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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-16-002     Date:  January/February 2016
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-16-002
Issue No: Vol. 79 No. 4
Date: January/February 2016


The Roads Less Traveled

by Rosemarie Anderson and Pamela Beer

A new toolkit from FHWA is paving the way for safer local and tribal rural highways.

Rural roads traverse varied land and serve multiple purposes. FHWA’s Safety Toolkit aims to help local and tribal agencies implement safety improvements on roads such as this one winding through mountainous, rocky terrain.
Rural roads traverse varied land and serve multiple purposes. FHWA’s Safety Toolkit aims to help local and tribal agencies implement safety improvements on roads such as this one winding through mountainous, rocky terrain.

When most people think of a rural road, they most likely picture a pastoral setting with beautiful scenery. Although it is true that many of the Nation’s rural roadways offer scenic views, they also present challenges for local and tribal governments and agencies when it comes to improving safety for road users.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Traffic Safety Facts: Rural/Urban Comparison, fatalities on rural roads in 2013 accounted for 54 percent of all traffic fatalities, even though only 19 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas at that time. In fact, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 2.6 times higher in rural areas than in urban areas.

To help address this issue, the Federal Highway Administration has developed a toolkit and two user guides for transportation professionals and elected officials who are working to improve safety on rural roadways. Improving Safety on Rural Local and Tribal Roads--Safety Toolkit (FHWA-SA-14-072) is intended for local and tribal road practitioners, local public works staff, and Federal and State safety engineers. The Safety Toolkit’s accompanying user guides, User Guide #1: Improving Safety on Rural Local and Tribal Roads--Site Safety Analysis (FHWA-SA-14-073) and User Guide #2: Improving Safety on Rural Local and Tribal Roads--Network Safety Analysis (FHWA-SA-14-074), offer a step-by-step process for safety analysis.

“With over half of all roadway fatalities occurring in rural areas, we believe that providing resources, like this toolkit, to safety professionals in rural and tribal areas will significantly improve their ability to make their roads safer for all users,” says Tony Furst, associate administrator for the FHWA Office of Safety.

Challenges on Rural Local and Tribal Roads

Improving safety on these roadways might be easier if they were all the same. But they are not. A rural road may be straight or winding. It may go through mountains or farmland. The road may be subject to rain and snow. Its surface may be paved or unpaved. A need exists to provide information and assistance to rural local and tribal road practitioners throughout the country to enable them to address safety concerns on these diverse rural roads, and the toolkit is a step toward meeting that need.

In 2013, FHWA reported that 71 percent of the more than 4 million miles (6.3 million kilometers) of roadways in the Nation are in rural areas. Further, the majority of the rural roads (74 percent) are locally owned and maintained.

Addressing safety on rural local and tribal roads presents several challenges. As a result of low traffic volumes, fatalities and serious injuries tend to be dispersed, making it difficult to identify hot spots, specific locations with safety issues and strategies to address them. Many rural safety problems, such as wildlife crossings, rockfalls, and severe weather, happen randomly, making it nearly impossible to plan for when and where they will occur. The roadways in rural areas are often winding and hilly, lack shoulders, and have excessive vegetation, all of which can present challenges for the implementation of infrastructure improvements.

Line graph. The vertical axis is labeled “Number of Fatalities,” and the horizontal axis is labeled “Year.” The years range from 2004 to 2013 in yearly increments. The vertical axis represents the number of traffic fatalities and ranges from 0 to 30,000 in increments of 5,000. One line of the graph represents traffic fatalities in rural areas, another represents traffic fatalities in urban areas. The statistics for fatalities are as follows: 25,179 rural and 17,581 urban in 2004; 24,587 rural and 18,627 urban in 2005; 23,646 rural and 18,791 urban in 2006; 23,254 urban and 17,908 rural in 2007; 20,987 rural and 16,218 urban in 2008; 19,323 rural and 14,501 urban in 2009; 18,089 rural and 14,659 urban in 2010; 17,789 rural and 14,575 urban in 2011; 18,170 rural and 15,296 urban in 2012; and 17,696 rural and 14,987 urban in 2013.

In addition, law enforcement and emergency medical services (EMS) in rural areas often operate with limited resources. Law enforcement officers frequently patrol large geographic regions, which presents challenges with enforcing traffic laws. Many EMS responders in rural areas are from volunteer units, and hospitals and trauma centers are few in number. The nearest hospital may be many miles away from a crash, which may increase the time before an injured individual receives medical care.

Another challenge to improving safety on rural roads is that the mitigation strategies are diverse and draw from several safety areas. In many cases, local agencies and tribal transportation agencies do not have the resources (such as funding or staff with transportation safety experience) to address roadway safety issues.

“Tribal traffic safety can be very challenging,” says Dennis Trusty, director of the Northern Plains Tribal Technical Assistance Program at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, ND. “There are a lot of different issues. Some of them deal with the lack of transportation codes and laws, such as the [driving] age. Another problem involves roadways that were built 40 to 50 years ago and often have features that are unsafe. And there is a lack of adequate law enforcement [because the officers] are often dealing with other pressing problems.”

Resources for Rural Road Safety

Local rural and tribal agencies have a number of resources available to help them meet these challenges and improve traffic safety.

The FHWA Office of Safety has a Web page dedicated to local and rural road safety issues; see http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/local_rural. The site includes information on FHWA’s Highway Safety Improvement Program and specifics on safety issues such as roadway departures, pedestrian and bicyclist safety, and intersection safety. Site visitors will also find links to partner organizations and agencies, such as the Local Technical Assistance Program/Tribal Technical Assistance Program (LTAP/TTAP), National Association of County Engineers, and National Association of Development Organizations.

Local and tribal agencies have to consider and understand the distinct challenges they face to make rural roads safer. Here, a tractor trailer and other vehicles share a two-lane road through farmland.
Local and tribal agencies have to consider and understand the distinct challenges they face to make rural roads safer. Here, a tractor trailer and other vehicles share a two-lane road through farmland.

In addition, FHWA recently launched a center devoted to local and rural road safety issues, the National Center for Rural Road Safety, accessible at http://ruralsafetycenter.org. The major focus of the center is on providing training and technical assistance to rural local and tribal agencies. To this end, the center’s Web site is a resource for putting training tools and resources for rural transportation safety into practice.

The LTAP/TTAP centers are focused on providing assistance to tribes, counties, parishes, townships, cities, and towns to improve their roads and bridges by supplying them with a variety of training programs, an information clearinghouse, new and existing technology updates, personalized technical assistance, and newsletters. In addition, the Tribal Transportation Safety Web site at www.tribalsafety.org is sponsored by the TTAP centers. The site is a useful resource for safety practitioners with a focus on safety issues and strategies for tribal roads. It offers safety information pertinent to the tribal community, including safety planning and funding, and provides a discussion forum for various safety topics.

Ownership and Length of Public Roads
  Total Miles of
U.S. Public Roads
Federally Owned
Rural Roads 2,940,580 miles (4,734,333 kilometers) 2,174,094 mi
(3,500,291 km)
625,052 mi
(1,006,334 km)
141,434 mi
(227,709 km)
Urban 1,191,536 mi (1,918,373 km) 1,020,685 mi
(1,643,303 km)
160,140 mi
(257,825 km)
10,711 mi
(17,245 km)
Total 4,132,153 mi (6,652,766 km) 3,194,779 mi
(5,143,594 km)
785,192 mi
(1,264,159 km)
152,145 mi
(244,953 km)
Source: Highway Statistics 2013, Public Road Length–2013 Miles by Ownership, October 21, 2014.
Note: The discrepancy in the total numbers is due to unreported numbers that are neither rural nor urban.

Although rural and tribal agencies have access to information and resources, they might not know how to obtain them quickly and efficiently. Many staff in rural and tribal agencies have myriad responsibilities. Therefore, opportunities to improve safety may be missed, despite awareness of the need to address safety issues. FHWA’s Safety Toolkit aims to help rural and tribal transportation professionals easily find the information they need.

Benefits of the Toolkit

The benefits of the Safety Toolkit are inherent in its purpose--a one-stop shop for information on the safety analysis process and resources, presented in plain language for anyone wanting to address roadway safety issues.

The step-by-step approach presented in the toolkit and its user guides is based largely on the safety analysis process given in the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Highway Safety Manual. This process involves three components: evaluating the network (road system), selecting improvements, and implementing and monitoring those improvements.

“Because crashes in rural areas tend to be linked more by contributing factors than by location, the challenge is that you need to look at the entire system to be able to identify trends,” says David Brand, a county engineer in Madison, OH. Contributing factors may include causes such as low roadway friction around a curve or constraints on sight distance.

Brand continues, “The toolkit is helpful in explaining the best way to identify these trends in crash causes and to select the right low-cost safety countermeasures to reduce serious and fatal injuries on rural systems.”

Each component of the safety analysis has a series of steps. The first component--evaluating the network--includes the following three steps: (1) compile data, (2) conduct network screening, and (3) select sites for implementation.

Two steps come under selecting improvements, the second component: (4) diagnose site conditions and identify countermeasures, and (5) prioritize countermeasures for implementation.

In many rural locations, weather conditions can be severe. On this road, snow is one of many factors that local practitioners have to take into consideration when making safety improvements.
In many rural locations, weather conditions can be severe. On this road, snow is one of many factors that local practitioners have to take into consideration when making safety improvements.

The final component, implementing and monitoring the improvements, includes the final two steps: (6) implement countermeasures, and (7) evaluate their effectiveness.

What follows is a brief description of each step.

Step 1: Compile Available Safety Data

One of the problems facing local and tribal agencies is a lack of comprehensive safety data (crash data, traffic data, and roadway data). The toolkit shows that valuable safety analysis can be conducted with limited data, but the type of analysis and the level of sophistication vary according to the quantity and quality of the available data.

The most common types of quantitative information are data on crashes, traffic volumes, and roadway characteristics. Qualitative anecdotal information also can contribute to safety analysis. The toolkit provides examples of each type. For instance, anecdotal data may involve calls from local citizens, whereas quantitative data on roadway characteristics may be the road’s functional classification, length of medians or guardrails, and number and types of lanes. The toolkit also gives examples of data sources, including reports such as a State’s strategic highway safety plan, and the organizations or agencies that can assist in data collection and access, such as the LTAP.

“The main challenge I have with [addressing] safety in rural areas is best illustrated by a map that just shows dots where crashes occurred, scattered across the county,” says Scott Davis, a transportation manager with Thurston County, WA. “It is difficult to develop a plan to reduce serious injuries and fatalities when this is the type of data we have available. Fortunately, the [Safety Toolkit] provides information on tools, such as the Systemic Safety Project Selection Tool, [which] helps localities improve safety even when the data are limited.”

Step 2: Conduct Network Screening

The toolkit demonstrates how to evaluate all or some of an agency’s roadway system from a safety perspective. It explains the benefits of performing a safety examination on the overall network rather than looking at individual locations. The end result is a list of sites with the greatest potential for safety improvements.

“The toolkit and user guides [are] the first publications I’ve seen to describe the network safety analysis process,” says Steve Castleberry, director of the Nevada County, CA, Department of Public Works. “Historically, we would use a pin-type map to identify hot spot crash locations, and we would address those locations individually. Now, we screen for crash types or roadway characteristics with the goal of fixing multiple risk areas with a single project. For example, we are now screening for incidences of winter crashes with the plan of identifying and funding a number of high friction surface treatment projects.”

When traditional methods (hot spot or black spot analysis) are not effective for identifying locations for improvements on rural roadways, some agencies take a systemic approach. The approach is detailed in the Systemic Safety Project Selection Tool, which provides a step-by-step process for conducting systemic safety analysis. For example, Thurston County, WA, used the tool to address roadway departure crashes on horizontal curves. Based on a review of crash data--along with aerial photography and geographic information system (GIS) files--researchers identified nine risk factors for use in screening and prioritizing candidate locations. Based on this information and analysis, they selected countermeasures including signing, rumble strips, pavement markings, and roadside improvements.

Graphic of seven-step process used in the Safety Toolkit. The graphic consists of outer and inner circles that show the flow of the process. The outer “wheel” is divided into three segments labeled “Evaluate the Network,” “Select Improvements,” and “Implement and Monitor.” Each of these components has its own inner wheel, labeled with its steps. Under Evaluate the Network are “Step 1: Compile Data”; “Step 2: Conduct Network Screening”; and “Step 3: Select Sites for Implementation.” Under Select Improvements are “Step 4: Diagnose Site Conditions and Identify Countermeasures,” and “Step 5: Prioritize Countermeasures for Implementation.” Under Implement and Monitor are “Step 6: Implement Countermeasures” and “Step 7: Evaluate Effectiveness.”

The Systemic Safety Project Selection Tool is available for download at http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/systemic.

Step 3: Select Sites For Implementation

After agencies identify locations during the network screening, they review and evaluate the sites to determine which to select for detailed analysis. Selecting the locations is a qualitative process that relies on considerations such as relative severity and frequency of crashes, traffic volumes, stakeholder concerns, and potential solutions.

The toolkit provides several possible considerations to select sites for more detailed analysis. Considerations include number and rate of crashes; available funds; crash severity; possible integration with a planned maintenance or construction project nearby; and whether it is consistent with agency policies, plans, or programs.

Step 4: Diagnose Site Conditions and Identify Countermeasures

Agencies then take the results from the previous steps and diagnose site conditions and identify countermeasures. The availability of crash data influences how this step will be conducted, but the toolkit provides information about diagnosing site crash conditions with and without data. When using data, the toolkit recommends reviewing crash report forms for the site. These forms provide a considerable amount of data on the cause of the crash. Options for conducting site diagnosis without crash data include utilizing existing expertise, conducting a road safety audit, and applying the predictive method from AASHTO’s Highway Safety Manual.

Once the site diagnosis is complete, agencies will identify countermeasures to mitigate the safety issues. They may identify countermeasures by examining contributing factors, reviewing a specific crash type, considering conditions at a specific location, and selecting countermeasures proven to address these conditions. Countermeasures range from roundabouts for addressing intersection safety to enhanced delineation and improved friction for horizontal curves.

Step 5: Prioritize Countermeasures For Implementation

Funding limitations at the local and tribal levels are always an issue. If a single site was studied and only one countermeasure was selected, then the agency is ready to begin the next step: implementation. However, if the agency studied more than one site or identified multiple countermeasures at one or more sites, specific countermeasures and sites must be chosen for implementation. In these cases, the countermeasures must be prioritized based on agency resources.

The appropriate prioritization method depends on the resources and data available. The toolkit explains two main methodologies for prioritizing projects: qualitative (such as considering the available right-of-way to implement the strategy) and quantitative (such as conducting a cost-benefit analysis). An agency can look at these various methods and develop a matrix to rate the projects, for example, high, medium, or low, or good, fair, or poor.

“The toolkit is very helpful in explaining the countermeasure selection process,” says Ohio’s Brand. “It is a mix of (1) what types of preventable crashes are happening, (2) what are the most effective countermeasures to address those crash types, and (3) what countermeasures will my community support?”

Step 6: Implement Countermeasures

Implementation is where the rubber meets the road. Obtaining the necessary human and financial resources is a major consideration in implementing any safety project or program. The toolkit suggests ways to fund projects. For example, harness local funding sources and staff, such as using the maintenance staff to implement low-cost projects, which may include sign replacement, vegetation control, or roadway striping, as part of their regular duties. In addition, use locally generated funds as a match to leverage State or Federal dollars to support project implementation.

The toolkit also encourages agencies to look beyond safety-focused funding programs for access to a broader set of funding pools. For example, agencies might be able to secure more funding by incorporating safety treatments into maintenance or capital improvement projects than if they limited their applications strictly to safety programs.

Step 7: Evaluate Effectiveness

Everyone, particularly elected officials, wants to know whether the safety efforts are actually making a difference. Therefore, evaluation of past projects is critical to the success of future local and tribal road safety efforts. Although safety results typically are not immediate, taking steps to document results can demonstrate that improving safety not only saves lives, but it also makes a difference in other areas, such as operational improvements.

Not all evaluations are equal, and they depend on the resources available. The toolkit walks practitioners through different methods and points to additional resources to help users decide which approaches will work best in their communities. Some methods recommended in the toolkit include collecting public feedback; conducting a general and comparative assessment of before-and-after crash frequency, severity, and traffic volumes; and conducting a rigorous before-after analysis.

Shown here is McCourtney Road in Nevada County, CA, before the implementation of a safety project to improve the highway’s sharp curve to the left.
Shown here is McCourtney Road in Nevada County, CA, before the implementation of a safety project to improve the highway’s sharp curve to the left.

After each step, the toolkit also provides a list of related resources, making it easy to find additional information. Some sources include a link to FHWA’s Crash Modification Factors Clearinghouse at www.cmfclearinghouse.org, which helps transportation professionals identify the most appropriate countermeasures for their safety needs; Safety Analyst, which can help agencies improve programming of site-specific highway safety improvements; and Road Safety 365, a workshop for local governments.

The User Guides

To further assist practitioners with improving the safety of their roads, FHWA created two user guides. Each guide, by presenting a typical scenario on rural roads, shows how to apply the safety analysis process through examples of solutions using methods presented in the toolkit. The user guides’ solutions provide step-by-step procedures for practitioners to apply the methods to comparable situations in any community.

User Guide #1: Improving Safety on Rural Local and Tribal Roads--Site Safety Analysis. The scenario in this guide involves complaints from a community about safety at a particular curve and high travel speeds. Given the circumstances, the guide walks the reader through compiling data (step 1); diagnosing site conditions and identifying countermeasures (step 4); prioritizing countermeasures for implementation (step 5); implementing countermeasures (step 6); and evaluating effectiveness (step 7). Conducting network screening (step 2) and selecting sites for implementation (step 3) are not necessary in this scenario because the location of interest was pinpointed by the public.

User Guide #2: Improving Safety on Rural Local and Tribal Roads--Network Safety Analysis. The scenario in this guide is set in a small, rural town. In the example, the development of an intersection safety plan is recommended to identify and prioritize safety improvements. All 15 two-way stop-controlled intersections in the town are selected for a detailed evaluation, and the countermeasures are selected and prioritized. This user guide walks practitioners through all seven steps of the safety process.

Nevada County, CA, Case Study

Nevada County is located on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains in northern California. It has a population of nearly 100,000. One of the problem areas in the county involved McCourtney Road, where 3 crashes occurred over a period of 10 years. The issue was a curve that reduced visibility and a steep dropoff along the shoulder.

With funds available from FHWA’s Highway Safety Improvement Program, the county made the decision in 2011 to redesign the roadway by flattening the shoulder slope and the area adjacent to the roadway to improve visibility. The cost for these improvements was $388,000, and the work took 4 years to complete.

This photo shows McCourtney Road after the safety improvement project with temporary pylons still along the shoulder. The project widened the roadway and leveled off the shoulder.
This photo shows McCourtney Road after the safety improvement project with temporary pylons still along the shoulder. The project widened the roadway and leveled off the shoulder.


This edited photograph shows how safety could have been improved on McCourtney Road through low-cost countermeasures such as chevrons and better line delineation.
This edited photograph shows how safety could have been improved on McCourtney Road through low-cost countermeasures such as chevrons and better line delineation.

The toolkit, however, presents information on how the county could have implemented a more cost-effective solution by installing chevrons and better line delineation. The total cost would have been approximately $5,000, and the time to implement the improvements would have been only 1 month.

Nevada County’s Castleberry demonstrated how safety could have been improved by adding images of low-cost countermeasures to a photograph of McCourtney Road before the redesign project. “For Nevada County, the ‘aha’ aspect of the toolkit and user guide[s] was the use of low-cost countermeasures,” he says. “We have mostly narrow, rural, winding roads. Rather than attacking crash locations with widening and realignment projects, we now look first at low-cost countermeasures such as chevron signs, rumble strips, and high friction surface treatments.”

According to Castleberry, it previously took the county years to deliver even small safety projects to widen roads because of environmental regulations, right-of-way acquisition, and Federal requirements. “By focusing on low-cost countermeasures, we believe we are getting a similar level of safety improvement, but we are getting it delivered to the public 2 to 3 years sooner,” he says. “A check of a few of our projects has indicated the benefit-cost ratio of the lower cost projects is 5 to 60 times greater than the traditional widening projects.”


By helping to prevent traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries, the Improving Safety on Rural Local and Tribal Roads--Safety Toolkit and user guides can assist individuals tasked with making their roadways safer. The toolkit provides a single resource to assist with the identification of safety issues and countermeasures to address them, and offers guidance through the implementation and evaluation of countermeasures. For ease of navigation, the document has color-coded steps, and it is presented in plain language for ease of comprehension. Using the toolkit and user guides can be beneficial for experienced traffic safety personnel as well as those new to safety processes.

“What is a good safety countermeasure to employ in one community may not be the best countermeasure for your area,” says Ohio’s Brand. “You have to understand what is actually occurring to make the best first choice. The toolkit helps you make that choice.”

Rosemarie Anderson is the local and rural roads manager in the FHWA Office of Safety. She has more than 30 years of experience in transportation planning and engineering. She holds M.S. degrees in transportation and financial planning from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Pamela M. Beer is a senior associate with Cambridge Systematics, Inc. She has nearly 30 years of experience in the areas of highway safety, strategic planning and analysis, communications and community outreach, public awareness, media relations, and transportation safety planning. Beer has worked with FHWA to develop marketing plans and materials for many programs, including the Safety Toolkit and the National Center for Rural Road Safety. She has a B.F.A. from The University of Utah.

For more information, see http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/local_rural/training/fhwasa14072 or contact Rosemarie Anderson at 202–366–5007 or rosemarie.anderson@dot.gov.



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