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Publication Number:      Date:  May/June 2004
Issue No: Vol. 67 No. 6
Date: May/June 2004


Building Safe Roads

by John R. Baxter

Secretary Mineta's goal of reducing the Nation's highway death toll to 1.0 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by 2008 will be a challenge.

Safety is a fundamental building block for designing and con-structing any highway project. It is the basis for the engineering analysis and standards that transportation agencies apply to the road network. Yet despite the advances that transportation professionals have made to incorporate a safety philosophy into everything they do, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Administrator Mary E. Peters says the annual toll of fatalities and serious injuries on the Nation's roadways remains too great.

Photo: Overturned tanker truck auto accident.

Severe crashes like this tanker truck overturn near Salem, OR, make a strong case for a renewed emphasis on safety.

The highway community has several technologies that are available today that can help agencies increase safety, including pavement innovations, rumble stripes, retroreflective materials, intersection countermeasures, and others. International scans and other industry programs also may hold a key to increasing safety.

A National Safety Focus

Although safety has always been an important goal of the highway industry, the "bottom line" outcomes, measured in terms of fatalities and serious injuries, has prompted a renewed emphasis on the safety issue. The case for a renewed national focus on safety was presented by FHWA Administrator Peters in the January/February 2004 issue of Public Roads, a special edition devoted entirely to highway safety. Administrator Peters noted that the more than 41,000 fatalities and 3 million injuries each year "points to a national safety crisis, indicating a need for us [the transportation community] to do more to improve highway safety, both personally and professionally."

On July 16, 2003, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), Norman Y. Mineta, announced the official fatality toll for 2002 during an "all-hands" meeting with FHWA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The number of fatalities had risen to 42,815—the most since 1990. Secretary Mineta used this occasion to announce to USDOT modal administrators and the public that this toll is unacceptable. He issued a "call to general quarters," declaring the Nation's safety crisis. Subsequently, Secretary Mineta characterized the highway safety crisis by relating it to air travel: "If we had that many people die in aviation accidents, we wouldn't have an airplane flying. People won't put up with it. They ought not to put up with 43,000 uncles, aunts, mothers, dads, brothers, and friends whose lives are snuffed out by traffic accidents."

The Secretary's challenge came at a time when traffic deaths are being viewed more widely as a major public health issue in the United States and internationally. The World Health Organization notes that road crash injuries will become the third-leading cause of deaths worldwide by 2020, up from ninth today. Indeed, automobile-related crashes were the main subject of World Health Day on April 7, 2004, supplanting diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria. Many European countries already address highway fatalities as a public health issue, as reflected in stricter laws for seatbelt usage and impaired driving, tougher adjudication of violations, and more extensive education for young adults before they attain full licensing.

Photo: Woman seated on drivers side of car putting on her seat belt.

Encouraging people to buckle up, as this woman is doing, is one of the most effective steps that a State can take to improve highway safety.

With the Secretary's challenge to reduce the Nation's highway death toll came a new goal—to decrease the fatality rate, currently at 1.5 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, to 1.0 by 2008. Achievement of that vision will result in more than 9,000 fewer deaths per year. Success also will reestablish the United States as a global leader in highway safety, a role the Nation relinquished over the past three decades as countries such as Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Australia, and others have attained lower fatality rates. Overall, the United States ranks ninth among industrialized Nations. The 1.0 goal by 2008 is aggressive—and achievable only if agencies at the Federal, State, and local levels, and industry associations and interest groups, work together in partnership. Three major associations representing State government have pledged their support: the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), representing State departments of transportation (DOTs); the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), representing State public safety officials; and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), representing State licensing officials. Momentum is building among key partners to address this national issue.

Safety Strategies and FHWA's Vital Few Focus Areas

To achieve the Secretary's vision, a three-pronged approach is needed. First, increasing seatbelt usage to 90 percent nationally is expected to provide a significant reduction of fatalities toward achieving the 1.0 goal by 2008. This past year, NHTSA celebrated a significant achievement on the way to reaching 90 percent national seatbelt usage. Belt usage for 2003 increased to 79 percent, the highest level ever, through NHTSA's Click It or Ticket campaign.

The second area necessary to achieve the 1.0 by 2008 goal is to reduce impaired driving. Currently nearly 35 percent of all fatal crashes involve alcohol levels at or above 0.08. Campaigns such as NHTSA's "You Drink & Drive. You Lose," directed at getting impaired drivers off the road, are being pursued aggressively.

A third major element of the national strategy to reduce the fatality rate is to make improvements to our roadways. This strategy focuses on the engineering "E" element of the four "E's"—engineering, enforcement, education, and emergency medical services. Given FHWA's responsibility for highway engineering, the agency designated safety as one of the three "vital few" priorities. The agency's Office of Safety is directly responsible for implementing safety programs and working with other FHWA offices to advance safety throughout the highway industry, including program offices, the Office of Safety Research and Development, the FHWA Resource Center's Safety Technical Service Team, and FHWA safety specialists in the agency's 52 divisions and three Federal Lands Highway offices.

FHWA's Associate Administrator for the Office of Safety, A. George Ostensen, leader of FHWA's strategic vital few approach to advancing safety, notes that improving safety has always been a "primary focus for FHWA." And although the vital few approach targets specific areas for improvement, in Ostensen's words, "by no means is this meant to deemphasize the importance of highway safety strategies in other areas."

Photo: Close up of rumble strips on side of a road while cars drive by on opposite side.

Milled rumble strips placed along the edge of the road provide effective warning for motorists.

With that perspective in mind, FHWA identified three areas where major improvements can be made: roadway departures, intersections, and pedestrians. By targeting resources in these areas, FHWA believes that significant reductions in fatalities can be achieved. Fatality reduction as a function of engineering improvements can best be illustrated by comparing the fatality rate on interstates versus other classifications of roadways. Interstates, which employ the highest engineering standards of any other road type, also achieve the lowest fatality rates. Two-lane rural roads, by contrast, have fatality rates more than double those for interstates. Thus, all other factors being equal, higher roadway standards combined with innovative safety countermeasures can make a significant impact on the number of lives saved.

FHWA Priority, Market-Ready Technologies

The need for a list of priority technologies and innovations was first identified during the FHWA Restructuring Assessment that led to the corporate master plan. A call for the priority list was reinforced by requests from FHWA field offices—including Resource Center locations, Divisions, and Federal Lands Highway Divisions—looking for a definitive corporate statement of priority technologies and innovations. FHWA field offices are responsible for deploying the priority technologies and innovations, and marketing them to State and local agencies through special programs and everyday communications.

The priority list will be a living document, one that can be updated as new market-ready, high-payoff technologies are identified. The FHWA list incorporates all of the focus priorities selected to date by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) through its Technology Implementation Group (TIG). AASHTO created TIG to identify ready-to-implement technologies with significant potential to benefit the Nation's transportation system and champion their use throughout the country.

The following is a list of the FHWA priority technologies and innovations. For more information about these technologies, go to www.fhwa.dot.gov/crt/index.cfm.

  • 511 Traveler Information
  • Asset Management Guide
  • Augered Piles
  • Border Wizard
  • Dispute Resolution Guidance for Environmental Streamlining
  • Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Geofoam
  • FHWA Traffic Noise Model (TNM), Version 2.1
  • Highway Economic Requirements System, State Version
  • Improved Decisionmaking Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS-T)
  • Interagency Funding Guidance for Environmental Streamlining
  • Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) SpecWizard
  • Load and Resistance Factor Design and Rating of Structures
  • Pavement Smoothness Methodologies
  • QuickZone
  • Red Light Cameras
  • Roundabouts
  • Rumble Strips
  • Safe Speeds in Work Zones
  • Transportation, Economics, and Land Use System (TELUS)

AASHTO Technology Implementation Group Approved Technologies

  • Accelerated Construction
  • Air Void Analyzer
  • Fiber-Reinforced Polymer
  • Global Positioning System (GPS) Surveying
  • Ground-Penetrating Radar
  • Highway Rail Warning System
  • ITS Technologies in Work Zones
  • Prefabricated Bridge Elements and Systems
  • Thermal Imaging Safety Screening System

Roadway Departures

Within the roadway departure strategic area are two fundamental goals: to prevent vehicles from leaving the roadway, and second,to minimize the impact on the traveler if the vehicle does depart the roadway. A number of possible countermeasures are available to reduce roadway departure crashes, which represent 59 percent of all fatalities.

Countermeasures to prevent vehicles from leaving the roadway include adequate signing and pavement markings, rumble strips to alert the driver to drifting off the roadway, skid-resistant pavements, and improvements to roadway geometrics. Good visual cues are necessary to assure that the driver can maneuver through ever-changing roadway conditions. Thus it is important that signs and markings are maintained, are provided at the proper location to guide the driver, and are supplying accurate information.

FHWA currently is advancing rulemaking on sign retroreflectivity standards for traffic control devices as part of the agency's ongoing effort to provide consistent, definable standards that improve the visibility of signs. An entertaining and informative CD-ROM available from FHWA, titled "Night Lights lighting the way: How Retroreflectivity Makes Our Roads Safer" (FHWA-SA-03-003), explains retroreflectivity concepts and highway user benefits.

Another countermeasure to prevent travelers from leaving the roadway, rumble strips (horizontal grooves in the pavement), were identified as one of FHWA's priority, market-ready (ready-to-use) technologies and innovations. Rumble strips are designed to alert a drowsy driver drifting off the roadway by producing an audible sound and physical vibration. In the September/October 2003 issue of Public Roads, David A. Morena of FHWA's Michigan Division noted in his article, "Rumbling Toward Safety," that drift-off-road crashes (those involving drowsiness, inattention, or distraction) are typically more severe and are reduced through the proper placement of rumble strips.

Rumble strips, already widely accepted for roadway shoulder applications, now are being applied and evaluated as centerline treatments as well. A recent report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety notes that centerline rumble strips reduced crashes at treated sites by 14 percent.

Rumble "stripes" are a combination of pavement markings and rumbles strips, with the markings applied on top of the rumble strips. Rumble stripes enhance visibility as the vertical face of the rumble strip provides a raised texture that enhances the retroreflectivity performance of the striping material.

Once a vehicle leaves the roadway, the goal of the highway engineer is to minimize harm to the traveler. This goal can be met by assuring that the roadside can be traversed safely, by shielding or eliminating roadside objects, or by preventing collisions with opposing traffic. The South Carolina DOT and the Oklahoma DOT each won a 2003 National Roadway Safety Award from FHWA and the Roadway Safety Foundation for their work in installing median barriers. The South Carolina program installed more than 644 kilometers (400 miles) of median barrier to eliminate median crossover fatalities. The program resulted in a reduction of 148 fatalities since 2000. The Oklahoma DOT also installed a median barrier at a specific location, resulting in the elimination of fatalities since 2001 and the occurrence of only one minor injury.


Intersections represent the second FHWA strategic focus area to address the national safety challenge. Intersection crashes represented more than 20 percent of all fatalities and half of the injuries (1.5 million injuries) in 2002. A number of effective countermeasures are available.

Photo: Auto accident involving SUV and concrete delivery truck.  On the scene are a fire truck and emergency workers.

Violent intersection crashes such as this one between an SUV and a concrete delivery truck exact a high toll but may be decreased by properly designed roundabouts.

Two countermeasures are FHWA priority, market-ready innovations and ready-to-use technologies: red light running cameras and roundabouts. Red light running cameras offer the opportunity to address driver behavioral issues as part of an overall engineering approach to improving the operation of intersections. A red light running camera program requires extensive outreach with the public to assure acceptance of the technology and its application. Roundabouts can reduce the number of conflict points at problem intersections, and in rural locations can be particularly effective in reducing the severity of crashes. By virtue of their circular design, properly designed roundabouts eliminate "T-bone crashes," or 90-degree side-angle crashes.

Photo: A traffic roundabout in Golden, Colorado.

Roundabouts like this one in Golden, CO, help reduce 90-degree angle crashes and have reduced injury/fatal crashes by more than 90 percent.

The Roadway Safety Foundation and FHWA recognized two other intersection countermeasures as 2003 National Roadway Safety Awards winners: the Kentucky/Indiana TRIMARC (Traffic Response and Incident Management Assisting the River Cities) system and the Maine intersection avoidance system. Kentucky's TRIMARC program uses cameras and directional microphones to provide frame-by-frame analysis of intersection crashes, enabling engineers to conduct post-crash reconstruction and to develop effective countermeasures for the emerging crash patterns. The Maine intersection collision avoidance warning system offers a low-cost alternative that involves warning drivers on minor roads and streets of oncoming mainline traffic. The system uses light-emitting diode (LED) signs to provide easy-to-understand information to the driver.

The National Agenda for Intersection Safety, an effort designed to advance the safety of intersections, provides additional information on intersection issues and identifies possible strategies and tools. An FHWA report, National Agenda for Intersection Safety (FHWA-SA-02-007), highlights results from a National Agenda workshop.


Eleven percent of all fatalities consist of pedestrian incidents—the third FHWA strategic focus area. Pedestrians are affected by highway projects during construction, particularly in urban areas, and they can be affected negatively for the long term if projects are not designed to address pedestrian movements as part of the overall design objectives. Pedestrian safety requires a three-pronged approach: (1) educating pedestrians about safe behavior, the meanings of the pedestrian signs and signals, and actions that will improve their own safety; (2) making drivers aware of the presence of pedestrians—encouraging them to make a habit of pedestrian awareness (especially in urban areas and neighborhoods), driving safely around pedestrian areas, and yielding to pedestrians; and (3) encouraging engineers and planners to accommodate pedestrian mobility and safety when designing roadways and other transportation facilities.

To target the first two critical areas, FHWA developed the "Pedestrian Safety Campaign Planner," a ready-made toolkit of outreach materials that States and communities can customize and use locally. The purpose of the campaign is to sensitize drivers to the presence of pedestrians and to educate pedestrians about minimizing risks to their safety. The Pedestrian Safety Campaign Planner includes materials designed for use in television, radio, cinema, and print advertising. Some of the materials included in the toolkit are available in both English and Spanish. States and local communities are responsible for implementing the campaign through local television and radio stations and print media. Also included is FHWA's Pedestrian Safety Campaign Step-by-Step Guide (FHWA-SA-03-006), which explains in detail how to implement a campaign successfully at the local level.

To target the third critical area, FHWA has a number of initiatives underway. One is an evaluation of various pedestrian safety engineering and intelligent transportation systems countermeasures in three cities (Miami, Las Vegas, and San Francisco) that will be ongoing for the next several years. Another is the development of "PedSafe," a software tool that assists engineers and other interested parties in selecting appropriate pedestrian safety engineering countermeasures for specific sites based on criteria unique to each site (scheduled for completion in the fall of 2004).

Other Strategies

A number of other strategies and countermeasures can make significant safety enhancements on highway projects. Identifying and addressing fundamental design elements such as horizontal and vertical curvature; superelevation; lane and shoulder width, speed, and clear zone are critical to delivering safety in roadway projects. Tools such as the Interactive Highway Safety Design Model (IHSDM) enable designers to consider the implications of design flexibility on safety performance.

Road safety audits (RSA) offer an opportunity to provide an independent assessment of a project's safety at any stage of its life: planning, design, construction, or postconstruction. Road safety audits can be applied to projects of any size. FHWA has sponsored audits of rural, two-lane roads and recently sponsored a road safety audit of the Marquette Interchange, a "megaproject" in Milwaukee, WI.

A number of other countermeasures are identified in AASHTO's Strategic Highway Safety Plan. This plan identifies 22 emphasis areas for focusing efforts to reduce highway crash fatalities. This resource is available at safety.transportation.org. AASHTO is currently advancing these strategies through its "Lead State" initiative. Six implementation guides are available, with two additional sets scheduled for release in 2004 and 2005.

Photo: Tourists and pedestrians crossing the street in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.
Tourists and resident cross with the walk signal in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Pedestrian safety is an FHWA priority.

Safety for drivers and workers in work zones are additional important issues. Both AASHTO, through its Technology Implementation Group, and FHWA have identified intelligent transportation systems technologies such as ramp-metering, intrusion alarms, and queue detection systems as ready-to-use technologies. The Florida DOT received a 2003 National Roadway Safety Award as recognition for its work zone safety efforts. Florida's Operation Hardhat stations a trooper, dressed as a construction worker, in work zones with a speed radar device to identify speeders and to issue violations via a downstream trooper. (See "Congestion Is the Challenge" by Scott Battles on page 50 for more information on safety in work zones.)

A Comprehensive, Systematic Safety Approach

These countermeasures represent a small sampling of ways to assure that safety is incorporated into all projects. Fundamental to any countermeasure is accurate data. Without good data, the safety issue cannot be understood properly, and therefore the best course of action cannot be realized. With accurate data also comes the need for a systematic approach to the identification and application of safety countermeasures. A comprehensive, systematic approach to highway safety is essential to long-term success.

The Nation faces a national safety crisis with too many deaths. Secretary Mineta's goal of 1.0 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled by 2008 is aggressive yet achievable. At the end of the day, transportation professionals are responsible for doing everything possible to ensure that road users arrive at their destinations safely. By building safety into all projects, the highway community can achieve that goal on behalf of the American public.

The Office of Safety and others within FHWA are available to provide assistance with incorporating safety into all projects—whether at the Federal, State, or local level.

John R. Baxter, P.E., is director, Office of Safety Design in FHWA's Office of Safety in Washington, DC. His unit is responsible for roadway and roadside safety with a focus on engineering solutions. He has served in a number of positions with FHWA, including Indiana division administrator, Utah assistant division administrator, planning and program management team leader in the New Mexico Division, highway engineer in the Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems Office in Washington, DC, highway engineer in the Office of Implementation at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center, area engineer in the Utah Division, and assistant area engineer in the Michigan Division. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree in civil engineering from Clemson University in South Carolina and is a registered professional engineer in Utah.

For more information on FHWA's safety programs, see http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/hsip/.




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