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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 70 · No. 2 > Low Cost, High Return

Sept/Oct 2006
Vol. 70 · No. 2

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-2006-006

Low Cost, High Return

by Dean M. Larsen, Fred N. Ranck, and John McFadden

A new FHWA outreach campaign educates teens on work zone safety.

The photograph shows a two-lane road bordered by a creek on one side, with a series of 'steps' buttressing an eroding slope, created out of loose rocks held together with wire mesh (gabion baskets).
(Above) Pike County in Kentucky used these gabion baskets (loose rocks held together with wire mesh) to repair roadway erosion caused by runoff from Ratliff's Creek. This countermeasure is one of the low-cost safety improvements initiated by Kentucky's Safety Circuit Rider program.

Improving roadway safety is one of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) "vital few" goals. Meeting this goal means not only focusing on the interstates and the National Highway System highways but also addressing safety concerns on local roads in communities across the country.

"According to 2004 FARS [Fatality Analysis Reporting System] data, approximately 58 percent of the Nation's roadway fatalities occurred on rural roads, and a number of these roads are locally owned," says Leslie Wright, manager of the Local/Tribal Road Safety Program in FHWA's Office of Safety. "With this in mind, making safety a priority on locally owned and rural roads by and large is crucial to reducing the Nation's 42,636 roadway deaths annually."

Reducing the number of highway fatalities and implementing safety improvements are ongoing challenges for local agencies contending with modest budgets that limit personnel, equipment, and other resources for constructing and maintaining roadway modifications. To improve safety, local agencies need access to best practices that are within their budgets and tailored to their needs.

In Kentucky, the rate of fatal crashes is climbing, according to recent research by the Kentucky Transportation Center (KTC), which includes Kentucky's Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP), housed within the University of Kentucky's College of Engineering. As reported in the spring 2005 issue of the center's newsletter, The Link, Kentucky is among the top five States in the Nation in terms of fatalities resulting from roadway hazards on rural two-lane roads. However, Kentucky's new Safety Circuit Rider (SCR) pilot program is helping improve safety on the State's rural roads.

The Kentucky SCR program is a mobile outreach effort that provides face-to-face workshops on transportation-related safety for local government staff. According to The Link newsletter, Kentucky is focusing on three primary areas: reducing road departures (run-off-the-road collisions with fixed objects), intersection collisions, and collisions involving pedestrians.

The program's success is the result of technical support, training, and technology transfers that involve Federal, State, and local partners working together to implement small-scale, affordable, and perhaps overlooked safety improvements on locally managed roads. The counties involved in Kentucky have seen a marked improvement in safety through reductions in injuries and fatalities. Other States including Florida, Iowa, and Minnesota also have found success in similar programs.

Low-Cost Safety Improvements

Kentucky's SCR pilot program is an outgrowth from a series of workshops on low-cost safety improvements (LCSIs) launched by the FHWA Resource Center at the request of FHWA's Missouri Division Office. LCSIs are projects that cost $10,000 or less to implement.

Typical LCSIs include removing vegetation, including trees that pose a hazard (although such trees also might be delineated with object markers); building up shoulders to eliminate dropoffs; and adding signage to warn of unusual roadway features, such as sharp curves, or to accentuate the four corners of bridges. In some cases, improvements that are more intensive such as bridge widening also can be implemented.

SCR Pilot Program Initiated by FHWA

During the development in 2005 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) asked FHWA to review the safety benefits of LCSIs and adapt them for broader national use as part of an effort to address high-risk local roads. GAO included LCSIs in its report to the U.S. Congress.

Begun in 2005, the SCR initiative was a 1-year pilot program jointly funded by FHWA's offices of Safety, Professional and Corporate Development, and Federal Lands Highway. Four applicants were selected to receive $150,000 each. In addition to Kentucky, successful candidates were Florida, West Virginia, and the Northern Plains tribal group (serving Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and the northern Nebraska tribal lands).

"The goal of the FHWA pilot program was to assist local agencies in becoming safety-focused organizations by effectively applying the best and most appropriate tools to meet their needs," says FHWA's Leslie Wright. "The program was designed to leverage the existing safety management tools, in addition to new resources, as part of safety improvement strategies for local roadways. In this regard, the program sought to establish a framework in which oncall safety experts, known as Safety Circuit Riders, would be equipped to transfer knowledge and assist local safety managers in the implementation of specific improvement strategies."

FHWA's Office of Safety decided that its SCR pilot program would focus on three categories of fatal crashes on two-lane rural roads: run-off-the-road crashes and collisions with fixed objects, intersection crashes, and pedestrian-related crashes.

Other States that have used LCSI training successfully and disseminated best practices such as the SCR program at the county or local levels are California, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. FHWA is now collecting data on the results in Kentucky and the other States.

Implementing Kentucky's SCR

After Kentucky's LTAP was awarded SCR funding through FHWA's Office of Safety, the staff immediately began forming partnerships with organizations including local Area Development Districts (ADDs) to make the most of the limited dollars. Freddie Goble, a retired transportation planner, joined the LTAP staff to launch the program. Along with Terry Chism, a transportation safety engineer with FHWA's Kentucky Division Office, Goble attended an FHWA-sponsored training program on LCSIs in 2004 and later customized those materials for a Kentucky-specific 1-day workshop on LCSIs.

According to the Kentucky Council of Area Development Districts, Kentucky's counties are grouped into 15 regions, or ADDs, which serve as forums, clearinghouses, and technical centers for the regions. The ADDs would prove instrumental in helping implement the SCR program.

In this shot of a small, two-lane road, taken before safety improvements were made, two men are walking along the sidewalk, which is at the same level or even lower than the roadway.
Pulaski County, KY, replaced 762 linear meters (2,500 feet) of sidewalk along Jacksboro Road in the city of Somerset.

Top: The old sidewalk was at the same level, or even lower, than the roadway.

Bottom: The new sidewalk, which is elevated above the level of the roadway, improves pedestrian safety along this road.
In this shot of a small, two-lane road, taken after safety improvements were made, a worker is standing beside the new sidewalk, which is elevated from the level of the road. Also, a stone retaining wall was added.

To launch the SCR initiative in Kentucky, a steering committee first identified the six counties with the worst crash records. Then, each of the six ADDs with the highest crash records hosted a workshop to disseminate best practices and share information on LCSIs. All counties in a host ADD were invited to send transportation professionals to the workshop, with representatives from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet attending as well.

After the county representatives learned about the LCSI practices, the judge of each target county (an elected official who serves as the chief executive officer of the county but has no actual judicial power) was asked to select two roads to receive a road safety audit. The audits would help the counties pinpoint the specific safety issues on their chosen roads and select appropriate countermeasures.

Mason County widened this small bridge along Cliff Pike Road and added guardrails to improve safety.
Mason County widened this small bridge along Cliff Pike Road and added guardrails to improve safety.

To conduct the audits, KTC's Goble (the SCR and oncall safety expert) accompanied county representatives and, when available, traffic engineers from the Kentucky Department of Highways (KYDOH) for a drive along the selected high-crash roads. During the drive, the team pointed out safety concerns and discussed possible low-cost corrective measures. The team also looked at crash locations for possible corrective measures.

For example, the audit determined that an intersection near the town of Hazard needed several improvements to increase safety. Using the information they learned during the safety audit, Denny Ray Noble, Perry County judge/executive, and Charles Cowell, deputy judge/executive, worked out a partnership with the KYDOH office in Jackson to implement several LCSIs at the junction of KY 15 and Crawford Mountain Road. Through the partnership, the Perry County Road Department removed approximately 382 cubic meters (500 cubic yards) of earthen embankment that was blocking motorists' views looking northward on KY 15 from Crawford Mountain Road.

The removal enabled the department to widen the existing roadway to accommodate a left-turn lane. The material from the embankment was used to fill a 10.6-meter (35-foot)-deep ravine directly adjacent to Crawford Mountain Road near the intersection. Perry County also widened the shoulder of KY 15 to accommodate an acceleration lane. The local agency provided the labor, equipment, and materials for excavating, widening, removing guardrails, and filling the ravine. KYDOH paved the road and applied the pavement markings. "This is an excellent example of partnerships to improve safety," FHWA's Chism says.

Later, after the safety improvements were implemented, Goble reviewed the roads and verified that the improvements were made correctly. Noble says the number of crashes at the Crawford Mountain Road intersection declined significantly after the improvements were made, making the project one of the best examples of the success of the Kentucky SCR program.

Examples of Low-Cost Safety Improvements

Roadside Hazard Mitigation

Removal of trees
Relocation of utility poles
Edge rumble on shoulders of rural four-lane highways
Geometric Features
Convert single-lane urban stop-control intersection to roundabout
Warning Signs and Measures
Advance warning signs
Advance curve warning signs with advisory speeds
Chevron alignment signs
Advance warning beacons
Advance intersection warning signs
Lighting
Intersection lighting
Regulatory Signs
Double-up of stop signs (left and right sides of road)
Add stop beacon to stop control (mounted on top of stop sign)
Provide larger street name guide signs
Markings
Mark centerline (on intersection approaches)
Mark edge line (on intersection approaches)
Signals
Improve visibility of signal heads—change post mount with mast arm signals
Replace 20-centimeter (8-inch) lenses with 30-centimeter (12-inch) lenses
Add signal head per lane
Provide left-turn lane, signalize, and left-turn phase
Improve signal timing (optimize)

Goble attributes much of this success to the availability of accurate geographic information system (GIS) maps of local roads. Combined with precise crash locations derived from global positioning system (GPS) technology, the GIS maps enabled State officials to compile the initial list of local roads with the highest number of crashes.

A Little Adds Up to a Lot

According to FHWA's Chism, the results of the Kentucky SCR program far exceeded anyone's expectations. "By the end of the first phase of the program in June 2005, Kentucky ended up improving 39 roads and spending only $235,000 on the safety improvements," Chism says. "Once the counties saw that they could do little things to improve safety, several expanded the program. All of the improvements were made with county funds and resources. I was amazed at the counties' responses and the excitement they demonstrated."

Some were so quick to make improvements that Goble was able to incorporate before and after photographs of their work into the workshop for the next county. With workshops occurring within 1 week of each other, the turnaround times were dramatic.

The public and media also responded well to the visible improvements in local roads. According to Goble, local newspapers sent reporters to ride along on the safety audits and frequently printed the before and after photographs.

Making the necessary improvements often required county personnel to access adjacent private land to cut down trees that posed a safety hazard. "The private property owners were very cooperative," Goble says. He attributes their support to the participation of the county judges, who approached the landowners and explained the need for the safety improvements.

In other projects, creative bargaining helped. "One landowner, when we told him we wanted to cut down several very old trees, thought about it and said, 'If you cut the trees, trim them, and stack them over there where I'm building a barn, you have my permission,'" Goble recalls. The county personnel readily agreed.

Tim Conley, Morgan County judge/executive, is pleased with the results of the Kentucky SCR program. "One of the roads we looked at, a new road in fact, had 13 reported [crashes] between 2000 and 2004. In 2005 there were no [crashes] on that road. It cost us $800 to make the improvements," Conley says. Even better, he reports that Morgan County made improvements on 8 to 10 additional roads outside the program, emphasizing that county crews now know what to look for.

Conley's constituents have let him know that they approve as well. "I had someone come up to me and tell me that one of the roads has improved 100 percent as a result of this work," he says.

James L. "Buddy" Gallenstein, the judge/executive for Mason County, says that the GPS crash data provided by the SCR program has "opened my eyes" to some problem roads in the county. According to Gallenstein, his office routinely receives crash data for highways and major roads, but the SCR program offers access to the same data at the local level for the first time.

"We plan to assess our roads on an annual basis now," Gallenstein says. He and his road supervisor also will be looking at opportunities to implement LCSIs when they make their annual priority assessments for roads.

This photo shows four transportation officials surveying the abundant vegetation adjacent to a narrow, two-lane country road, prior to safety improvements.
This photo shows a transportation official surveying the same two-lane country road after much of the vegetation was removed. The sight distance along the curve has been dramatically improved by clearing away trees and brush, enabling approaching motorists to see a significant stretch of roadway on the other side of the bridge.
Between 2000 and 2005, 13 crashes were reported along this stretch of New Cummer Road in Morgan County. In 2005, county transportation officials dramatically improved safety along a bridge approach by clearing trees and brush to improve sight distances in the approach curve and installing Type 3 object markers to mark the bridge corners.

Future Expansion

The Kentucky SCR program is now in its second phase, with six more counties identified to receive workshops and safety audits. Although the grant covered only a 1-year pilot program, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet pledged sufficient funding to carry the program through 2006, and possibly 2007, reports Patsy Anderson, director of the Technology Transfer Program at KTC. Continued Federal funding for the program is uncertain at this time.

Lance Meredith recently replaced Goble as Kentucky's SCR. Meredith brings to the position 30 years as a traffic engineer with KYDOH and 2 years as a transportation planner at a Kentucky ADD. Twelve additional counties have been identified as focus counties, and many other jurisdictions are joining the program on a volunteer basis. LTAP also is taking steps to improve crash reporting systems on rural roads.

Partnerships Yield Results

Kentucky's program combined need, motivation, expertise, funding, and public support to achieve rapid success. Partnerships with stakeholders such as FHWA, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, local agencies, and the public, exchanging ideas and resources to launch the SCR program, were instrumental in helping Kentucky to improve safety on its rural roads.


Dean M. Larsen, P.E., is a traffic safety engineer with the FHWA Resource Center in Baltimore, MD. Larsen has been with FHWA for 18 years, previously working as the liaison engineer to Region 3 of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as the FHWA Region 3 traffic safety engineer, and as an area engineer in the District of Columbia and Maryland Division Offices. Larsen holds a BSCE from the University of Florida.

Fred N. Ranck, P.E., P.T.O.E., is a safety/geometric design engineer for FHWA's Safety and Highway Design Technical Service Team and a member of FHWA's Office of Transportation Operations team for the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. He was the principal investigator for development of the Walk Alert pedestrian safety program for FHWA/NHTSA and national director for the Operation Lifesaver program to promote safety at grade crossings.

John McFadden, Ph.D., P.E., P.T.O.E., is a safety/geometric design engineer for FHWA's Safety and Highway Design Technical Service Team at the Resource Center in Baltimore. Prior to joining FHWA, McFadden served as an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Alabama. McFadden received his Ph.D. in civil engineering with a minor in statistics from Pennsylvania State University. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering from Villanova University in 1991 and 1994, respectively.

For more information about the Kentucky SCR program, contact Patsy Anderson at 859-257-4509, ext. 229, or panderso@engr.uky.edu. SCR Lance Meredith may be reached at 859-257-7405. For more information on implementing LCSI best practices at the State or county level, contact Leslie Wright at 202-366-2176 or leslie.wright@fhwa.dot.gov, or Dean Larsen at 410-962-2372 or dean.larsen@fhwa.dot.gov.

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