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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 69 · No. 1 > Safety Scans—A Successful Two-Way Street

Jul/Aug 2005
Vol. 69 · No. 1

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-05-006

Safety Scans—A Successful Two-Way Street

by John Baxter, Michael L. Halladay, and Elizabeth Alicandri

International tours glean best technologies and practices from around the globe, and U.S. departments of transportation apply those lessons and offer their own successes.

Roadway safety is an international challenge, with an estimated 1.2 million people killed and 20 to 50 million injured in road crashes every year. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank cite these statistics in a 2004 joint publication titled, World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention, which lists road traffic injuries as the “ninth leading contributor to the global burden of disease and injury” today. By 2020, WHO expects them to be the third leading contributor.

A cable median guardrail kept this truck from crossing over the median on a Florida highway, possibly preventing a fatal head-on crash.
A cable median guardrail kept this truck from crossing over the median on a Florida highway, possibly preventing a fatal head-on crash.

Of this number, the United States experiences approximately 42,000 fatalities and millions of injuries on roads each year. The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) indicates that progress on improving highway safety has taken place since the 1960s when fatality rates were more than three times what they are today. Despite the gains, the United States has much work ahead, and it plans to address safety challenges through aggressive programs in the four “E’s” of safety—engineering, enforcement, education, and emergency medical services.

Like other Nations that look to the United States and one another for solutions and information sharing, the United States also benefits from technology and information exchanges with transportation safety neighbors around the world.

In this bar chart of highway fatality rates, the vertical axis is Fatalities Per 1 Billion Veh Km Travel, and the horizontal axis is State/Country. Twenty-seven countries and U.S. States are listed with their fatality rates: Massachusetts, 5.39; Connecticut, 6.45; New York, 7.15; United Kingdom, 7.5; Maryland, 7.67; Norway, 8.3; Utah, 8.35; Switzerland, 8.4; Georgia, 8.79; Australia, 9.0; Denmark, 9.2; USA, 9.4; Pennsylvania, 9.66; North Carolina, 10.6; Ireland, 10.9; Missouri, 11.08; Germany, 11.1; Kentucky, 12.21; Austria, 12.3; Japan, 12.7, Arkansas, 13.3; Arizona, 13.6; France, 13.6; South Carolina, 13.92; Iceland, 16.0 plus; Belgium, 16.3; Slovenia, 21.7.
Using exposure rates—the most common measure used in the United States—the rankings of these 27 countries and U.S. States range from a low of 5.39 for Massachusetts to a high of 21.7 for Slovenia.

 

In this bar chart of highway fatality rates by population, the vertical axis is ‘Fatalities Per 100,000 Population,’ and the horizontal axis is ‘State/Country.’ Twenty-seven countries and U.S. States are listed with their fatalities by population: United Kingdom, 6.1; Norway, 6.9; Switzerland, 7.1; Massachusetts, 7.14; Japan, 7.5; New York, 7.94; Germany, 8.3; Denmark, 8.6; Australia, 8.8; Connecticut, 9.31; Ireland, 9.6; Iceland, 10.1; Austria, 11.9; Maryland, 12.07; France, 12.9; Pennsylvania, 13.08; Slovenia, 13.7; Utah, 14.16; Belgium, 14.5; USA, 14.9; Georgia, 17.79; North Carolina, 18.93; Arizona, 20.47; Missouri, 21.3; Kentucky, 22.36; Arkansas, 23.62; and South Carolina, 25.64.
When countries and U.S. States are ranked by fatalities per 100,000 population—the most common measure used in other parts of the world—the rankings differ considerably.

Vehicles for Sharing Knowledge

One method for information exchange is the International Technology Scanning Program, funded by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Scan tours visit “best-in-class” (benchmarking term for a best practice in a specific category) countries to explore and evaluate innovative technologies and practices that could significantly benefit U.S. highway transportation systems.

The scanning program enables the United States to adapt and implement advanced technologies more efficiently by re-creating advances already developed by other countries. FHWA and AASHTO have sponsored a number of scan tours related to safety, visiting countries with the most impressive highway safety records. (See “Selected Safety-Related Scan Tours”.)

Another avenue for learning from the best-in-class is through the involvement of U.S. transportation professionals in the road safety technical committee of the World Road Association (also known as PIARC), a nonpolitical and nonprofit international association with headquarters in Paris, France, devoted to the analysis and discussion of the full spectrum of road transport issues. One aspect of the World Road Association’s mission is the identification, development, and dissemination of best practices, including cost- effective investments in road safety, improved road design, and intelligent vehicles and infrastructure technologies that improve road safety.

Safety Prioritization At Top Levels

Through recent scans (particularly those within the past 3 years) and World Road Association activities, the international community offers the United States a number of overarching lessons on highway safety. Five of these lessons are highlighted here. Applications of these lessons by U.S. States can help improve the Nation’s highway safety record. In fact, for each of the five lessons, examples are available that show how the lessons already are being applied in the United States. And the learning process is a two-way street. U.S. successes can be applied internationally to improve highway safety in other countries as well.

This meeting on safety information systems took place in the Netherlands. Presentations and open discussions with foreign officials on a wide range of topics explored safety programs and implementation issues.
This meeting on safety information systems took place in the Netherlands. Presentations and open discussions with foreign officials on a wide range of topics explored safety programs and implementation issues.

The first of the five lessons is that a top-down commitment (or national priority) by a country’s leaders is essential to making a difference in reducing fatalities. Terecia Wilson, director of safety at the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) says, “Top-down leadership commitment is vital because it provides clear direction to the agencies responsible for highway safety, establishes national goals for fatality reduction, ensures accountability for meeting those goals, and gives the necessary support for allocation of resources.”

An example of top-down safety prioritization is Sweden’s “Vision Zero,” a law passed by the Swedish Parliament, which establishes zero traffic fatalities as a national goal. Vision Zero is based on the philosophy that highway fatalities are morally unacceptable. The new law implies that roadway users will not be killed or seriously injured in a crash if they wear seatbelts, follow road rules such as speed limits, and avoid driving under the influence of alcohol.

In another European example of high-level prioritization, the current president of France made road safety one of the three major national initiatives for his 5-year term. The result? A 25-percent decrease in traffic fatalities from 5,731 killed in 2002 to 4,220 killed in 2003. Thus, fatalities decreased by 1,511 lives, concurrent with a national intolerance for poor driver behavior, supported politically and judicially with aggressive enforcement strategies.

In the United States, Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta has set an aggressive national goal of reducing fatalities to a rate of 1.0 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by 2008. A number of key national organizations support this goal. National conferences such as the Safety Leadership Forum in June 2003, held in Lexington, KY, help solidify leadership support. AASHTO hosted a followup forum, Safety Leadership Forum II, at its May 2005 meeting. These forums facilitated discussion of the safety issue and established commitments to continue advancing highway safety nationally and at State and local levels.

In another top-down leadership effort to support increased leadership commitments in safety, AASHTO, with support from FHWA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), hosted a 2-day peer exchange in Overland Park, KS, in October 2004. The sponsors organized the meeting to facilitate the development and implementation of effective statewide highway safety plans. Representatives from 47 States attended.

In a similar effort, the AASHTO Lead States are assembling plans for deploying effective safety countermeasures in the emphasis areas identified in AASHTO’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan (NCHRP Project 17-18). According to AASHTO, the goal for the Lead States initiative is for “State transportation agencies that have gained early and extensive experience with the technologies developed or evaluated under the Strategic Highway Research Program to share their practical, real-world experiences with others.” The concept behind the program is to set a leadership model in technology deployment.

Selected Safety-Related Scan Tours
Pedestrian and Bicyclist Safety in England, Germany, and the Netherlands
1994
Highway Safety Management Practices in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand
1995
Speed Management and Enforcement Technology: Europe and Australia
1996
Road Safety Audits: Japan, Australia, and New Zealand
1997
Innovative Traffic Control Technology and Practice in Europe
1999
Methods and Procedures to Reduce Motorist Delays in European Work Zones
2000
Commercial Vehicle Safety, Technology, and Practice in Europe
2000
European Road Lighting Technologies
2001
Signalized Intersection Safety in Europe
2002
Managing and Organizing Comprehensive Highway Safety in Europe
2002
Traffic Information Systems in Europe and Australia
2004
Survey of Roadway Human Factors and Behavioral Safety Research and Implementation Practices
2004
Safety Applications of ITS Systems
2005
Transportation Performance Measures in Australia, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand
2005

Safe Systems Approach

The second overarching lesson from the international community is the value of a “safe systems” approach, which involves identifying the causal factors of crashes so that specific strategies can be implemented in response. The World Report on Road Traffic Injury Prevention discusses a system in the following manner:

The traditional view in road safety has been that road crashes are usually the sole responsibility of individual road users despite the fact that many other factors beyond their control may have come into play, such as the poor design of roads or vehicles. But human error does not always lead to disastrous consequences. Human behavior is governed not only by the individual’s knowledge and skills, but also by the environment in which the behavior takes place. Indirect influences, such as the design and layout of the road, the nature of the vehicle, and traffic laws and their enforcement affect behavior in important ways. For this reason, the use of information and publicity on their own is generally unsuccessful in reducing road traffic collisions.

Understanding and managing the interactions between the driver, vehicle, and road is the underlying concept behind this approach, along with a philosophy of shared responsibility for system failures. In Sweden, for example, Vision Zero provides a multidimensional framework and multidisciplinary solutions focused on vehicle crashworthiness, occupant restraints and their use, and vehicle speed.

Sweden has been investigating all fatal crashes individually since 1997. Analysts divide fatal crashes into three groups, defined by which component of the roadway environment failed. The first group is the “beyond system” group in which the driver violated road rules (for example, speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol). Suggested countermeasures include aggressive enforcement and, in some cases, limiting access to the system.

The second group is “excessive risk,” where the roadway user was killed because of a lack of personal protection (for example, seatbelts). Countermeasures include strict laws and education programs.

The third group is “excessive force,” where a combination of speed, roadway infrastructure, and vehicle safety capabilities contributed to the fatality. Countermeasures include improving roadway infrastructure and vehicle crashworthiness, and reducing the energy released in a crash through physical separation of opposing traffic. For example, Sweden’s 2+1 roadway design provides three lanes of traffic with alternating passing lanes and physical separation between opposing traffic.

International Cultural Differences
Although the United States and the scan tour countries often differ culturally, the differences do not prevent U.S. transportation professionals from learning new safety technologies and best practices developed by those countries. Partly because of cultural differences, however, these countries may be more successful than the United States in implementing certain behavioral practices, such as seatbelt usage or prevention of impaired driving. Expectations about implementation may need to be adjusted because some countries can adopt practices at a national level that can be implemented only at a State or local level in the United States. Similarly, the political context in the United States may inhibit adoption of certain technologies that are more readily accepted in other countries, such as speed enforcement cameras. Nevertheless, exploration of technologies and practices provides an opportunity to advance necessary discussions of their potential adoption or adaptation in the United States.

Given the concept of shared responsibility, suggested solutions are often multidisciplinary, such as driver education on seatbelt use combined with roadside design improvements. These types of solutions require comprehensive coordination and communication among safety agencies.

In the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates selected highway crashes that highlight safety issues of national significance. Most selected investigations involve commercial vehicles, but in some cases private vehicle crashes are investigated as well. All causal factors are analyzed, and recommendations for industry improvement are developed using an overall system approach. FHWA and other organizations work closely with NTSB to resolve resulting recommendations by making systematic improvements to safety through modified policies, training, and technological advances.

Comprehensive planning also helps ensure a safe systems approach to safety by involving all major stakeholders of safety in the planning process, and by considering safety from the vehicle, driver, and user perspectives. A number of States are advancing comprehensive safety plans.

The Collaborative Process

The third overarching lesson from the international community is the importance of a collaborative process that reaches out to all agencies. In the Netherlands, the Dutch government determined the goals and contents of its national transportation plan through a process called the “Polder” model, a negotiation that builds grassroots buy-in. This approach requires thorough and close consultation among all highway agencies to reach agreement on a national plan. This process of all-inclusive agreement and coordination often takes longer than other approaches but results in alignment of plans from the national to local levels.

Another example of collaboration is the more than 500 multidisciplinary, locally based “accident commissions” in Germany that are responsible for a high level of safety coordination and communication. Institutionalized by the German government in 1971, the local accident commissions include police officers, representatives of roadway authorities, and others in the communities who have knowledge of roadway crashes. The commissions are required to investigate and suggest solutions for high-risk locations within their jurisdictions. They review crash data to identify safety black spots, which are locations with five similar crashes in a year or locations with three fatalities or five serious injuries in the past 3 years. An ongoing training program provides commission members with new ideas and techniques.

Australia also has a strong local government outreach, providing grants to local agencies for safety initiatives. The State of Victoria’s VicRoads Saferoads initiative is a partnership between various agencies that support municipalities in identifying safety issues and implementing safety programs to address identified issues. Community Road Safety Councils serve as key advocates and educators for road safety practices in local communities and create strong linkages between police and local government. A typical council has 10 to 20 members, representing Government, police, businesses, community members, and civic groups. The councils are eligible to receive funding to deliver road safety programs.

In a U.S. example of the collaborative process, more than 150 safety partners developed Missouri’s comprehensive highway safety plan, Missouri’s Blueprint for Safer Roadways. The Missouri Department of Transportation’s (MoDOT) chief engineer, Kevin Keith, notes that highway safety “is an area that touches a lot of people,” including representatives of the four E’s of highway safety. Engineering, enforcement, education, and emergency services are multijurisdictional and therefore are the domain of multiple agencies. “No one person, group, or agency can control the outcome,” he notes, “so you have to get the right folks committed to doing something.”

Missouri had been working to develop a coalition of safety partners for years, and this effort was accelerated when MoDOT volunteered for AASHTO’s Lead States initiative to develop a comprehensive highway safety plan. “We used that as a way to refocus our safety coalition,” says Keith. The coalition agreed on a safety goal of reducing the State’s fatalities to less than 1,000 by 2008, which will represent nearly a 20-percent reduction from the 2003 number of 1,232. “This gives all these agencies with separate missions, budgets, and constituencies a common focus so they can use their existing resources to help us achieve that goal.”

A coalition of Minnesota agencies recently completed development of a comprehensive highway safety plan, which explicitly recognizes the need to provide local agencies with funding, training, and technical assistance to improve highway safety in the State. In fact, the plan includes a “safety toolbox” that is specifically designed to provide local agencies with guidance in developing, prioritizing, and implementing safety projects. The toolbox includes both general and specific information on how localities can improve safety, ranging from descriptions of the initiatives in the comprehensive highway safety plan to specific contact information regarding crash data and formulas for determining crash rates. To provide a means to implement the strategies in the safety toolbox, Minnesota developed a two-tiered funding plan that provides for central solicitation, selection, and guidance for decisionmaking in the local planning process. In both cases, the local road authorities are partners and their safety projects are eligible for funding.

In addition to top-level commitment to enforcement efforts, a number of European countries actively manage speeds based on traffic flow and lane occupancy, as shown in this installation in the Netherlands.
In addition to top-level commitment to enforcement efforts, a number of European countries actively manage speeds based on traffic flow and lane occupancy, as shown in this installation in the Netherlands.

Business Approach

As the fourth lesson from the international community, countries like the United Kingdom base their highway safety strategies on a business approach, which supports strategies that are data driven and results oriented. The United Kingdom implemented an approach that emphasizes comprehensive safety improvements along extended sections of highway or within specific areas rather than just at black spots. This approach is data driven from an overall system perspective. Corridor-level safety measures include high-performance marking and signing, new and more consistently applied speed limits from village to village, splitter islands (islands placed to slow traffic speed, to direct vehicles into the circle at the correct angle, or to prevent vehicle movement against traffic), speed cameras, flashing fiber-optic signs, higher friction and colored pavements, guardrails, passing lanes, and improved bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

The United Kingdom also uses performance-based financial incentives to local governments to encourage safety results. Here is how it works: The national government provides all funds in a block amount to the local governments, and each locality prioritizes the spending of funds as it sees fit. The amount provided is based on a locality’s measured performance. Financial incentives are available for meeting a number of goals, including safety or transportation performance. As reported in the FHWA scan trip report, Managing and Organizing Comprehensive Highway Safety in Europe, about three-quarters of the local governments in the United Kingdom have chosen safety as one of their performance measures for obtaining the financial incentives.

EuroRAP is mapping road networks based on the fatal and serious crash rates per billion vehicle kilometers. So far, EuroRAP has produced risk maps for Britain (the one pictured here shows trunk and primary roads), Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Catalonia, and Sweden.

EuroRAP is mapping road networks based on the fatal and serious crash rates per billion vehicle kilometers. So far, EuroRAP has produced risk maps for Britain (the one pictured here shows trunk and primary roads), Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Catalonia, and Sweden.


This product includes mapping data licensed from Ordnance Survey with the permission of the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. © Crown copyright 2005. All rights reserved. License number 399221. © Automobile Association Developments Limited 2005. Source: The AA Motoring Trust; EuroRAP AISBL.

In the United States, the comprehensive highway safety plans being developed or that already have been developed in many States are based on a business model approach that requires sound data, risk assessment, and quantifiable results, enabling safety to compete against other transportation priorities for resources. Fiscal accountability—keeping one’s word to the public—requires that agencies responsible for improving safety spend funds wisely, as with any business.

Another example of the performance-driven business approach emerged in 2004 when the Maine Department of Transportation (MaineDOT) recognized that it needed a change in its organizational structure to elevate safety throughout the department. At the direction of MaineDOT’s Chief Engineer John Dority, members of the executive staff and bureau directors were nominated to participate in a review of the department’s existing safety programs. The Safety Office Review Team (SORT) was empowered to conduct interviews, gather necessary information, and develop an implementation plan that would achieve the objective of raising awareness of the State’s transportation safety challenges. SORT interviewed key players in all program areas, and, as a result of the team’s efforts, an organizational restructuring has occurred that places a greater emphasis on safety. Today, the MaineDOT leadership incorporates a performance-based, resource-balanced business model into its daily decisionmaking process. This internal reorganization is currently being augmented by the formation of a multiagency cabinet-level safety steering committee that includes representation from FHWA and NHTSA. This committee will ensure that safety priorities receive the highest consideration and that the Governor and State Legislature are kept aware of the needs and results of the State’s transportation safety initiative.

Innovative Concepts

The fifth lesson from the international community is that there are many new, innovative concepts that offer opportunities for broader application in the United States. One such innovation is a systematic road assessment program called EuroRAP, standing for the European Road Assessment Programme. Motoring organizations and road authorities throughout Europe developed EuroRAP to evaluate the safety of roads. The road assessment is based on a two-part protocol: color-coded risk maps based on a synthesis of available crash statistics and a star rating system based on a safety review of design features, both of which are designed to describe the relative safety risk by road segment.

EuroRAP safety ratings inform motorists of the level of safety on the roads they travel. The ratings also provide road engineers and planners with vital benchmarking information that will demonstrate how well, or poorly, their roads are performing compared with others, both in their own and other countries. A number of countries have generated initial risk maps, including Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden, and several others have pilot programs underway, including Australia. Work to expand and refine the technical protocols continues.

This innovation has a counterpart in the United States, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s (AAA FTS) United States Road Safety Assessment Program (USRAP), a pilot program to test the technological and political feasibility of instituting a road assessment program in North America. The pilot will examine various technological barriers, such as whether appropriate data are available, and, if available, how those data should be aggregated. The pilot test also will examine political barriers and liability concerns. Sufficient assessment will be completed in a test jurisdiction to demonstrate not only the feasibility but also the utility of such a program.

“By providing the public with a simple, graphic measure of risk that is based on good science,” says J. Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of AAA FTS, “I believe the pilot can energize a national debate on road safety. This type of dialogue should help to create public support for more funding to upgrade data systems and lead to additional road safety improvements.”

A second innovation is the “self-explaining roadway,” or “self-organizing roadway,” which refers to roads with characteristics that clearly show drivers what is expected of them. The objective is not simply to reduce speeds, but rather to provide a roadway planned and designed in such a way that motorists achieve and maintain an appropriate speed. Instead of enforcement by police, the emphasis is on controlling speed through the design and characteristics of the roadway.

In the United States, some traffic calming techniques apply the self-explaining philosophy and potentially can be used more broadly. Roundabouts are self-explaining features as the road geometry requires the driver to select a lower speed to maneuver.

The Future of Safety

In the United States, many States have adopted the national goal of reducing highway fatalities to 1.0 per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled by 2008 and are exploring opportunities to contribute to achieving that goal. Many States also have completed a safety planning process, and many others have adopted safety innovations such as cable guardrails for medians, road safety audits, roundabouts, and intelligent transportation systems.

“To further that progress, FHWA will continue to support collaboration with our international colleagues,” says FHWA Associate Administrator for Policy Charles D. Nottingham, “We need to work together and learn from one another to reduce the death toll on all roadways in the United States and abroad.”


John Baxter is director of the FHWA Office of Safety Design in Washington, DC. He leads a multidisciplinary staff in developing and implementing strategies and policies that affect highway safety performance. Before joining the Office of Safety, he was the FHWA division administrator in Indiana. Baxter holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in transportation engineering from Clemson University in South Carolina. He is a registered professional engineer in Utah.

Michael L. Halladay is director of the FHWA Office of Safety Program Integration and Delivery, part of the leadership team for safety. He leads a staff that advances highway safety strategic planning, research, technology programs, training and education, safety data, outreach, and other topics. Halladay has a civil engineering degree from Duke University and is a registered professional engineer in Virginia.

Elizabeth Alicandri is director of the FHWA Office of Safety Programs. She leads a staff that develops and administers multidisciplinary programs for the safe operations of roadways with an emphasis on coordinating with partners and stakeholders in engineering, enforcement, and education. Before joining the headquarters Office of Safety in 2000, she spent more than 15 years working in and managing the Human Factors Laboratory in FHWA’s Office of Research, Development, and Technology. She has a B.S. in psychology from Georgetown University and an M.S. in transportation engineering from the University of Maryland.

For more information on transportation safety, see http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov. Cable median guardrail is an FHWA priority, market-ready technology, and innovation. See www.fhwa.dot.gov/crt/index.cfm for more information.

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