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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66 · No. 4 > Helping Research Pay Off

January/February 2003
Vol. 66 · No. 4

Helping Research Pay Off

by Michael F. Trentacoste

The highway community is intensifying its efforts to create a nationally coordinated R&T program for road safety.

Statistics show that highway safety has improved significantly over the last two decades. Fatalities have decreased by 19 percent during a period when the number of drivers increased by 47 percent and the level of travel (as measured in vehicle miles of travel) increased 76 percent. However admirable these statistics are, highway-related fatalities and injuries (more than 42,000 and 3 million annually, respectively) remain at an unacceptably high level. Furthermore, future trends, such as the growing number of older drivers, will increase the challenge even more.

Driver approaching a school zone
Decreasing fatalities and injuiries for pedestrians and motorists, such as this driver approaching a school zone, requires greater coordination of research and technology programs.

In order to be successful in improving road safety, the entire highway safety community must improve the coordination of research, development, and technology programs. Coordination is necessary to leverage the limited funding available for research and development, to accommodate the full spectrum of multidimensional driver-vehicle-roadway interactions, and to improve the likelihood of successful technology implementations and adoption of best practices.

In December 1997, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) adopted a Strategic Highway Safety Plan. "[For] long-term savings in lives and serious injuries," says Tony Kane, director of engineering and technical services for AASHTO, "we must expand our knowledge through more expenditures on coordinated research among all Federal, State, and local governmental agencies; the private sector; and the universities. We can't afford to act on our own—we must work as a team."

AASHTO Safety Plan

In l998, the State departments of transportation (DOTs) approved AASHTO's Strategic Highway Safety Plan. Development of the plan was a milestone for bringing together the many diverse experts (roadway, vehicle, driver behavior, emergency medical services) involved in improving highway safety. Work on the plan significantly increased the level of communication and coordination among members of the highway safety community, particularly those conducting research and

development.

Mindful of the need to put the plan into action quickly and aggressively, the AASHTO Standing Committee on Highway Traffic Safety developed and received approval for an initial implementation plan through the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), a joint program of FHWA, AASHTO, and the Transportation Research Board (TRB). The implementation project became NCHRP Project 17-18. One of the first actions of the multidisciplinary technical panel that was assembled by TRB to guide the project was to inform others of the project's status and direction through creation of a Web site on implementation of the safety plan and development of a marketing program to better identify the needs of the highway safety community. See http://safetyplan.tamu.edu.

NCHRP 17-18 also facilitated initiation of a major effort to prioritize and develop a series of guidance documents to assist State and local transportation agencies in implementing effective safety strategies. Six guidebooks were developed to help State and local agencies reduce highway crashes related to aggressive driving, drivers with suspended or revoked licenses, run-off-road crashes, head-on crashes, crashes into trees, and unsignalized intersections. A number of States are piloting the use of the draft guidebooks on crash countermeasures through deployment and demonstration of best practices. Twelve additional guidebooks are under development.

The Pooled Fund Initiative

Implementation of the AASHTO safety plan was further advanced in 2000 when FHWA placed a call to the States for a pooled fund initiative. Eleven States, the District of Columbia, and FHWA contributed funds to develop guidebooks in seven additional crash-related areas: curves, older drivers, pedestrians, signalized intersections, trucks, unbelted drivers and occupants, and utility poles.

To ensure a coordinated and consistent approach, the pooled funds were transferred to TRB for inclusion with NCHRP Project 17-18. FHWA also contacted the universities involved with the University Transportation Center (UTC) Program to inform them of the AASHTO Strategic Highway Safety Plan and solicit interest in conducting research in the gap areas identified in the plan.

Additional Opportunities For Coordination

The AASHTO Strategic Highway Safety Plan significantly influenced the selection of FHWA's highway safety focus areas. Crashes involving roadway departures, pedestrians and bicyclists, speed, and intersections became the agency's safety priorities for program initiatives and funding. The knowledge and technology gaps identified in the AASHTO Plan were explicitly considered for inclusion in the FHWA highway safety research and technology roadmaps.

During this same time period, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also was seeking comment on its proposed safety research and development program. This public comment opportunity, as well as NHTSA's and FHWA's participation on development of the AASHTO safety plan, the AASHTO Standing Committee on Highway Traffic Safety, and the NCHRP 17-18 technical panel, improved the opportunity for communication and coordination between R&T initiatives at the Federal level and those at the State level, as well as with AASHTO and TRB.

Chart showing that Older Population by Age between 1900-2050 will rise significantly by 2050 Source: U.S. Bureau of Census
The increasing number of older drivers, as illustrated in this graph, will raise safety challenges in the future.

Partnership Forum

Notwithstanding this progress, future improvements in highway safety require significantly higher levels of coordination. The National Highway Research and Technology Partnership, an initiative begun by AASHTO, TRB, and FWHA, and involving more than 170 organizations, presented an excellent case for increased emphasis and funding for safety R&T in a 2002 report, Highway Research and Technology: The Need for Greater Investment. The report states, "The call for greater investment in research is unprecedented in terms of scope and outreach and comes from the owners and operators of the highways and numerous highway-related industries" [italics added].

A safety working group within a forum convened by the National Highway R&T Partnership identified specific highway safety R&T gaps and needs, grouping them into eight safety themes. The level of uniformity and consistency shown in this listing of safety research needs reflected the historical coordination and collaboration of all the parties involved in the forum.

The safety working group and safety community as a whole, however, strongly expressed the need for further coordination and organization in conducting safety R&T. The group identified the following potential outcomes from increased formal collaboration among Federal, State, university, and private research organizations: more focused and integrated research efforts; increased opportunities for developing an integrated approach to the crash problem; more resources targeted to areas that have the greatest potential for improving safety; greater input from end users; increased development of implementation strategies throughout the research process; improved efficiency, speed, and effectiveness in implementation of safety innovations; and ability to track safety research initiatives of the various public and private entities.

Research Space (Niche)

Basic research: "fundamental" long-term research aimed at achieving breakthroughs in the understanding of various phenomena.

Advanced research: exploration into basic research results in order to develop their utilization in achieving highway objectives through nontraditional means.

"Traditional" research: research at the Federal level aimed at significant research gaps not addressed in other R&T programs and research of emerging issues with national implications.

Applied research: specific problems addressed through application of known methods and technologies.

Technology innovation: development of innovative technologies and methods to solve specific problems through nontraditional means.

National Highway Safety R&T Program

Action to create a climate for improved coordination resulted in a new task added to NCHRP Project 17-18, namely, to create a more cooperative national highway safety R&T program. The task consisted of three stages: (1) formulating annual and long-term research budgets and programs, (2) conducting the actual research and creating new knowledge, and (3) implementing research results.

Under NCHRP Project 17-18, TRB sponsored a workshop on September 17 and 18, 2002, for State and Federal agencies, TRB, academia, associations, foundations, and industry to draft a national highway safety R&T program. The participants began to identify a continuous means for any organization that is interested in conducting highway safety R&T to access a central database to (1) review the national program, (2) identify existing research work, (3) avoid duplication of highway safety research, and (4) increase the opportunity to partner efforts and leverage limited funds.

Follow-up activities from the workshop will include designation of a safety research stakeholder oversight committee for the coordination process; determination of a group to provide organizational support to the committee and the process; identification of other parties that should be represented on the committee and in the process; selection of additional technical and expert input to refine and focus the research and development areas; and, of course, identification of the financial support needed to implement the above process and activities.

The output from the pilot process would include a National Highway RD&T Plan for Infrastructure and Operations Aspects of Highway Safety. Other outputs expected over the next year will be renewed effort by all highway researchers to summarize completed and current research for inclusion in TRB's Transportation Research Information System (TRIS) and Research in Progress (RIP), respectively; establishment of a mechanism for parties to review past and current research and partner on new projects that are contained in the national research plan; and creation of a group that could be available to conduct voluntary quality peer review of research projects (proposed, underway, or concluded) with special emphasis on research methodology and data and statistical analysis. This last item was widely endorsed by the participants due to the importance of statistically valid results from highway safety research and the lack of adequate training for researchers in the engineering and highway safety profession. Finally, researchers will be encouraged to consider and identify implementation strategies to move useful products, technologies, and information effectively to practitioners in the field.

Level of Risk and Returns from Research Programs

As individual research programs are developed, decisions are made regarding the level of risk and potential return desired from the research. Once these decisions are made, the objectives of the research project are selected, followed by the methodology to be used. The risk-return relationship of federally funded research provides a framework for coordination across the projects. This research "space" or niche can vary from projects aimed at solving limited knowledge and technology problems (applied research) all the way to investigating the science underlying different phenomena (basic research).

The State-based R&T programs—State Planning and Research (SP&R) and NCHRP—attempt to solve problems in the applied research space. The FHWA Surface Transportation Research (STR) Program typically involves higher-risk and longer-term research with opportunity for higher returns, especially regarding emerging issues or national research gaps. The Intelligent Transportation Systems/Intelligent Vehicle Initiative (ITS/IVI) program is aimed at still higher-risk, higher-payoff research.

The safety element of the Future Strategic Highway Research Program (FSHRP) is focused on even higher-risk, longer-term research on crash causation. FSHRP draws on concepts and research methodologies resulting from traditional research, such as NHTSA's pilot studies on speed management being conducted in Atlanta and FHWA's advanced research into data visualization. FSHRP potentially could extend those concepts and methodologies to a scope not possible in the traditional programs. Finally, the Innovations Deserving Exploratory Analysis Program (IDEA) and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs are aimed at development of near-term innovations, mainly from individual entrepreneurs.

In order to achieve more efficient and coordinated programs, the projects selected within this research space would follow the needs and gaps presented in the agenda of the National R&T Partnership Forum. For example, highway safety research would be aimed at the eight themes and emphasis areas selected by the partnership's safety working group. The program managers would survey existing or planned research related to areas they are considering; coordinate with and build on those efforts; and ensure that their new research, results, and recommendations are made known and available to others. The program managers would ensure that their research is not duplicative of other efforts and not outside their research niche (space).

Federally Funded Programs
FHWA/STR: Surface Transportation Research Program as provided by Title V of TEA-21 (FHWA).
FSHRP: Future Strategic Highway Research Program (States/AASHTO/TRB)
IDEA: Innovations Deserving Exploratory Analysis Program (TRB)
ITS/IVI: Intelligent Transportation Systems/Intelligent Vehicle Initiative (USDOT/FHWA/NHTSA)
NCHRP: National Cooperative Highway Research Program

(AASHTO/TRB)

SBIR: Small Business Innovation Research Program (USDOT/FHWA)
SP&R: State Planning and Research programs (States)

Research 'Space'

Photo of some of the plans and research reports
Some of the plans and research reports that served as sources for a National Coordinated Highway Safety R&T Program.

Other Calls for R&T Coordination

TRB's Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC) emphasized the need for greater coordination of R&T in its report, The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology (Special Report 261). The RTCC recommended that the "FHWA's R&T program should be more responsive to and influenced by the major stakeholders in highway innovation." The RTCC viewed the National R&T Partnership Forum as a noteworthy first step toward obtaining broad stakeholder input. See www.nap.edu/catalog/10222.html.

The RTCC recommendation for greater stakeholder input was reinforced recently by the General Accounting Office (GAO) report, Highway Research, Systematic Selection and Evaluation Processes Needed for Research Program. FHWA, in response to these recommendations and its internal organizational assessment, has adopted the role of "Innovators for a Better Future." FHWA is committed to obtaining greater partner and stakeholder involvement as a way to raise the bar on R&T and innovation deployment and in the process significantly increase communication, coordination, and cooperation among R&T initiatives.

A Look to the Future

There are no "silver bullets" to improving highway safety. Our success will need to come from movement toward a coordinated national highway safety research and technology program. The program needs to increase cooperation in identifying the right targets to pursue, selecting the right research space, building on prior research results, coordinating and communicating our initiatives with other researchers and practitioners, and actively planning for the transfer of new technologies and research results.

The reauthorization of the highway legislation, Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), and follow-up initiatives, provide a timely opportunity for improved program coordination across federally funded research and technology initiatives.

Together, we are making and can make a difference.

R&T Safety Themes and Emphasis Areas
Theme Emphasis Area
1. Safety Management and Data Systems • Recommendations for implementing research and evaluation results

• Case studies and guidelines for safety management practices and principles

• Collection, management, and analysis of crash data

• Crash causation research

2. Driver Competency • Novice drivers

• Countermeasures for managing inattention

• Safe mobility for older drivers

• Learning opportunities and resources to improve driver skills

3. High-Risk Drivers • Impaired driving by targeted drivers (e.g., high blood-alcohol content)

• Use of restraints for children and adults

• Automated enforcement equipment

• Drivers without licenses or with revoked licenses

• Aggressive driving

• Understanding of risk-taking characteristics

4. Light-Duty Vehicle Safety • Crash avoidance capabilities—vehicle handling and stability, braking and traction control, conspicuity, lighting, and signaling

• Human-machine interface in light-duty vehicles

• Restraint system designs and passenger compartment integrity

• Vehicle compatibility

• Biomechanics evaluation protocols and crash dummies

• Technology for monitoring driver fitness

• Child safety

• Performance of vehicles

5. Highway Infrastructure and Operations

• Human factor safety guidelines

• Consequences of leaving the road

• Intersection safety

• Intelligent infrastructure initiative

• Work zones

• Inclusion of safety in the highway design process

6. Vulnerable Road Users • Crash and use data regarding walking, bicycling, and motorcycling

• Safer road sharing for pedestrians and bicyclists

• Off-road facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists

• Visibility and conspicuity

• Educational materials

7. Heavy Truck and Bus Safety • Truck and bus crashes and their precursors

• Driver errors

• Heavy vehicle safety equipment and technologies

• Enforcement of commercial motor carrier safety regulations

• High-risk carriers and drivers

• Commercial driver training and performance management

• Driver alertness and fatigue management

• Driver physical and medical fitness

• Highway infrastructure and operations

8. Post-crash Management

• Emergency medical systems interventions for motor vehicle crash victims

• Trauma system effectiveness

• Interventions and technologies

• Intelligent vehicle systems

• Simulated patient training using emerging electronic technology

Source: Highway Research and Technology: The Need for Greater Investment. (Table 2) A Report of the National Highway R&T Partnership, April 2002.


Michael F. Trentacoste has been the director of FHWA's Office of Safety Research and Development since 1998. Previously he was director of FHWA's Office of Highway Safety. Prior to that position, he was with the Office of Motor Carriers and directed research, rulemaking, field operations, and policy and planning functions. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Manhattan College and an M.S. in transportation from the Transportation Center at Northwestern University.

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