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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66· No. 3 > "Back to Basics" Saves Lives

Nov/Dec 2002
Vol. 66· No. 3

"Back to Basics" Saves Lives

by Mary Stringfellow

The Louisiana Division uses tried-and-true techniques to ensure a safe, secure, and efficient transportation system for highway travelers.

The Louisiana Division of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sees its three "must-do's" as improvement of safety, mitigation of congestion, and environmental stewardship and streamlining of the environmental process. Security and upcoming reauthorization of the Federal transportation law, of course, remain important as well.

Photo of cleared median
The cleared median, with no trees or underbrush, is shown after the project was completed.

As FHWA's Deputy Administrator Richard Capka stated at the 2002 mid-year annual meeting of the Association of General Contractors, "When it comes to safety, hope is not a method. Safety requires hard work, cooperation, and the commitment of everyone.... There are risks in everything that we do. However, no matter what the occupation or activity ... 42,000 deaths on our roads and highways are clearly unacceptable."

FHWA's strategic safety goal calls for a 20-percent reduction in the number of highway-related fatalities and injuries by 2008. FHWA has adopted a set of specific objectives and measurements, along with a series of national strategies, to reduce the number of deaths and injuries from roadway departure (run-off-the-road and head-on) crashes by 10 percent by the year 2007. The Louisiana Division's staff is working hard to achieve this goal. To complement FHWA's behavior-related safety initiatives that focus on increasing safety belt usage and reducing drunk driving, the Louisiana Division and Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development have teamed up to take a "back-to-basics" engineering approach to reduce injuries and save lives. And it's paying off.

Consider a success story that began in 1997 and is now showing the benefits of diligent engineering-focused safety improvements. Louisiana's southwestern Lake Charles District had scheduled to install new guardrail in a district-wide project. This project included upgrading guardrail on I-10 from the Texas/Louisiana State line east to milepost 20. During the project's design field review, the FHWA area engineer and safety engineer noted considerable tree and underbrush growth in the median and along the edge of the roadway. Many of the trees had sprouted in the clear zone in the years since that part of the interstate had been built.

The engineers, upon returning to the office, analyzed crash data for four consecutive years (1992-1995) for that section of I-10. Their analysis found a total of 316 all-type crashes, of which 98 were tree-related crashes, representing 31 percent of the total. Based on this information, the Louisiana Division and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development decided to add a clearing and grubbing item as part of the project contract for the guardrails.

The 32-kilometer (20-mile) project was completed in early 2000. The total cost of the clearing was $450,000. As the clearing and grubbing progressed in 1998 and 1999, the crash data began to improve.

Photo of trees and underbrush in median
These trees and underbrush grew in the median after this section of I-10 was built.

For the period 1992 to 1997, the annual number of crashes averaged more than 24. During 2000, the year following completion of the project, the number of crashes dropped dramatically to 4. The average annual crash cost of the crashes before the tree removal was $3.9 million. The cost of the incidents dropped to $69,900. Since the cost of the clearing and grubbing item was only $450,000, this was money well spent to improve public safety. The Louisiana Division will continue monitoring this area for the next few years to complete the before-and-after crash study. Upcoming State highway projects will address similar concerns.

"A lot of people don't understand that the highway right-of-way is reserved as a transportation corridor," says Louisiana Division Area Engineer Mark Stinson. "Trees can be a severe hazard when they are within the highway clear zone. I think trees are great in the park and my yard, but not next to the highway where they might be struck by vehicles, resulting in injuries and possible death to the motorists. We are pro-public safety and think trees are appropriate in the highway right-of-way, but only in the proper safe areas outside the clear zone."

Louisiana Division Safety Engineer Seve Serna adds, "We took the opportunity to enhance safety by going the extra mile beyond just guardrail replacement to really make a difference in saving lives and improving safety in Louisiana."

The efforts of Stinson and Serna to keep an eye out for low-cost/high-payoff safety enhancements in all projects show how each of us individually and collectively can really make a difference in public safety. Often safety improvements do not happen overnight or show benefits until several years after the work has been completed. Other efforts to further enhance safety in Louisiana include a statewide Clear Zone review, which identified 1,421 obstacles within the clear zone on Louisiana's National Highway System roads. Work to remove, replace, or shield these obstacles is being addressed by upcoming projects.

Reaching FHWA's goal of reducing fatalities from roadway departure crashes will take extraordinary efforts and will not happen as quickly as we wish it could. The back-to-basics engineering approach will not always be "flashy," but the Louisiana Division will continue to use those tried-and-true techniques to save lives.

Summary of
Crashes Involving Tree Collisions on I-10
From Mile Post 3.0 to 20.0
From 1992 to 2000
Year Total Crashes PDO Crashes Injury Crashes Total Injuries Fatal Crashes Total Fatalities *Total Vehicle Crash Costs
1992
18
10
8
13
0
0
$842,000
1993
23
13
9
13
1
1
$3,848,900
1994
26
20
6
7
0
0
$487,000
1995
31
22
8
11
1
1
$3,743,600
1996
25
13
11
21
1
1
$4,352,900
1997
24
13
10
18
1
3
$10,163,900
1998**
14
8
6
10
0
0
$648,400
1999**
3
1
1
1
1
1
$3,065,300
2000
4
3
1
1
0
0
$69,900

**The clearing project took place from the years 1998 to 1999.

Before and After
Crash Data for Tree Clearing Project
(Averages per Year)
Year Avg. Total Crashes Avg. PDO Crashes Avg. Injury Crashes Avg. Total Injuries Avg. Fatal Crashes Avg. Total Fatalities *Total Vehicle Crash Costs
Before (1992 to 1997) 24.5 15.2 8.7 13.8 .67 1 $3,906,383
After
(2000)
4 3 1 1 0 0 $ 69,900
*Vehicle crash costs based on FHWA 1994 Technical Advisory on Motor Vehicle Crash Costs, updated to current dollars (year 2001) using Implicit Gross Domestic Product Deflators. Costs are as follows:
PDO (property damage only) = $2,300
Injury (each) = $63,000
Fatality (each) = $3,000,000

Mary Stringfellow, technology management systems engineer, is a graduate of the University of Nebraska and began her career with FHWA in 1987. She has been working as the technology management systems engineer in the Louisiana Division Office for the past 3 years. She also has held research and technology transfer positions in the Midwest Resource Center, Region 5, Region 7, and the Nebraska Division Office. Prior to that, she worked in both the Western and Eastern Federal Lands Offices in design and construction positions.

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