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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 68 · No. 5 > The Many Faces of Safety

Mar/Apr 2005
Vol. 68 · No. 5

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-05-004

The Many Faces of Safety

by John Baxter

Taking a leadership role and championing safe roadways can be the decisive strategy to reduce highway fatalities successfully.

More than 42,000 fatalities occur on American highways every year. Those deaths are not just numbers or statistics.

"Every highway fatality is someone's daughter, son, friend, or coworker. These are real people and someone's loved ones," says Commissioner John F. "Jack" Lettiere of the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT).

There are many faces in the safety equation: the victims, the survivors...and the leaders who will step up to champion safety. If the United States is to meet the national safety goal of reducing the fatality rate to 1.0 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by 2008, Lettiere says, "You've got to take it personally when someone dies on our highways."

The goal of safety leadership is to help prevent crashes like this one in Missouri.
The goal of safety leadership is to help prevent crashes like this one in Missouri.

To be effective in achieving any safety goal, leadership in the State departments of transportation (DOTs) and the State division offices of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), along with other agencies at the Federal, State, and local levels, must take personal ownership and responsibility for safety improvements.

Leadership is defined in many ways, but at the heart of any definition is the ability of an individual to influence others to take action. At the national level, safety is one of FHWA's top priorities, and safety leadership can play a vital role in making Americans safe on the Nation's highways. Systematic improvements to the road network can, over time, result in thousands of lives saved.

FHWA supports a number of national safety programs, including reducing crashes at intersections, designing roads for safety, stopping red light running, improving safety in work zones, adding rumble strips, improving highway-rail grade crossings, and increasing safety for pedestrians, bicyclists, and older drivers. International safety scan tours sponsored by FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) are another major resource for fostering leadership by State and local officials. (See "Leadership at the International Level".)

"No matter how much is done nationally, however, State and local efforts can and must make a real difference in reducing highway deaths and serious injuries," says FHWA Associate Administrator for Safety A. George Ostensen. "There are many officials at the State and local levels who are stepping up and improving safety for the traveling public through their leadership."

NJDOT Commissioner Jack Lettiere officially opened the reconstructed Doremus Avenue Bridge in Newark on December 8, 2003. Among other benefits, the four-lane bridge is expected to enhance safety.
NJDOT Commissioner Jack Lettiere officially opened the reconstructed Doremus Avenue Bridge in Newark on December 8, 2003. Among other benefits, the four-lane bridge is expected to enhance safety.

Across the country, State DOT commissioners and executive directors, and FHWA division administrators in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey, South Carolina, and elsewhere offer examples of safety leadership. With these leaders pressing for safety innovations and comprehensive highway safety plans in their States, their work is beginning to show results. Their approaches provide insights into the critical roles of leaders in making highways safer.

Leadership at the International Level

In June 2004, the Missouri Department of Transportation's (MoDOT) Kevin Keith participated in a European scan tour on safety. He came away with the conviction that the highest level of support is essential for safety, one of the scan team's recommendations. The President of France, for example, made road safety one of the main priorities in his 5-year term, according to Keith. Through strategies like strong enforcement of fines for not wearing seatbelts, cell phone usage while driving, D.U.I., and the use of automated camera ticketing for speeding, 1,511 fewer French fatalities occurred in 2003 than in 2002, when 5,731 people died in highway crashes. Improvements in highway safety are so important that the President of France supports automated speed enforcement. Cameras photograph speeding French motorists, and they receive a ticket in the mail. "I can make safety more important to MoDOT," says Keith, "but it's got to be elevated above that."

What Makes a Leader?

"A leader is someone who can provide a vision, enthusiasm, and support to get people to accomplish things," says New Jersey Commissioner Lettiere. If current practice is not reducing highway fatalities, then a new vision is needed. Leadership often involves persuading an agency's staff, decisionmakers, or stakeholders to move in a direction that may be different from where they were going in the past.

In New Jersey, the State's first comprehensive highway safety plan resulted when the director of highway safety, Patricia Ott, and Deputy Commissioner Jim Snyder challenged the traditional belief that little can be done about highway safety because it is a matter of human behavior. "They blazed a trail with the first piece of highway safety legislation that the State legislature had ever passed," says Lettiere, referring to New Jersey's Safety First law, "established our Safe Corridors program, and designated highways where fines are doubled, with the revenue going back to local police who enforce the law."

Persuading transportation professionals to take a new direction takes courage. "A good leader has to be willing to put herself or himself on the line, take some prudent risks and be willing to challenge current thinking about things," says Lettiere, whose agency has 16,000 employees and a $3 billion budget. He continues, "In a big bureaucracy, it's easy to become complacent and not be willing to make mistakes. But if you take risks, people will be willing to jump on your bandwagon."

Kevin Keith, chief engineer at the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), agrees that personal courage is needed when it comes to changing the status quo. "There's a lot of pressure in our business to spend money on projects that are popular," he says, "and some safety measures that you need to do are not flashy. So you have to have the courage to say that things like cable guardrail and wider shoulders are important, and we're going to do them first. You have to have the courage to go there regardless of what others might think."

In addition to courage, safety leaders need to be decisive, says South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) Executive Director Elizabeth S. Mabry. "You should be more cooperative than dictatorial," she says, "but sometimes there comes a point when you have to take the bull by the horns and just make a decision." She adds that safety leaders have to "get out in the field and talk with employees at all levels at all different kinds of jobs. You have to be hands-on and in the trenches, but not in the weeds."

In a leadership training program that Director Mabry started 8 years ago, she looks for candidates who use common sense, are problem solvers, are concerned about others, are team players, and who do not allow internal rules or guidelines to get in the way of doing something good. "Sometimes it's too easy to have a rule book that says when this occurs, you do this or that," she says. "But life is not that simple." She pauses and then adds, "And a broad understanding of all the issues facing SCDOT coupled with a good sense of humor carry people a long way." (See "Leadership Training in South Carolina: The STTAR Program".)

Leadership Training In South Carolina: The STTAR Program

Under South Carolina's Strategic Training for Transportation Area Representatives (STTAR) program, SCDOT selects 12 to 15 transportation professionals each year to train and prepare for future senior leadership positions. Candidates are interviewed by the agency's and FHWA's top leadership, including Director Mabry, who started the program. Interview questions probe candidates' leadership abilities, character, and flexibility.

Successful candidates undertake a year of rigorous training, participating 4 days a month in various exercises, such as field work with a maintenance crew. A similar program, called Strategic Training and Education Program for the 21st Century (STEP 21), was established to train and prepare employees for midmanagement positions.

"These two programs, which together have a total of about 300 graduates to date, are a diverse group of men and women who are multidisciplinary, multigeographical, and multioccupational," says Mabry. "They all learn from each other, and [our] leadership learns from them as well."

 

State transportation safety engineer Tom Welch was instrumental in the placement of rumble strips on this two-lane roadway in Iowa. Rumble strips also will be place on other two-lane roads in the State.
State transportation safety engineer Tom Welch was instrumental in the placement of rumble strips on this two-lane roadway in Iowa. Rumble strips also will be place on other two-lane roads in the State.

Leadership requires other personal qualities as well. Florida State Safety Engineer Ed Rice lists energy, enthusiasm, "passion without seeming like a zealot since that tends to alienate people," persistence, and "that overworked phrase, ‘out-of-the-box' forward thinking." He also believes that no one can "do safety" without being fully committed. "I work hard at it," he says. "I often spend hours looking at the data and trying to figure out what's causing some of our problems. The more information and knowledge of the subject you have, the better you can sell your program."

And, like South Carolina's Mabry, Rice says that a leader has to be visible. "If you're a leader and never show up anywhere, you're essentially an invisible leader, and people may not know your position or commitment to the subject." Instead, he believes in what has been called "management by walking around," or, in the case of promoting safety, management by being visible and by being heard.

Resiliency is another essential, he says. No one should expect everything to go smoothly in any job, but it is important to avoid becoming discouraged. You have to expect frustration, but he says, "Someone once said that in measuring success it's not how high you reach, but how often you get back up after being knocked down."

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) calls these personal traits "leadership competencies." In addition to vision, decisiveness, and resiliency, OPM lists political savvy, creativity and innovation, entrepreneurship, flexibility, and, above all, integrity and honesty.

Conflict management and team building are other elements of the OPM leadership model. A leader has to create an environment in which staff can thrive. Safety leaders like Iowa DOT State transportation safety engineer Tom Welch are highly thought of by their staff. Dr. Joyce Emery, who helped put together an application for the AASHTO President's Award that Welch recently won, says, "In doing that, I discovered that Tom is as appreciated and popular with his peers within Iowa and around the Nation as he is with his own staff. We feel respected, valued, and trusted to be experts in our respective areas. He plays to our strengths, rewards us according to our motivations, and validates that which we cherish most about ourselves. Like the director of an orchestra, he helps each musician achieve [his/her] personal best while blending all the instruments into a harmonious whole."

A strong leader also has technical credibility, according to OPM, and understands the value of providing decisionmakers and stakeholders with accurate data on a project's disadvantages as well as its advantages. "Sometimes people downplay the negative aspects," says Welch, "but your bosses will read that real quickly and won't have trust in you."

Iowa is one of the few States that did not have a paved shoulder policy for highways apart from Iowa's interstate system. Nearly 40 percent of Iowa's highway fatalities involved single vehicle drift-off-road crashes, so Welch provided data from research indicating that gravel shoulders contributed to many of those fatalities. After 20 years of persistence—another trait of leaders—Welch can point to a major policy change, as the Iowa DOT now has a 1.2-meter (4-foot) paved shoulder policy for most of the State's two-lane highways.

South Carolina's Six Steps to Successful Leadership

  • Establish trust
  • Provide motivation to change the status quo
  • Develop a plan with partners
  • Build upon early successes
  • Expand through innovation
  • Sustain through accountability

 

"And Iowa is now one of the few States in the country that will be placing shoulder rumble strips on two-lane highways," Welch adds. His team worked closely with Iowa DOT's bicycle constituents and obtained their informed consent by educating them about the significant safety benefits. A leader has to be flexible and open to compromises, Welch notes. "Engineers are trained to do a calculation and then say, ‘Here's the decision.' As engineers, we have an inherent bias to try and sell one decision. Instead, show that you are flexible."

Welch illustrates another trait shared by all safety leaders. He is passionate about highway safety. In his case, the traffic fatality statistics were personalized in a horrific way. "My wife and I got one of those knocks on the door and were told to come down to a crash scene where our son was broadsided by someone driving through a stop sign," he recounts. "While he [my son] was in surgery, a member of the surgery team came out and suggested we call our minister. I thought that my next call would be a funeral home. My son barely survived, and my passion is wanting no other parent to get that knock on the door."

A Leadership Model

All of these individuals are themselves strong role models for safety leadership. Defining what really constitutes leadership is difficult, but one pair of safety leaders has articulated a leadership "model"--a process for influencing others to take action on highway safety. In South Carolina, the FHWA Division Administrator Bob Lee, cowinner of FHWA's 2004 safety award, and SCDOT Executive Director Mabry offer a six-step process. (See "South Carolina's Six Steps to Successful Leadership".) At the heart of this influence model is the safety champion—a leader with the desire to see positive change and the vision and daily commitment to see the change through to fruition. The six steps support the real key to success—execution of plans through assertive action by leaders.

Some of the six steps are similar to components of the leadership models offered by experts who target the business world or government, such as Robert D. Behn of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in his Managing for Performance and Results Series. Another example is Major General Perry M. Smith's (retired from the U.S. Air Force) article, "Learning to Lead," published in the Marine Corps Gazette. Both offer a set of leadership practices and tips for ratcheting up performance.

Under any model, influence does not happen overnight. Nor is it something that a person can exercise at will. It is not something to be tried once and then abandoned. Instead, it is an ongoing challenge. In addition to all the other personal traits of leaders—enthusiasm, courage, energy, decisiveness, and so on—a strong leader has the ability to establish trust, which is the first stage in South Carolina's six-step leadership model.

'When someone writes in and says they hit a cable and it saved them,' says South Carolina Director Mabry, 'we send them a T-shirt [like the one shown here] that says, 'Save by the cable.' Any time we have a success in safety, we publicize it. Then the public can equate saving lives to funding'
"When someone writes in and says they hit a cable and it saved them," says South Carolina Director Mabry, "we send them a T-shirt [like the one shown here] that says, "Save by the cable." Any time we have a success in safety, we publicize it. Then the public can equate saving lives to funding"

Establish Trust

In Growing Leaders for Public Service, a report for The IBM Center for The Business of Government, Ray Blunt wrote, ". . . to effectively build trust, there needs to be both mutual honesty and mutual vulnerability laced with deep respect for confidences." Building trust requires cultivating this kind of honest relationship over time.

The first step in establishing trust is listening. When FHWA Division Administrator Bob Callan, the other cowinner of FHWA's 2004 safety award, arrived in Georgia in 2002, he began by listening to his staff about the many issues facing the State. Together with the Georgia Department of Transportation's (GDOT) Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl, who has become his agency's champion for safety, Callan knew that a systematic approach would be needed. The outcome of their partnership is the creation of Georgia's Safety Action Plan and a commitment of $40 million to fund the plan.

Commissioner Linnenkohl adds that another essential to establishing trust is consistency and a willingness to stand behind your convictions. GDOT currently is removing trees and other obstacles from roadside recovery zones for drift-off-road drivers to regain control of their vehicles. Georgia's clearing initiative for recovery zones has created a storm of negative comments in the media and e-mails from people who want the right-of-way as an aesthetic buffer. Says Linnenkohl, "You have to be strong and stay with what you know is right, based on good information and analysis."

Other essentials to establishing trust and a long-term partnership include being persistent, being cooperative, and keeping one's word. In South Carolina, for example, SCDOT's Mabry says, "We're very proud of our partnership with FHWA. Bob Lee and I work extremely closely on every issue."

Like Callan in Georgia, when Lee arrived in South Carolina, he took the time to understand the safety issue in context. Lee then worked to change the culture in his division to make safety everyone's priority and responsibility. After that, he turned to establishing a relationship with the SCDOT senior leadership and mid-level management based on delivering results as a team. Discussions between SCDOT and FHWA facilitated a debate on the political and financial impacts of safety, along with the technical issues, at all levels of both organizations.

Mabry and Lee's first step was to look at the statistics and build an understanding of the issues. In the years preceding Lee's arrival, annual fatalities in South Carolina had increased from 807 in 1992 to 1001 in 1998. Something had to be done.

Provide Motivation To Change

Dissatisfaction drives the desire to understand an issue, assume ownership of it, and take actions to resolve it. In the mid-1940s, American social psychologist Kurt Lewin observed in Frontiers in Group Dynamics that successful change requires "unfreezing" the present level of performance. People must have a reason for doing something different.

Mabry and Lee knew that the public would need to be dissatisfied with the current trends and numbers if change was to occur. As the two leaders worked to better comprehend the State's overall safety issues, three events occurred that generated a sense of urgency and public dissatisfaction with the status quo.

In 1999, fatalities on the State's urban interstate sections began to rise significantly. Another event involved litigation against SCDOT concerning superelevation on the interstates, which highlighted the vulnerability of SCDOT for roadway safety from a business perspective. The third involved a terrible interstate median crossover crash that killed nine people, including six from one family.

South Carolina took a three-pronged approach to address its safety challenges. First, SCDOT lowered the speed limit on urban segments of the interstate. Another low-cost strategy was a 1-year program to restrict truck traffic on six-lane highways to the outside two lanes. When fatalities went down, SCDOT made both of those changes permanent.

The third strategy was the installation of median barriers in an attempt to reduce crossover crashes. "The engineers were seriously concerned about reducing crashes and were studying the potential causes [in addition to] the effectiveness of using median barriers. When the State Infrastructure Bank made funding possible, Bob Lee and I announced that we would immediately begin placing barriers," says Mabry. "Not only were the barriers installed, but when the barriers are hit, we get them put back within a matter of hours. We've had well over 6,000 hits on the median barriers in the past 3 years." South Carolina has installed more than 644 kilometers (400 miles) of median cable guardrail, which Mabry and Lee believe has significantly reduced this type of fatal crash. The statewide program in place today, which has become a centerpiece of the South Carolina safety program, would not have been possible to implement without the grant from the State Infrastructure Bank and the leadership of Mabry and Lee.

As a result of the safety efforts of Mabry and Lee, South Carolina's long-term negative fatality trend is beginning to reverse. Total fatalities have dropped each year since 2000, resulting in more than 300 lives saved thus far.

This Strategic Highway Safety Plan was developed by the Florida Department of Transportation.
This Strategic Highway Safety Plan was developed by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Develop a Plan With Partners

The third step in the leadership model is developing a comprehensive highway safety plan for safety improvements. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), which recently developed such a plan, is decentralized with seven districts throughout the State. Each district has a safety engineer who does not report to the central Safety Office. The districts each receive a percentage of Federal funds for safety improvement and base their programs on high-crash and high-severe crash locations. The FDOT Safety Office also administers the Section 402 Highway Safety program on a statewide basis.

Florida's 2003 fatality rate of 1.71 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled continues a downward trend but still is well above the national rate of 1.48. From 1999 to 2003, Florida had an annual average of 3,051 traffic fatalities (8 deaths per day) and 30,165 serious, or incapacitating, injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that the annual economic impact of traffic crashes in Florida is nearly $14.5 billion.

In 2002 the FDOT executive board, composed of the district and headquarters leadership, charged Florida State Safety Engineer Rice with "doing something different and innovative to improve highway safety in the State," in his words, "and institutionalizing those innovations in the department's programs in the districts for years to come."

Rice's first step was to hold teleconferences with the district safety personnel. He asked them to list what they considered the safety problems in their districts and to develop district safety plans of improvement strategies. "After about a year of inconsistent district actions, I saw we needed more focus to make our efforts more uniform and consistent," he says. "Then I was fortunate enough to participate in a European scan tour sponsored by FHWA and AASHTO in March 2002 to countries with successful safety programs. I saw that a critical component of their programs was having a plan that the partners who would implement it had helped develop."

When he proposed the idea of an FDOT Strategic Highway Safety Plan, the district safety personnel initially resisted "another plan." But Rice persisted and gained their trust until the districts bought into the idea of a single plan with everyone focused on the same areas. The result? The executive board approved FDOT's safety plan in 2002, published it in February 2003, and earmarked $35 million in additional funds for each of State fiscal years 2004/05 and 2005/06 to implement the plan.

The plan used the 1997 AASHTO Strategic Highway Safety Plan, which identifies strategies in 22 major areas for advancing safety, plus existing plans from Iowa, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin as guides. After intense discussion at a July 2002 workshop, the participants identified five key focus areas:

  1. Keep vehicles in the proper travel lane and minimize the consequences of travel lane departures
  2. Increase the safety of intersections
  3. Improve access management and conflict point control along major roadways
  4. Improve information and decision support systems
  5. Increase pedestrian and bicyclist safety

The Florida plan is comprehensive and has three parts. The first section describes the five focus areas and innovative solutions identified by the working group that FDOT will pursue over the next 3 to 5 years. The second part consists of programs and activities that FDOT already implements and will continue to put into practice: safety belt usage, impaired driving countermeasures, work zone safety, truck and motorcycle safety, and others. The third part includes important safety areas for which other agencies have primary responsibility, such as emergency medical services, driver licensing, and schoolbus safety. The agency included these areas to be proactive in assisting other agencies in implementing their safety programs.

The plan is applicable to all public roads, even though FDOT maintains only approximately 19,320 kilometers (12,000 miles) out of 193,200 kilometers (120,000 miles) of public roads in the State. Because roughly 40 percent of the fatalities occur off the State highway system, the plan includes a mandate to work with local engineers and law enforcement to implement the strategies. Initial concerns over this mandate were resolved when FDOT decided that if the State's department of transportation did not do this, who would? "We are the leaders in transportation," says Rice, "so we should have a plan for all public roads."

Although FDOT traditionally has concentrated improvements at high-crash locations, the safety plan focuses on locations where the most serious crashes occur. This proactive focus on serious crashes may mean, as it has in Missouri and South Carolina, installing three-strand cable guardrail on every mile of interstate that has narrow medians. FDOT has an active program of installing median barriers along the Florida Turnpike and several sections of Florida interstates.

In Florida this shift to a focus on fatalities and serious injuries represents a change in philosophy, says Rice. It may be a few years before FDOT can measure the effectiveness of the change, but the safety plan does include a tracking mechanism and an evaluation component, and Rice reports progress to the executive board every 3 months.

A section of cable guardrail did its job by stopping this truck from a crossover crash that might have caused fatalities. This guardrail is the type that FDOT plans to install in some location.
A section of cable guardrail did its job by stopping this truck from a crossover crash that might have caused fatalities. This guardrail is the type that FDOT plans to install in some location.

Florida already has implemented some solutions that are innovative for the State, including countdown signals at pedestrian crosswalks, lights in the pavement on a high-speed ramp in Fort Lauderdale indicating excessive speed, centerline rumble strips for reducing head-on crashes, and shoulder rumble strips on noninterstate highways. The State is funding 54 projects during the first year of the new plan and roughly the same number during the second year. The aim of the first year's projects is an annual reduction of 22 traffic fatalities and 580 serious injuries.

Missouri is another State that recently adopted a comprehensive highway safety plan, Missouri's Blueprint for Safer Roadways (www.savemolives.com). MoDOT's Kevin Keith notes that highway safety "is an area that touches a lot of people," including the four E's of safety: engineering, enforcement, education, and emergency medical services. These four are multijurisdictional, being 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." More than 150 safety partners were involved in developing Missouri's safety plan.

Missouri had been working to develop a safety coalition of partners for years, but little happened until 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."

Build Upon Early Success

The fourth step in the leadership model is the strategy of building upon early success. Safety investments compete with other needs, and unless the funds devoted to safety show tangible short-term results, the decisionmaker is hard pressed to continue support of the program.

For South Carolina, the early payoff areas were reducing interstate speed limits and imposing lane restrictions for trucks. Other successes included using open graded friction course (OGFC) pavement surfaces and lengthening acceleration and deceleration lanes at key interchanges. In the case of OGFC, the public responded favorably to the new pavement surface, particularly during wet weather conditions, as the OGFC substantially reduces spray from trucks and thus improves driver visibility while reducing hydroplaning. In the case of acceleration and deceleration lanes, early success at reducing crashes led to the development of a statewide program known as Interchange Ramp Upgrades for Safer Highways (RUSH). SCDOT based the RUSH program on the premise of making low-cost safety improvements at many interchanges rather than, for the same amount of money, completely upgrading just one interchange, as had been done traditionally. Since RUSH began, 29 interchanges have been improved, and more are under development.

New Jersey's efforts include safety impact teams composed of representatives from NJDOT, FHWA, AAA, NHTSA, mayors, and members of the public. The safety impact teams visit high-fatality sections of highways and review all aspects of the road from the motorist's perspective, determining problems that could lead to a crash, such as signs, striping, sight distance, guardrails, traffic signals, and lighting. The team then issues a report with recommendations, and the goal is to implement the team's recommendations within 3 months of publishing the report. "We've already done four areas and the improvements are in place," says Lettiere. "Our success thus far has been made possible with the strong support of the New Jersey Division of FHWA and especially that of Division Administrator Dennis Merida."

This comprehensive highway safety plan, Missouri's Blueprint for Safer Roadways, was developed by MoDOT.
This comprehensive highway safety plan, Missouri's Blueprint for Safer Roadways, was developed by MoDOT.

 

A Regional Partnership: The Southeast Safety Coalition

A number of southeastern States have become aggressive in advancing safety. Understanding the value of sharing ideas, Georgia recently offered to lead the formation of a Southeast Safety Coalition. GDOT Chief Engineer Paul V. Mullins presented the idea at the most recent meeting of the Southeastern Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (SASHTO). The group would provide a regional view of safety and offer the opportunity for southern States to share common issues and successes.

In late 2004, the group gathered safety information from the southeastern States and an expression of interest to participate in the coalition. Based on the positive responses received, the next steps are being taken to form the partnership and conduct its initial discussions. The coalition is expected to help educate decisionmakers on the safety challenge and on successful strategies.

Expand Through Innovation

Early successes provide the foundation for other safety efforts. In South Carolina, expansion involved the installation of cable guardrail to address crossover median crashes. Another expansion was an innovative financing program to provide $16 million per year for safety improvements on State-owned two-lane roads. Still another was an innovative program that leverages State dollars with local funding on a 50/50 matching ratio.

Likewise, innovation is the hallmark of two safety programs in New Jersey. One is a "#77" motorist call-in program to report aggressive driving. The New Jersey transportation agency is an AASHTO Lead State for the aggressive driving program. Soon NJDOT will implement a geographic information system (GIS) that plots where calls come from so that New Jersey State Police patrols can target their enforcement. New Jersey's research will help determine the program's impact on fatalities and on changing motorists' behavior.

"If you look at the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled," says Lettiere, "New Jersey could be considered one of the safest States, but that's hiding behind statistics, and that's an excuse to do nothing. The sad fact is that we can't continue to have 700 deaths a year."

A motorist in Missouri under goes a standardized field sobriety test, an important strategy for increasing the safety of the Nation's roads.
A motorist in Missouri under goes a standardized field sobriety test, an important strategy for increasing the safety of the Nation's roads.

In another innovation, NJDOT partnered with the New Jersey Motor Truck Association on a share-the-road program for high school students in the northeastern part of the State where the truck volume is high. Student drivers had the opportunity to sit in a big rig themselves and experience how difficult it is for truck drivers to see automobiles.

Over in Iowa, one safety innovation, proposed in that State for the first time, has proved extremely successful, says Welch. This safety strategy changes the pavement markings on four-lane undivided highways in areas with low traffic volumes into one lane in each direction with a center two-way left-turn lane. Research shows that four lanes with no medians have higher crash rates compared to other lane configurations. The standard engineering solution is to widen the four-lane road and add a raised median down the middle. "But restriping that four lane into three lanes can improve highway safety dramatically," says Welch, "and have only minimal impact on traffic flow. That was a difficult concept to sell to other engineers."

Welch had to gather data and "go into my teaching mode," he says, "showing, on a chalkboard, diagrams of four lanes and three lanes, and how many more conflicts there are for vehicles and pedestrians trying to cross a four lane versus a three lane, and why three lanes have almost equivalent carrying capacity." To date, the Iowa DOT has converted about 20 four-lane undivided roadways into three lanes. The State always gives communities the opportunity to reconvert back, but only one town has done so.

"Every time we propose this solution in a new community," says Welch, "we are always met with overwhelming opposition. So it takes a leadership style that engineers typically don't have: bringing in data and being a teacher rather than an engineer." (See "Leadership Training for Iowa County Engineers" below.)

Leadership Training For Iowa County Engineers

Two years ago, the Iowa DOT introduced a free training course in safety engineering to Iowa DOT's district staff. Safety staff members from the central office frequently meet with resistance when they ask district engineers and designers to make changes to a project that is already budgeted. "It's much better to give those district staff and designers as much of that safety knowledge as we can," says Iowa's Tom Welch, "so that they can incorporate low-cost safety improvements into projects on their own."

The course is so successful that Iowa is expanding it to county and city transportation engineers. The new course is titled Incorporating Low-Cost Safety Improvements into Resurfacing Projects. Over the next 20 years, Iowa expects to resurface almost every roadway in the State. When design teams go out to look at those projects, the course should enable them to see opportunities to incorporate safety improvements.

 

NJDOT Commissioner Jack Lettiere (third from left) unveils a new sign on I-78 that promotes the Governor's #77 safety initiative to report unsafe drivers. Pictured with him (from left) are Walter Gural of the NJDOT sign crew. NJDOT sign crew, NJDOT Director of the Division of Highway Traffic Safety Roberto Rodriguez, and Ronald Russo of the NJDOT sign crew.
NJDOT Commissioner Jack Lettiere (third from left) unveils a new sign on I-78 that promotes the Governor's #77 safety initiative to report unsafe drivers. Pictured with him (from left) are Walter Gural of the NJDOT sign crew. NJDOT sign crew, NJDOT Director of the Division of Highway Traffic Safety Roberto Rodriguez, and Ronald Russo of the NJDOT sign crew.

Sustain Accountability With the Public

Sustaining a safety program depends on public acceptance. Ultimately, the safety strategies become part of the unwritten yet important "accountability contract" that all agencies have with the public. Program investments must be consistent with the desires of the public and the expectations that they have of departments of transportation. Those expectations are why it is so important to have a strategic plan with measurable, quantifiable goals and why it is important to publicize progress so the public understands the safety challenge and the changes being made.

The safety plans of Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, New Jersey, and South Carolina are based on a business model approach that requires sound data, risk assessment, and quantifiable results, enabling safety to compete for resources against other transportation priorities. Fiscal accountability—keeping your word to the public—requires that funds are spent wisely by a department of transportation.

FDOT applied a business model to its entire operation, including its safety initiative to ensure that the program included:

  • The key elements of leadership
  • Analysis of crash data and other information
  • Strategic planning
  • A focus on FDOT's customers through annual surveys
  • Analysis of the benefits and costs of programs and projects
  • Organizational performance evaluated using annual crash data and trends
  • Process management of FDOT programs

"When we adopted this model," says Rice, "we ‘flow charted' all of our programs to see which ones needed to be modified or completely changed for maximum efficiency."

In Georgia, the data to tell the State's safety story in relation to the national picture were critical in 2003 when then-Commissioner J. Tom Coleman, Jr. decided to adopt the national safety goal of reducing the fatality rate to 1.0 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by 2008 for his State. But the impact of sound data was not fully felt until the State upgraded its own crash record system. FHWA's Callan believes that "rational people, given hard data, will make the right decisions." Up-to-date information gives the State the ability to identify systematic trends and better allocate its resources to the most effective strategies. For example, linking sound data with strategic safety decisionmaking will enable the State to decide how to improve staffing of trauma centers using crash data details. Georgia's district offices are using the data to look beyond high-crash areas to identify and address programmatic safety issues.

Georgia's Safety Action Plan was recognized as one of the best infra-structure-based safety plans in the Nation, and GDOT received a special safety award in 2004 presented by FHWA's Administrator Mary E. Peters. The plan is significant not only for its potential impacts on the State system, but also because of its outreach to local jurisdictions. With about 35 percent of Georgia's highway fatalities, local jurisdictions represent a significant portion of the safety challenge.

GDOT made another significant commitment to advancing safety by establishing safety liaisons in its six outlying districts. The agency created these positions in-house in a time of limited funding and staff resources. The individuals will work with local governments to develop and advance safety projects.

'Motorist safety is our first priority,' says GDOT Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl, noting that GDOT is removing trees from roadside recovery zones such as this area on I-75 south of Macon, shown here in 'before' and 'after' photographs. GDOT's tree-clearing initiative is in compliance with Federal roadside safety guidelines.
"Motorist safety is our first priority," says GDOT Commissioner Harold Linnenkohl, noting that GDOT is removing trees from roadside recovery zones such as this area on I-75 south of Macon, shown here in "before" and "after" photographs. GDOT's tree-clearing initiative is in compliance with Federal roadside safety guidelines.

Leadership Summed Up

The safety efforts in these six States are data driven and results oriented. But execution is the real key to successful public accountability. New Jersey's Lettiere notes the importance of a program that generates quick results. "When people see action," he says, "they are supportive and demand becomes higher."

Execution of a safety program includes not only developing strategic plans and measurable goals, but also monitoring progress, holding individuals responsible for obtaining results, and rewarding real accomplishments. Execution hinges on daily personal involvement by the transportation leadership.

These six State models are significant because they are accountable and sustainable through measurable results and ongoing program assessments and evaluations. They are also significant because the partnerships between FHWA and the State DOTs have expanded to include local agencies that own a significant share of the challenge.

The experience of these and other States shows that in times of competing needs and limited resources, it is essential that transportation professionals do not lose sight that the transportation community's most important service to the public is a safe transportation system. This article touches on only a few examples of safety leadership, but there are many more around the country—States like North Carolina with its Executive Committee for Highway Safety, Washington's "Target Zero" approach to eliminating fatalities, Minnesota's multidisciplinary program for safety, Maine's creation of a safety program office to increase emphasis on safety, and many more. The Mendocino County, CA, model demonstrates that local agencies also are stepping up their focus on safety. (See "Signs Show the Way to Cost-Effective Rural Safety" in PUBLIC ROADS January/February 2005.) The Safety Leadership Forum II will be held in the spring of 2005, bringing safety leaders together from engineering, education, and enforcement disciplines to assess the present status and the next steps to achieve success. Many challenges face safety leadership, yet across the Nation many faces are stepping up to champion safety to reduce highway fatalities successfully. Are you one of those leaders?


John Baxter is director of FHWA's Office of Safety Design in Washington, DC. He leads a multidisciplinary staff in the development and implementation of 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 in civil engineering and a master's in transportation engineering from Clemson University in South Carolina. He is a registered professional engineer in the State of Utah.

For more information on transportation safety, see http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov. Rumble strips, red light cameras, and cable guardrail are three of FHWA's Priority, Market-Ready Technologies, and Innovations.

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