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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 72 · No. 6 > Traffic Safety Education for Nonengineers|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-09-004
Traffic Safety Education for Nonengineers
by Terance L. McNinch and Timothy K. Colling
Michigan combines workshops for engineers, local officials, and the public with hands-on assistance and analysis tools to help local agencies continue to make safety happen on local roads.
Every year, thousands of news headlines report fatalities and serious injuries on the Nation's highways. Managing a transportation network, and in particular maintaining safety on roadways, has serious implications for families, society, and the economy. Therefore, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) of 2005 renewed emphasis on traffic safety as a national priority and thus as a priority for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and State and local departments of transportation (DOTs).
A disproportionately large number of severe and fatal crashes occur on the 3 million miles (4.8 million kilometers) of local roads, which represent 75 percent of the Nation's total network. More than 38,000 counties, cities, villages, towns, and tribal governments manage those local roads.
According to Larry Tibbits, recently retired chief operations officer at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), "Although national data are difficult to pin down, MDOT has concluded that, for any given year, approximately 60 percent of all crashes in Michigan occur on roads owned and operated by local government jurisdictions. These roads carry only about 50 percent of the [State's total] traffic. If we are going to make a significant reduction in traffic crashes, fatalities, and injuries, we can't just focus on the State routes; we have to provide traffic safety resources and support to local agencies."
Reducing the high crash rate on local roads is complicated by the fact that local agency engineers, administrators, and elected officials are faced with dozens of other public works priorities demanding their attention. And few agencies possess the technical resources to get the traffic safety job done. "The majority of those 38,000 local agencies lack the necessary expertise, the data, and the tools to conduct effective traffic safety analysis," says Executive Director Tony Giancola, P.E., of the National Association of County Engineers (NACE). "Making traffic safety happen on the local level requires that professional road managers are trained to conduct traffic safety analysis and learn how to communicate traffic safety principles to the nontechnical community."
Too often, local elected officials and the public exacerbate the traffic safety problems they hope to solve. "Many county engineers [and] professional road managers have a story to tell about how the lack of technical understanding by the nonengineering community distorted, derailed, or totally disregarded a technically sound traffic engineering solution he or she developed," says Giancola. This situation is the result of professionals failing to view education of the nonengineering community as a core requirement in accomplishing their goals.
In recent years, MDOT has partnered with Michigan's Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) to address these needs through a series of workshops designed and conducted specifically for technical and nontechnical audiences. Other tools used by MDOT and LTAP involve making location-specific traffic crash data available to local transportation agencies, plus sophisticated data analysis tools and hands-on technical assistance that not only solve problems but also educate local agency personnel in the traffic safety process so they can solve their own problems in the future. These efforts could not accomplish Michigan's traffic safety goals in and of themselves. Together, they form a multifaceted approach that provides a traffic safety payoff greater than the sum of the individual parts.
Michigan has a long history of such efforts, many funded by the Michigan State Police Office of Highway Safety Planning. A number of outreach efforts took place starting in the 1970s through the 1990s, plus site-specific safety projects and MDOT analytic assistance to local agencies. Adapting new technological options may have helped attract new attention to those safety and local assistance efforts, as has staff turnover and other factors, ultimately leading to the development of the workshops.
Michigan's local roads and statewide MDOT roads have enjoyed a sustained decline in crashes, fatalities, and injuries over the past 16 years. Statewide fatalities in 2008 dropped to the lowest level since 1925. With this excellent safety track record, measuring progress that can be attributed to these more recent local safety initiatives may be difficult. But the high level of participation and interest by both the engineering and nonengineering communities would seem to indicate that traffic safety on the local system will continue to improve over coming years as the positive effects of these countermeasures and treatments are realized.
Counterintuitive Solutions Versus Gut Instincts
Many concepts in traffic safety engineering are counterintuitive to conventional wisdom. For example, gut instinct may lead a person without a technical background to believe that installing stop signs at every intersection along a route will slow the speed of traffic. But according to "Neighborhood Speed Control — U.S. Practices," an article published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), and reports by FHWA, the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and others, the opposite is true, and installing unwarranted stop signs actually can increase midblock running speeds.
"The public doesn't see the interrelated factors that influence traffic safety decisions," says Dale Lighthizer, Ph.D., P.E., safety programs section manager, MDOT Division of Operations. Road geometry, pavement surface condition, traffic volume, traffic turning movements, and driver visual acuity, aggressiveness, reaction time, and attitude are all factors that influence traffic safety decisions. And the public may be unaware of the tradeoffs needed among these factors. "This lack of understanding leads the public to think that quick remedies can solve every traffic safety problem," says Lighthizer. "They often say, 'It's obvious what the problem is; just fix it.' But traffic safety doesn't work that way."
Considering the technical challenges and nonintuitive nature of the traffic safety field, members of the public sometimes have difficulty accepting the recommendations of a traffic safety engineer. That understanding can be acquired only through a nontechnical explanation of the solution — something engineers and other transportation professionals are not reputed to provide. Many engineers do not view public communication as a function of their job, and as a result often they are typecast as poor communicators, deterring elected officials and the public from asking questions in the first place. Engineers easily delude themselves into thinking that because the solution proposed is technically superior to all other options, elected officials and the public will accept it automatically as the best solution too.
Providing knowledge of technical issues in both technical and nontechnical language can help the public better understand safety needs. Some people might desire to hear either, or both, of the technical and nontechnical explanations.
Achieving a Common Sense Approach to Local Traffic Safety Education
Staff members of Michigan's Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) developed instructional materials, Common Sense Solutions for Intersection Safety Problems, for dissemination in 2005. The development of these materials was in addition to the 2004 core annual work program activities that the LTAP center typically performs. To get this initiative off the ground, additional funding sources were needed. Approximately half of the development funds came from a combination of a competitive grant (FHWA Technology Transfer and Innovation Program) and FHWA Office of Safety funding sources. The remainder came out of the 2004 Michigan LTAP budget.
The training materials target the nonengineering community, such as local elected and appointed officials, agency managers, law enforcement personnel, school administrators, and the public. The objective of the material is to provide nontechnical explanations about the technical aspects of intersection traffic safety. The training materials were distributed to every LTAP and Tribal Technical Assistance Program (TTAP) center in the United States.
During 2005 and 2006, the Michigan LTAP conducted a series of 1-day training workshops on traffic safety issues at intersections at 19 locations in Michigan to audiences that totaled more than 450 participants from local governments. Of these, 91 percent were nontechnical personnel. The Michigan State Police Office of Highway Safety Planning provided workshop fee scholarships to any nonengineer participants, thereby eliminating financial barriers to attendance.
The training materials consist of 12 modules, each approximately 1-hour long and covering the following topics: Evolution of an Intersection, Geometric Flaws, Sight Triangles, Pedestrians, Signals, Signs, Red Light Running, Roundabouts, Crash Data, Crash Statistics, Road Safety Studies, and Where to Get Help. The instructional material's nonlinear format enables workshop hosts to mix and match the modules, depending on the needs of the audience.
The participant handout that comes with the modules includes summaries that contain the key points covered in the presentations. Also included are references to additional resources with day-to-day usefulness, such as the Manual on Uniform Control Devices (MUTCD) sections on stop sign placement and signal warrants, research papers on the negative impacts of stop signs used as speed control, traffic calming techniques, and geometric guidelines for intersections in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' (AASHTO) A Policy on the Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (the Green Book).
Nontechnical audiences quickly lose interest in technical training if the material is not presented at a basic level or if it uses excessive technical jargon. When developing the materials, the LTAP staff paid close attention to the use of nontechnical language and provided explanations for technical concepts.
The Michigan LTAP originally titled the training workshop, Intersection Safety for Non-Engineers. While preparing to hold two pilot sessions, the Michigan LTAP had difficulty attracting participation — to the point where the sessions had to be canceled. In an attempt to understand the problem, LTAP staff conducted telephone interviews with a cross section of the target audience who had been mailed the promotional flyer. Some of the people interviewed indicated that they believed the training would be too technical for them because the word "engineer" appeared in the title.
According to Christine Codere, Michigan LTAP office manager, one respondent stated, "Intersection Safety for Non-Engineers. I'm not an engineer, so why would I attend?" Codere adds, "We were all a bit perplexed. The title seemed clear to us. But clear to us isn't what matters." The LTAP staff put their heads together and renamed the workshop and the corresponding publication, Common Sense Solutions for Intersection Safety Problems.
Several agencies also commented that they did not think the training was targeted at their employees. Codere recalls, "One law enforcement officer said that he gets so much mail, if the flyer doesn't say 'For Law Enforcement' on the cover, he doesn't even open it. It goes in the trash."
To counter this reaction, the Michigan LTAP customized the front cover of the workshop flyer for each target group. Law enforcement agencies received a flyer titled "Common Sense Solutions for Intersection Safety — A workshop for law enforcement agencies." Other titles targeted the public and elected and appointed officials in townships, cities, and villages.
LTAP staff also modified the training agenda to replace engineering terms with phrases that more closely relate to the audience's understanding of the topic in their day-to-day experience. Some examples include the following: The Michigan LTAP changed "Sign Design and Placement" to "Signs — Do it Right or Pay the Price!" Similarly, "Crash Statistics" became "Most Bad Accidents Happen on YOUR Roads!" And "Introduction to Roundabouts" turned into "Roundabouts — Take a Deep Breath, Don't Panic." And "Partnering on Traffic Safety Issues" was changed to "You're Not Alone — Getting Others to Help."
The Michigan LTAP sent the modified flyer to the same list of people who had received the first mailing. This step turned out to be the key to success. The response rate of the second mailing matched the rate that the Michigan LTAP normally receives in response to other flyers. Sending the right message to the right audience generated active participation.
Using Champions to Help Fill the Room
As the Michigan LTAP discovered, attracting a nontechnical audience for traffic safety training is a challenge. First, as with other types of education, the people who most need to attend are least likely to attend. Second, local officials have dozens of priorities demanding their attention, and traffic safety may not be high on the list — unless a traffic safety crisis currently happens to be headline news. Third, the audience that the Michigan LTAP was pursuing for this training was not its typical engineering audience — a group with whom LTAP has an established reputation.
LTAP staff decided to recruit local champions to help attract the target audience. The champion (often, but not always, a county engineer) recruited secondary contacts (known local traffic safety advocates) to promote the training communitywide. Asking these local advocates to recruit their peers made all the difference because this approach avoided the baggage that often exists between transportation professionals and communities.
In addition, LTAP partnered with the Michigan Municipal League (MML), the County Road Association of Michigan (CRAM), and the Michigan Townships Association (MTA) to reach the membership of those organizations directly.
Applying Common Sense In Saginaw County
Saginaw County is located in southeastern Michigan. With a population of 202,000 in 2007, the county is a mix of urban areas (10 cities) and rural/agricultural areas. The county road commission is responsible for maintaining 1,846 miles (2,971 kilometers) of county primary and local township roads. The rural areas are under intense development pressure with farmland being converted to residential use. Roads that previously were adequate to serve a small number of farms quickly become insufficient when serving several hundred newly constructed residences.
Now-retired Saginaw County Highway Engineer James Lehman, P.E., faced strong public reaction following a series of serious injury and fatal crashes that occurred during 2003 and 2004. His investigation indicated that, in the majority of cases, the crashes were not correctable through any type of engineering action and that the actions demanded by the public could result in new, unsafe conditions. His findings were not received well. He felt the public assumed that his decision was influenced by an ulterior motive, such as an attempt to save money or that he just wasn't concerned about the problem. But he knew that neither was true.
In an effort to ease some of the political tension and provide Saginaw County's elected officials with a better understanding of the technical issues involved in solving traffic safety problems, Lehman contacted the Michigan LTAP with a request to conduct the Common Sense Solutions for Intersection Safety Problems training. "For years we have taken advantage of the training, crash data, and RoadSoft tools provided by [Michigan] LTAP in our safety work," says Lehman, "so I trusted this training session could alleviate some of the tension in the air."
Lehman adds, "The training was a lively event. During the morning session, one individual in particular took a really combative stance, challenging everything LTAP instructor Tim Colling had to say. But Tim engaged him, using it as a way to bring the other participants into the discussion and highlight the counter-intuitive nature of traffic safety."
As the session progressed, the combative participant continued to press his challenges. "By the afternoon, rather than Tim confronting the challenges from the combative participant, the other participants were confronting him, using their newfound understanding to guide the discussion. This clearly demonstrated to me the effectiveness of the material and the instructor. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, this guy still refused to consider any approach but his own. But the rest of the participants left the training with an appreciation of the complexity of what I was trying to deal with."
Several weeks after the training, Lehman reported that he had received positive feedback from local officials who had attended. He noted a marked change in their attitude and an openness to accept his agency's engineering guidance. According to Lehman, "Even though it was the same story I had been telling them for years, bringing in an instructor with no perceived vested interest and providing explanations designed specifically for a nontechnical audience really made a difference."
Educating Elected Officials And Nontechnical Staff
Although the vast majority of participants attending the Common Sense Solutions for Intersection Safety Problems workshops are nonengineers, only a relatively small number are elected or appointed officials — the ultimate decisionmakers. To reach that audience, the Michigan LTAP decided to take a different approach: condense the Common Sense Solutions materials to fit into a morning workshop format and market it directly to elected and appointed officials by partnering again with MML, CRAM, and MTA.
In an attempt to give the training a twist that would grab the officials' attention, the LTAP staff settled on the title, Elected Officials: What YOU Need to Know About Traffic Safety (And What YOUR Constituents Expect YOU to Know!). The course's material centered around the fact that seat-of-the-pants solutions often make the situation worse and that by tapping into the technical expertise of their professional staff, these elected officials could make informed decisions that would be good for their constituents and hence good for them too.
Registration for four sessions held in December 2008 exceeded the room capacity at three locations. Unfortunately, a blizzard that swept across the Midwest that week put a dent in the attendance, but the workshops were held nonetheless. The participant discussions that took place during the sessions confirmed to the LTAP staff that local government officials want to make informed decisions, but technical concepts just need to be explained at their level and in the context of their experience.
LTAP staff tried some innovative approaches to dovetail the workshop's content with real-life situations experienced by local officials. Requests for stop signs as a speed reduction measure are a classic case of a misguided countermeasure. As noted previously, unwarranted stop signs actually can increase between-block speeds. Public misunderstanding keeps the requests coming in and all too often is supported by elected officials who demand their installation. "The instructor used a prerecorded fictional telephone conversation between a resident and a mayor about installing a stop sign on her busy street in order to slow traffic," says Phil Karwat, city engineer for Saginaw, MI. "The mayor goes on to call the Department of Public Works superintendent with the command to get the signs installed. Everyone in the room has gotten these calls, so it really hit home. Most of the participants actually thought the call was real." This technique was intended to get participants to sit up and take notice — and they did.
The technical staff who attended saw firsthand some techniques they can use at their agencies to better communicate the technical concepts of traffic safety. Many of the elected officials also walked away from the session with newfound understanding. "As an elected official in a small village, I am confronted with making decisions far outside my personal expertise," says Carl Hamann, councilman for Sanford, MI. "At the workshop for elected officials, I discovered that everything I thought I knew about traffic safety was incorrect. That was an eye-opener." At the next village council meeting, Hamann gave a short presentation about what he had learned, which led to a discussion about decisions the council had made in the past. "We came to the realization that we really do need to consult with professionals when making these types of decisions," he said. "Keeping our communities safe is a priority." This viral effect — moving the message out through the community — is what the Michigan LTAP hoped would happen.
Sharing Safety Expertise With Local Agencies
Another approach MDOT uses is its Local Safety Initiative (LSI). This voluntary program provides local agencies with the services of a skilled MDOT traffic safety engineer in an effort to reduce fatal and serious injury crashes on the local road network. The program takes a "teach them to fish" approach to traffic safety by not just providing a service as a handout, but rather by working with the local agency engineer — peer to peer — to pass on the skills necessary to conduct traffic safety studies in-house.
An important component is MDOT's provision of the analysis results to the local agency, and only that agency, without publicizing the data. This aspect is key in that it mitigates any fear by the participating agency of unreasonable expectations on the part of the public. "When I invited the LSI staff to Ionia County to do their safety assessment on our county and local roads, I did so with cautious optimism," says Wayne A. Schoonover, P.E., county highway engineer with the Ionia County Road Commission (CRC). "I hoped to take advantage of skilled, professional resources, but expected little of the outcome. I kept asking myself: What if the results ended up with a list of problems we aren't able to solve? I didn't want to spread false hope to the public and put the road commission in a bad situation."
The LSI staff begins by reviewing with the local agency how the process works. "Intersection analysis typically begins by looking for trends in crash data over the past 5 years," says Tracie Leix, engineer manager with the MDOT Safety Programs Unit. "We use the safety module in RoadSoft to do intersection ranking and a summary of total crashes. We also search for locations that meet the criteria for High Risk Rural Roads [HRRR] funding. Many agencies don't realize that they have locations that qualify." The LSI staff verifies the reports using digital copies of the UD-10 traffic crash report directly accessible through RoadSoft. The process is repeated for each road segment.
Next, LSI staff members join local agency staff for site reviews on the locations of interest. During the review, LSI staff members make suggestions, both engineering and nonengineering, with a focus on low-cost treatments. "All the suggestions are made in conversation or with a brief summary," says Lighthizer. "There are no formal reports. It's up to the local agency to take action if they feel a suggestion is justified, and they have the funds. We have found that this approach has helped to build trust in our relationships with the local agencies."
The LSI staff also can help the agency identify funding sources and complete their applications for HRRR funding. For several locations, Michigan safety funding has been provided through LSI. In those cases, as in HRRR projects, MDOT will conduct a 3-year, before-and-after study to document the performance of the treatments. "Nationwide, there is a great need to document the cost effectiveness of low-cost treatments," says Lighthizer.
Ionia County's Schoonover reports that the LSI staff confirmed many locations of safety concern that were already on his radar, but more important, some locations that were not. "Improvements at the Grand River-Morrison and Vedder-Tasker intersections are a direct result of working with LSI and educating myself on how to use RoadSoft to conduct traffic safety analyses," he says. "It's a great example of how a local agency can work with LTAP and the State DOT to make roads safer."
To date, the LSI program has collaborated with 51 local agencies, with another 13 agencies waiting in the queue.
The Art and Science Of Traffic Safety
Another need at the local level is education on the latest tools and techniques for analyzing traffic safety. Traffic safety analysis draws from a number of professional areas, including civil engineering, epidemiology, human behavioral science, and forensics. Professor Emeritus Ezra Hauer, of the University of Toronto and a renowned expert in the application of engineering principles to traffic safety, wrote in the Transportation Research Record that this kind of analysis is "akin to a process of medical diagnosis, with perhaps a keener awareness of costs and budgets."
Successful traffic engineers usually devote several years to practical experience beyond a formal college education to become effective at making decisions regarding traffic safety improvements. But local agency engineers may not have that experience. Fortunately, advances in computing technology have simplified the lengthy manual effort previously required, such as mass sorting paper crash reports and hand plotting dozens of data elements per record in an attempt to find a common element that provides clues to a potential causal factor. But the need remains to train these practicing engineers in the "art" of traffic safety analysis. "Most of our local agencies have never received specific education in safety analysis, and it appears that this is the situation nationwide," says Jason Nordberg, senior planner, Genesee County Metropolitan Planning Commission. "The only solution is training."
The Michigan LTAP developed material for a 1-day workshop specifically for local agency engineers and technical staff, titled Traffic Safety Analysis — From Finding the Problem to Fixing It. In July 2008, Michigan LTAP held four sessions statewide. Participants used their own laptop computers, the safety module in Michigan's RoadSoft software, and 10 years of crash data from each participant's agency.
The morning session covered an overview of crash data and demonstrated various methods of screening crash data for high-crash locations and conducting site-level collision analysis. "Before a computer was even switched on, the discussion focused on the benefits and drawbacks of the various analysis methods, and where each is most appropriately used," says Nordberg.
The afternoon session dealt with the geometric, operational, and human factors that cause crashes; how to select and evaluate effective countermeasures; and before-and-after studies that can verify that a solution is working. Ken Johnson, program and development engineer, Genesee County Road Commission, says, "The RoadSoft safety module provides an array of powerful analytical tools to help identify locations that can benefit most from appropriate countermeasures. Previously, agencies didn't have the tools necessary to conduct this level of analysis."
The tools, combined with the training, make traffic safety analysis available to agencies regardless of their size. "The accessibility of the data and the user-friendliness of the RoadSoft tools make this something that even the smallest transportation agency can grow into as its traffic safety analysis needs dictate," says Michael Latuszek, senior transportation planner, St. Clair County Transportation Study. "Agencies need to take advantage of the training and technical support provided by LTAP. They can't afford not to."
Education Helps Achieve Traffic Safety Goals
In the context of the 4-E's of traffic safety — engineering, enforcement, emergency services, and education — the responsibility for engineering falls quite squarely on transportation professionals. Police officers cover enforcement. First responders and medical staff handle emergency services. Colleges and universities educate the technical workforce, particularly those just beginning their careers, with ongoing professional development training offered through FHWA's National Highway Institute and Resource Center, LTAP and TTAP centers, and industry associations.
If traffic safety goals are to be met nationwide, engineers and other professionals, including planners, public works managers, law enforcement officials, driver trainers, and others must take joint responsibility for educating the nontechnical community. And traffic safety professionals need to assume responsibility for educating their practicing peers. With some creativity, and by tapping into existing resources at FHWA and at the LTAP and TTAP centers, engineers can become effective agents of change, creating a culture of traffic safety and saving lives in the process.
Terance L. McNinch is director of Michigan's LTAP and the Technology Development Group (TDG), both housed within the Michigan Tech Transportation Institute (MTTI) at Michigan Technological University (MTU) in Houghton, MI. McNinch has worked with LTAP since 1992. He holds a B.S. in scientific and technical communication and an M.S. in rhetoric and technical communication, both from MTU. His research interests include asset management implementation at the local level and creative techniques for communicating technical information to technical and nontechnical audiences.
Timothy K. Colling is assistant director of Michigan's LTAP and TDG and a senior research engineer with MTTI at MTU. He holds a B.S. in environmental engineering and an M.S. in civil engineering from MTU. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in civil engineering at MTU with a focus on traffic safety. Colling's research interests include asset management systems and traffic safety engineering.
For more information, contact Terry McNinch at 906-487-2102 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For a copy of the Common Sense Solutions for Intersection Safety Problems training material, see www.michiganltap.org/CSS. For more information on RoadSoft, see www.roadsoft.org. For information on MDOT's Local Safety Initiative, contact Dale Lighthizer at 517-373-2334 or email@example.com. To listen to the "We Need a Stop Sign" phone call used in the Traffic Safety for Elected Officials training, see www.michiganltap.org/stopsigncall.
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