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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 62· No. 6 > "Doing Futures" Creating a Preferred Future in Highway Safety

May/June 1999
Vol. 62· No. 6

"Doing Futures" Creating a Preferred Future in Highway Safety

by Lorena G. Beauchesne

If a maxim seems tailor-made for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), it's "Safety never takes a holiday." As long as people are injured or killed on American highways, FHWA will never be satisfied with the safety status quo.

The top priority for the U.S. Department of Transportation is saving lives and preventing transportation-related injuries. Likewise, improving motor carrier and highway safety is the number one priority for FHWA.

On Feb. 1, 1999, under a broad restructuring initiative at FHWA headquarters, the Office of Motor Carriers and Office of Highway Safety joined together as a core business unit - the Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety (OMCHS). The merger will support efforts to ensure that the rate of traffic fatalities and injuries - particularly those involving trucks and other commercial vehicles - continues to decline.

As part of this bedrock commitment to improving safety, FHWA in mid-1998 engaged nationally known futurist Glen Hiemstra for a year-long venture in preferred future planning. One of a new breed of consultants helping businesses and organizations thrive in a changing world, Hiemstra has worked with a stellar roster of clients, including the U.S. Congress; federal agencies such as the Department of Labor and the Social Security Administration; and Fortune 500 firms, including Boeing and Hewlett-Packard.

FHWA's goal is to identify the actions it must take now and in the future to "create" the future it desires. In futures planning, participants come together to ask "What if?" Then they identify and analyze plausible scenarios. Hiemstra conducts the process in two phases: scenario-building conferences and strategic implementation.

FHWA's project manager Debra Elston planned a schedule of a half-dozen focus groups, two or three external conferences, and several internal strategic planning sessions. FHWA highway safety officials would attend both conferences and be actively involved in the strategy sessions.

Currently, FHWA is about midway through the futures search process. Two conferences - or futures search forums - have been conducted so far, and many of FHWA's partners in safety have participated. The first conference was held Aug. 25 and 26, 1998, in Chicago; the second took place Jan. 19 and 20, 1999, in Washington, D.C. FHWA would like more participation from grassroots safety organizations and may hold a third conference before proceeding to the strategic implementation phase.

During the conferences, participants fleshed out features of a preferred future federal role for motor carrier and highway safety; then they drew up a short list of critical strategic issues that OMCHS programs will need to address beyond 2001.

During the strategic planning phase, which is expected to begin in the spring of 1999, OMCHS officials will boil down the alternative preferred scenarios into a practicable, customer-driven strategic plan. Then, they'll identify specific, nuts-and-bolts strategies for implementing the plan. The plan, however, will function more as a guiding star than a simple blueprint.

Futures Planning

In August 1998, 27 motor carrier safety experts from industry, government, and academia joined Hiemstra and nine FHWA officials in Chicago for the first two-day conference. At the start of the conference, Hiemstra told the group that the fast-paced, interactive exercises they were about to engage in are not really about the future. Instead, he explained, they're about "folding the future back on the present so you can make better decisions today." That is, the preferred future influences day-to-day and long-range decisions - which, in turn, move you in the direction of your ideal future. "The future," Hiemstra said, "is something you do."

Glen Hiemstra
Facilitator Glen Hiemstra makes a point at FHWA's August 1998 futures search conference

Elston added, "Futures planning is about managing change so your decisions work for today - and tomorrow. Our FHWA strategic goal is a 20-percent reduction in truck-involved highway injuries and fatalities by 2010, so we need to be proactive about change - always ready for what could happen." Successful futures planning is like whitewater rafting. You've got to stay alert to every shift in the current - ready to navigate the rapids of change.

Part art and part science, futures planning combines intensive brainstorming with complex, disciplined analysis and a special kind of visualization. During the conference, participants were challenged to continually ask themselves: "What is possible?" "What is probable?" "What is preferred?"

Through a combination of whole-group and table-team sessions, participants at the two futures search forums set out to:

  • Develop a global picture of motor carrier and highway safety trends.
  • Anticipate the implications of these trends.
  • Define features of a preferred future role for OMCHS.
  • Pinpoint critical strategic issues that OMCHS must address beyond 2001.

On the first day of each conference, participants began by pulling together a list of critical questions related to safety, the economy, infrastructure, the motor carrier industry, and the future federal role in motor carrier and highway safety. This jump-started their creative thinking and provided a framework for the intensive action ahead. Some of the more interesting questions included:

  • How can we measure driver performance short of enforcement?
  • Can we disconnect economic growth and traffic growth? Will commuter congestion increase or decrease?
  • How will shifts in need and demand change what is transported in the future?
  • How will freight move and be distributed? What will be the ramifications for safety, productivity, drivers' standard of living?
  • How does three-to-five-year planning - with its usual impediments and limitations - fit with futures planning?

Next, the conference participants identified some "key drivers of change" - trends that are likely to transform American life and work in the years ahead. Aiming for outside-the-box thinking, they looked beyond trends in the motor carrier industry, highway safety, and transportation to consider demographic patterns, lifestyle and work, organizational structures, global issues, medical and behavioral breakthroughs, and the techno-economic revolution. They discussed the potential impact of - and interplay among - rapid air travel, globalization, information technology, new energy sources, digital engineering, "smart" materials, environmental imperatives, genetic engineering, and more. The group then talked about the implications of these key drivers of change for the motor carrier industry and for highway safety.

Defining the Preferred Future

On the second day, the conferees got down to serious scenario-building. Considering the critical questions and key drivers of change identified the day before, the four teams moved through six progressive exercises:

  1. First, each team looked at the key changes facing the motor carrier industry in the next 20 years, then chose the five most important changes plus one "critical uncertainty." From the teams' reports, the whole group drew up a composite list of key changes.
  2. The group then pared down the master list to the most important drivers of change and the most critical uncertainties.
  3. Using the change drivers and remembering to assume at least the same amount of change as has occurred throughout the twentieth century, the teams brainstormed to create possible future scenarios.
  4. The teams then turned their possible scenarios into a preferred future scenario. Each team culled the "most preferred" elements of its scenario and presented these to the group.
  5. The whole group looked for common threads among the teams' "most preferred" elements, then combined these with a few wild-card elements into a single, preferred future scenario. This ideal scenario included both the future of motor carrier transport and the future federal role for motor carrier and highway safety.
  6. The entire group brainstormed a list of critical strategic issues that OMCHS must deal with to move in the direction of the preferred future.

Although the two conferences' preferred scenarios were somewhat similar, they had interesting differences. Both groups envisioned crash-free highways with separate freight corridors, and each foresaw radical technological change. The participants of one conference, however, predicted an intermodal environment with few regulatory seams between the modes, while the other conference group put more focus on "smart" highway technology. For the preferred future federal role in motor carrier and highway safety, both sets of conferees anticipated increased partnering with industry, grassroots safety organizations, and the public - with greater payoffs in safety.

Key features of the Chicago group's preferred future were:

  • Information-driven and information-dependent environment.
  • Smart vehicles and infrastructure.
  • Well-trained and proficient drivers.
  • Wide use of simulator-based training.
  • Industry self-enforcement through technology information management.

The Washington conferees represented a cross-section of experts in motor carrier safety, highway safety, and intelligent transportation systems (ITS). Like the Chicago conference group, they emphasized increased information technology management and better driver training, but they did not envision industry self-enforcement. This conference's preferred scenario included:

  • Use of ITS - both in the vehicle and on the roadway - to improve safety.
  • Improved infrastructure with better accessibility, signage, and ITS technologies.
  • Dedicated lanes separating large and small vehicles.
  • Reduced costs through improved safety and more efficient use of roads and infrastructure for greater productivity and mobility.
  • Increased professional capacity building to ensure that highway professionals in government, industry, associations, and academia develop the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed beyond the millennium.

Identifying Strategic Issues

At the Chicago conference, participants identified seven strategic issues that OMCHS will need to address in the decades to come:

  • Technology - the need to continue the transition from a reactive to a proactive approach in safety and enforcement through increasingly sophisticated use of state-of-the-art technology.
  • Coordination, integration, and dissemination of data - understanding what data tells us and what it doesn't, and the need for forecasting tools with economic impacts.
  • Drivers - training and certification, supervision, career perspective.
  • Intermodal transportation - developing cooperative systems for moving freight, with more porous boundaries between the modes.
  • Increased road congestion - the need for a stronger federal advocacy and economic role to reduce congestion.
  • Safety - inspection itself must change.
  • Terrorism and crime.

The Washington group put together a similar list although they viewed some issues from a different perspective:

  • Technology -the nexus between technology in the vehicle and technology in the roadway.
  • Coordination, integration, and dissemination of data - the need for a common understanding of definitions.
  • Mission - choosing an appropriate balance among technology, partnerships, and enforcement to increase safety.
  • Infrastructure - how to allocate resources to achieve separation of large and small vehicles.
  • Safety - the need for more focused driver training and increased partnering.

Achieving Our Preferred Future

Once all information from the conferences is analyzed, we'll begin the implementation of actions designed to lead to our preferred future. The senior motor carrier and highway safety officials in FHWA - OMCHS office directors and division chiefs, resource center motor carrier operations managers, and state directors of motor carrier operations - will participate in several strategic workshops over a period of about six months to synthesize the alternative preferred scenarios and critical strategic issues into a workable strategic plan.

At the first meeting, the leaders from FHWA headquarters will analyze the alternative preferred future scenarios and key strategic initiatives in light of existing program requirements. They will identify those features of the alternative preferred futures and the corresponding strategic issues that they consider feasible. Then, they will integrate these elements with the OMCHS strategic initiative reports, other internal resource documents, and FHWA restructuring standards for organizational sub-units.

During the next two planning sessions, resource center operations managers, state directors, and highway safety staff will focus on implementation strategies at the resource center and state levels.

In the last step, a cross-functional leadership team will consolidate information from the conferences and internal workshops and will develop the strategic plan. The plan will include the actions that OMCHS will start taking today to increase highway safety tomorrow, priorities, and a schedule for implementation.

This process will provide a preferred future to guide us toward 2020.

Lorena G. Beauchesne is a writer-editor with FHWA's Office of Motor Carrier and Highway Safety. Before joining the federal government, she was senior editor with Model Aviation magazine. After Model Aviation moved to the Midwest, she worked at the Department of Commerce and then at the U.S. Superintendent of Documents Office, where she wrote promotional material for government publications and a marketing communications newsletter. She has a bachelor's degree in English literature from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration