greatest challenges for improving highway safety are identifying locations that could become future crash sites and ensuring that the best possible decisions are made when implementing appropriate safety treatments. Legislation in the 1970s began to focus on the value of analyzing crash sites and sharing that data as a means of improving highway safety.

Congress passed the Highway Safety Act of 1973, establishing funds for specific highway projects and highlighting the essence of safety training. The law laid out the purposes and goals of funding training programs, explaining that training—in the form of technical assistance for projects such as training striping crews, improving roadway geometrics, providing clear roadsides, retiming traffic signals, installing guardrails, and providing skid-resistant pavement—is necessary to carrying out transportation programs at the Federal, State, and local levels.

Since the Highway Safety Act of 1973, programs have been in place to reduce the number and severity of highway-related crashes by addressing locations in need of improvement. Two existing Federal-aid programs that address the infrastructure-related aspects of highway safety are the Highway-Rail Grade Crossings and Hazard Elimination

programs. The requirements for the Highway-Rail Grade Crossings and Hazard Elimination programs are defined in Sections 130 and 152, respectively, of Title 23, United States Code. In addition to these Federal-aid safety programs, many States are investing additional State funds to improve highway safety.

In 1979, FHWA established the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) to serve as the basis for selecting locations for safety improvements. FHWA developed a user's manual and training course to facilitate the implementation of HSIP. As introduced in the Federal-Aid Highway Program Manual, the purpose of HSIP is to help establish policy for the development and implementation of a comprehensive highway safety program in each State. Specifically, the HSIP directed each State to implement a highway safety improvement program with the following components:

  • Planning—collecting and maintaining data, identifying hazardous locations and elements, conducting engineering studies, and establishing project priorities
  • Implementation—scheduling and implementing projects
  • Evaluation—determining the effectiveness of safety improvements

The HSIP also encouraged States to select the most appropriate procedures based on an agency's particular goals, resources, and highway system. The Code of Federal Regulations (Title 23, Part 924) defines the current HSIP requirements.

In general, the highway safety improvement programs implemented by States have addressed locations with known crash problems. States identified candidate locations using measurement data like crash frequency and rate (per unit of traffic volume or vehicle miles traveled), crash severity, or a combination of these measures. After compiling a listing of high-crash locations, States then determined which locations should be studied in more detail for possible remedial treatment.

Each of these programs—the Highway-Rail Grade Crossings Program, the Hazard Elimination Program, and the HSIP—played important roles in addressing high-incident crash locations. Although selecting sites for safety improvement from a listing of high-crash locations will continue to play a role in Federal and State highway safety agendas, FHWA now is casting the net more broadly to identify other opportunities to improve highway safety.

Adopted in 1991, the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR 23, Title 23, Part 260) on Education and Training Programs sets up scholarships for educational and training purposes. Over the past decade, continued efforts to improve the safety of the Nation's highways have led to the development and offering of new techniques and training courses.

Safety Software in the Works

In the past, safety engineers assessing a crash site had to sort through separate pieces of information in laborious detail while compiling, comparing, and analyzing crash data to arrive at appropriate safety countermeasures. Analytical tools that improve mobility or forecast air quality emissions have been available for years, but modeling tools specifically designed to address safety issues are scarce. Recognizing the need for improved analytical tools for safety professionals, and capitalizing on available computer modeling technologies, FHWA is developing the Comprehensive Highway Safety Improvement Model (CHSIM)a software tool that will help safety engineers identify site-specific safety improvements.

CHSIM will include six specific computerized analytical tools that correspond to the main steps in highway safety management for site-specific and corridor improvements:

  • Network screening to identify potential crash sites
  • Diagnosis of safety problems at specific sites
  • Selection of appropriate countermeasures
  • Economic appraisal of candidate improvements
  • Priority rankings for candidate improvements
  • Before-after evaluations of safety improvement projects

FHWA recently awarded a 5-year contract for the development of the CHSIM software, as well as an associated training course. Designed to guide the decision—making process, the final software product will be available for use by States and communities, thereby helping maximize the improvement in highway safety.

A new training course that builds on existing HSIP courses is also under development. The course, Fundamentals of Highway Safety Improvement, will provide safety personnel with an overview of the concepts guiding development of the new CHSIM software, laying the foundation for highway safety improvement methodologies and providing definitions and introductions to the underlying processes. Participants will learn how to select and rank locations, collect data, and conduct various data analyses. They will learn to rank the relationships between crashes in a way that will help inform decisions on how to reduce the probability of similar crashes happening again.

FHWA hopes to release the course by late 2002. With the new course and safety software, FHWA is recognizing that the long-term societal costs due to highway injuries, fatalities, and property damage can escalate unless sound training and research practices provide the opportunity to innovate and communicate new ideas in safety.


Kristine Lee Leiphart is a program analyst with DOT's Office of the Secretary. Previously, while with the FHWA Office of Safety, she worked on safety professional development, training, and workforce planning topics for the transportation community. Prior to joining DOT, Leiphart was a policy analyst specializing in logistics and national security at the RAND Corporation, a private, nonprofit think-tank that helps to improve public policy through research and analysis.

Kenneth Epstein is a highway engineer with FHWA's Office of Safety Programs. Prior to joining FHWA in 1991, he held several positions with the District of Columbia Department of Public Works. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering from the University of Maryland and is a registered engineer in the District of Columbia.

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