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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66 · No. 6 > Proactive Approach to Safety Planning

May/June 2003
Vol. 66 · No. 6

Proactive Approach to Safety Planning

by Roger Petzold

The annual death toll on our Nation's highways remains unchanged, but safety-conscious planning may be the answer.

Roadway safety is a serious public health issue for our Nation. In 2001, more than 3 million injuries and 42,116 fatalities occurred on U.S. roads. In all, the six million crashes of that year resulted in an estimated financial loss of $230 billion to America.

Bicyclist ride in bike lane on roadway (Source: Michael Ronkin, Oregon DOT)
Safety-conscious planning helps ensure that bicyclist like this one can share the road safely with motorists.

Although the fatalities rate is the lowest in history at 1.5 deaths per 100 million miles of travel (down from 1.9 fatalities in 1991), the annual death toll tragically has remained virtually unchanged (40,000-42,000) since 1991. "First and foremost, transportation safety is the highest priority for the Department of Transportation and the Bush Administration," says Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta. "Overall, we have made great progress on safety, but we know we can do more."

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is dedicated to saving lives and believes that safety-conscious planning is the starting place and a key component to a safer transportation system for a strong America.

"The numbers speak for themselves," says FHWA Administrator Mary E. Peters. "More than 42,000 Americans are killed each year in motor vehicle crashes, and three million are injured. To put that into perspective, that is more than two-thirds of the population of Flagstaff, in my home State of Arizona."

What to Do?

An effective and efficient transportation system was a top priority in this country for much of the 20th century. Transportation planning historically has focused on capacity and congestion with some attention to operation and management. Over the past decade, safety has gained visibility in transportation circles.

A stated goal of the U.S. Department of Transportation is to promote "public health and safety by working toward the elimination of transportation-related deaths, injuries, and property damage." Implementation of the safety goal, however, is a challenging task.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) requires State departments of transportation (DOTs) and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to incorporate safety and security as priorities in their respective transportation planning processes and activities. Prior to TEA-21, safety was sometimes a prominent factor in project development and design, but this legislation specifically calls for safety consciousness in a more comprehensive, systemwide, multimodal context.

What Is SCP?

Safety-conscious planning (SCP) is a relatively new concept in the U.S. lexicon. Safety-planning initiatives traditionally have been reactive in nature. The tendency in traditional planning is to identify a problem primarily through analysis of accident data and implement an appropriate enforcement, education, or engineering countermeasure. SCP instead implies a proactive approach aimed at preventing accidents and unsafe conditions.

Because safety-conscious planning is a relatively new concept, specific guidelines are not yet available and opinions about the range of activities that safety-planning initiatives should address vary. One option is including road safety considerations as a key decisionmaking parameter in evaluating projects and expenditures. Most MPOs use safety as a rating factor in project scoring for their Transportation Improvement Plans. FHWA published a report, Considering Safety in the Transportation Planning Process, that provides information, techniques, and best practices to consider safety more effectively, both in the long- and short-term transportation planning process.

Another possible activity is programming safety improvements so that they address roadway hotspots—collision-prone locations. Virtually all State DOTs and MPOs perform this function on a routine basis. They identify and prioritize high-crash locations and implement improvements as quickly as resources can be found. This practice is one of the funding options in FHWA's hazard elimination program. Although many jurisdictions conduct hotspot analyses, there are few examples of using the resulting information to program transportation funds directly.

A third activity is introducing multidisciplinary programs that integrate engineering, enforcement, and education activities. FHWA has sponsored a series of forums that bring together nontraditional partners from diverse backgrounds to discuss safety-conscious planning. FHWA also is creating informational materials to educate decisionmakers, transportation professionals, and the public, and is partnering with the Federal Transit Administration to develop a 2-day course for transportation professionals.

A fourth option is thinking in a multimodal way by considering issues such as the needs of transit passengers, truck drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Sometimes improving safety in one mode decreases safety for another mode. For example, widening a road through an urban area could lead to higher speeds, making it more dangerous for pedestrians and elderly people to cross quickly.

A final option is establishing inherently safe transportation networks. This is the ultimate vision for safety-conscious planning.

Safety-conscious planning should address all of these issues. Various efforts are underway to identify the data requirements, analysis tools, programming options, and management strategies needed. Strategies remain elusive, however, and evaluation to determine their effectiveness is all but nonexistent.

What Is Needed for Implementation?

Requirements for implementing safety-conscious planning include processes to ensure that safety is an explicit planning priority in all projects. Currently, there are specific criteria and guidelines or regulations for addressing air quality, congestion management, and other issues in the DOT and MPO planning processes. Safety considerations should receive the same level of attention as a matter of practice, with or without a mandate.

multistep approach to safety-conscious planning shown in this figure, starting with the original vision, goals, performance measures, data analysis, alternative improvement strategies, implementation, evaluation, and transportation improvement plan
The Transportation Research Board developed the multistep approach to safety-conscious planning shown in this figure, starting with the original vision, goals, performance measures, data analysis, alternative improvement strategies, implementation, evaluation, and transportation improvement plan. Adapted from Meyer, M. and E. Miller, Urban Transportation Planning: A Decision-Oriented Approach, 2nd ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Another requirement is practitioners trained in state-of-the-art safety techniques. Although DOT planners may be knowledgeable or have access to safety information, often MPOs do not. Furthermore, DOT and MPO safety expertise tends to be facilities-based and lack a more comprehensive understanding of disciplines such as education and enforcement.

Other requirements include state-of-the-art safety planning tools. For example, a National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) research project currently is collecting analytical tools and examining opportunities for making them widely available to transportation planners. Once this has been accomplished, dissemination and training tools will be needed to ensure their use.

Still other resources for implementing safety-conscious planning are informed and committed leaders and decisionmakers, public support, nontraditional partnerships, and communication and outreach. According to Paul Tait, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), "Adiele Nwankwo, a SEMCOG employee at the time, was the safety champion who brought focused solutions to improve traffic safety to everyone's attention and pointed out the low-cost, high-benefit outcomes from improvements that reduce traffic crashes and their consequences." Tait, other staff such as Transportation Director Carmine Palumbo, and community partners provided leadership and ongoing support for the effort.

Tourist loading on buses at Zion National Park in Utah (Source: American Public Transportation Association)
Zion National Park in Utah uses a bus transit system to convey these tourist safely.

Finally, planning resources and research are also essential. In many cases, improving the skills and tools necessary for safety integration will require additional planning resources. Alternatives are under consideration in a number of jurisdictions. At this point, a template for securing the needed tools and resources has not been developed.

Pedestrians crossing roadway in crosswalk in front of a truck (Source: Michael Ronkin, Oregon DOT)
One goal of safety-conscious planning is to ensure that pedestrians and motorists like these can share the road safely.

Noteworthy Practices

Safety-conscious planning is growing in importance as States and communities realize the benefits in human and economic terms. The model for full implementation of SCP moves forward as planners grow in their understanding of the data and analytic tools. Some examples of noteworthy projects and exemplary progress illustrate a few of the many phases of safety planning.

Iowa: Building Better Safety Data Support and Training

The Center for Transportation Research and Education (CTRE) at Iowa State University is a central provider of safety data, training, and other services related to safety-conscious planning. The center is the university's coordinating and management arm for transportation-related research, education, and technology transfer. Safety is an integral part of CTRE's research activities related to traffic engineering and safety, and the center regularly partners with the Iowa DOT's Office of Traffic and Safety, the Iowa Safety Management System, and the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau to develop safety-related resources.

Other safety-related resources developed by the center include the Iowa Traffic Safety Data Service, a software program that provides safety data on request to Iowa's local agencies in geographic information system (GIS) form; Traffic Enforcement Liaison, which provides enforcement-related safety training around the State; and Iowa's award-winning Safety Circuit Rider program, part of the State's Local Technical Assistance Program administered by CTRE. The Circuit Rider travels the State providing safety workshops to local governments, offers suggestions for improving roadway safety, and provides programs on safety management systems, excavation safety, pavement markings, county engineers' safety policies, and other topics.

Michigan: Building an Effective Statewide Safety Management System

Following a statewide forum on safety-conscious planning, Michigan safety partners decided to implement the forum concept at the local or regional level. Despite an economic crunch and literally hundreds of people retiring from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the first regional safety forum is scheduled to take place in Bay City, MI, in May or June 2003. MDOT is planning the agenda jointly with the State's Office of Highway Safety Planning.

In addition, MPOs in the region, with the exception of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), which already has safety analysis capability, have expressed interest in a regionalized safety profile. MDOT and the Office of Highway Safety Planning will use a profile of the Bay City region to plan the focus of the first regional safety forum.

On a statewide basis, the Governor's Traffic Safety Advisory Commission has determined the need for a research and evaluation team that will oversee quantitative analysis and evaluation of traffic-related data on behalf of the commission. The commission will use this analysis to determine priority areas and establish an overall highway safety goal for the State. The team, which will be formed in January 2003, will begin its work using the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' (AASHTO) Highway Safety Strategic Plan as a template.

Oregon: An MPO-DOT Safety Partnership

The Rogue Valley Council of Governments (RVCOG) in southern Oregon has received grant funding through the Oregon Department of Transportation's (ODOT) Traffic Safety Division to complete a prioritization and selection process for traffic safety projects. RVCOG is an association of local governments that provides a forum for coordinated problem solving and regional planning for Jackson and Josephine counties. RVCOG's mission is "to be a catalyst to promote quality of life, effective and efficient services, and leadership in regional communication, cooperation, planning, and action in Southern Oregon."

During fiscal year 2002, the Rogue Valley MPO updated several elements of its 2001-2023 regional transportation plan, including the traffic safety element. The update included an analysis of accidents within the MPO's boundary, using geographic information systems (GIS) and ODOT accident data to complete the analysis. The MPO staff was unable to convert the ODOT electronic accident data into a usable ArcView/Info GIS format. The analysis therefore was limited to showing the general area of accident locations, as opposed to specific milepost or intersection accident locations.

Without the specific GIS intersection and milepost accident information, the MPO is unable to identify accidents efficiently and plan safety projects effectively. The MPO is using the RVCOG's grant funds to develop and test a GIS file that pinpoints accident locations using State data. In addition, the MPO is using the grant funds to develop prioritization criteria for traffic safety projects and a project selection process.

What Are We Doing Now?

Several initiatives are underway to further understanding and implementation of SCP. In 2000, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) formed a multimodal SCP working group that meets regularly and reviews progress, suggests further action steps, and serves as a clearinghouse for SCP research and activities.

Center island in roadway, someone crossing at crosswalk (Source: Michael Ronkin, Oregon DOT)
Center islands like this one increase pedestrian safety.

Participating are TRB, FHWA (the safety and planning office), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Federal Transit Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Governors Highway Safety Association, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, the National Association of Regional Councils, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the American Public Transportation Association, and the American Automobile Association.

The SCP working group published a report, Considering Safety in the Transportation Planning Process, in 2002. This document is designed to assist planners and other professionals by providing a comprehensive review of current SCP information and in-depth analyses of a few programs that demonstrate good practices.

The SCP working group has facilitated SCP forums in Arizona, California, Florida, Iowa, the Kansas City region, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas. A full report on each of the State forums is available on the Internet at www.fhwa.dot.gov/planning/scp. The meetings were designed to accomplish the goals of bringing together key players in the transportation planning and safety communities, introducing them to one another and establishing a dialogue, and generating action plans within the States to begin the implementation process.

The forums have produced varying results. Generally, the meetings have facilitated communication and collaboration. In many cases, key players worked collaboratively for the first time. In addition, the forums began working toward reaching consensus on a definition of the challenges to building safety into planning processes. Each of the events also resulted in agreement on doable short- and long-range activities. Finally, the forums resulted in commitments to establish formal partnerships for action.

The Maryland forum, held in May 2001, generated a commitment for ongoing meetings. "This forum is the first of its kind in Maryland, but hopefully not the last," says Neil Pederson of the Maryland DOT. "In fact, I'm going to insist that the forum is just the start of an ongoing process."

Current plans call for additional support of forums in fiscal year 2003 and perhaps beyond. Other activities include projects by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program to develop safety planning tools and implementation systems, training, and a number of outreach activities, including presentations at national association meetings and other venues.

"America's roadway system is among the safest in the world," says FHWA Administrator Mary E. Peters. "FHWA has a multifaceted approach to safety issues, and safety-conscious planning is an important part of this effort. SCP brings together experts from the planning and safety fields to ensure that safety strategies are pursued early in the planning process."

Safety-conscious planning is a positive step toward making America's roads safer.


Roger Petzold is the team leader of the safety, multistate and border planning team in FHWA's Office of Interstate and Border Planning.

More information on current initiatives and safety-conscious planning issues is available on the FHWA Web site at www.fhwa.dot.gov/planning/scp.

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