Being Proactive

Jan. 1, 2006

The Road Safety Audit program is quickly gaining the attention of safety directors at departments of transportation throughout the country for its reputation as a low-cost way to improve safety.

Road Safety Audits (RSAs) have been used for many years in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark. These countries adopted RSAs for one simple reason: they are effective in reducing traffic crashes and deaths.

The Road Safety Audit program is quickly gaining the attention of safety directors at departments of transportation throughout the country for its reputation as a low-cost way to improve safety.

Road Safety Audits (RSAs) have been used for many years in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark. These countries adopted RSAs for one simple reason: they are effective in reducing traffic crashes and deaths.

While RSAs are currently under study in a number of state DOTs in this country, the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) has taken the lead in developing and implementing an RSA program.

“SCDOT is one of the few state DOTs to develop a comprehensive written protocol for effective implementation of RSAs,” SCDOT Executive Director Elizabeth Mabry explained. “Other states have noticed and are interested in starting the program in their DOTs as well.”

The RSAs helped the SCDOT engineering team develop a number of solutions incorporating measures that were not originally included in the projects. The very first audit saved SCDOT thousands of dollars.

Fighting for a cause

Beginning early in 2000, after noting the success of the RSA program in other countries, Wilson and her staff embarked on a campaign to emulate that success in South Carolina. She began by briefing SCDOT’s state highway engineer and the division administrator of the South Carolina office of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of the benefits of RSAs: a proactive rather than reaction approach; high effectiveness in other countries; possible even with limited resources; and most importantly supporting the agency’s No. 1 strategic plan goal of improving safety.

Bob Lee, the FHWA division administrator, was already familiar with the concept and was very supportive, as was former State Highway Engineer Don Freeman. The state’s current State Highway Engineer Tony Chapman provided invaluable guidance on how to gain support for the program throughout the agency. Without their help, and the approval of Mabry, SCDOT would not have been able to implement the program.

After getting the green light to implement the program, SCDOT staff began taking the initial steps to launch the effort. First, SCDOT researched RSA programs in the U.K. and elsewhere to determine the best methods to develop its own program.

Funding was secured through the federal safety set-aside, creating the position of a full-time RSA program coordinator to implement and manage the program. The newly hired coordinator attended RSA training classes in Kentucky and Kansas. Taught by engineers from Kansas State University, Kansas DOT, the FHWA and the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the participants learned how to look at every aspect of a project with safety in mind from the beginning rather than the end. The interdisciplinary nature of the trainees allowed them to discuss each other’s views critically and to appreciate and understand the different perspectives each could bring to the table.

“RSAs are far better than safety reviews in that RSAs are comprehensive, proactive and truly interdisciplinary,” said Colette Murray-Swann, SCDOT program manager with oversight responsibility for the RSA program.

The next step in SCDOT’s process was the development of formal, standard operational procedures for the RSA program. The procedures outlined responsibilities for everyone involved in the RSA program, including project selection and program evaluations. Engineering directors within the agency had an opportunity to review and approve the procedures. The procedures were incorporated in a recent TRB synthesis on RSAs and the state of the practice in the U.S.

SCDOT then established an RSA advisory committee. The committee consists of nine members: the deputy state highway engineer; the directors of construction, pre-construction, maintenance, traffic engineering, planning and safety; and two district engineering administrators. The committee’s role is to monitor and provide guidance over the RSA program. Project approval and annual report approval also are within the committee’s purview.

The next step was to select audit team members. District engineering administrators were asked to submit names of individuals who would be willing to serve on an audit team for two years. Sixty team members were selected from within SCDOT headquarters, the seven engineering districts and the FHWA and sent to RSA training seminars held in South Carolina.

The RSA course was offered through the National Highway Institute. Instructors included Martin Lipinski of Memphis, Tenn., and Eugene Wilson of Laramie, Wyo. Lipinski holds a Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Illinois. He has taught pilot RSA courses in the U.S. and is a past chair of the ITE Transportation Safety Council. Wilson holds a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Arizona State University. He is the director of the Wyoming Technology Transfer Center and a professor of civil engineering at the University of Wyoming.

Following the training seminar, advisory committee members submitted proposed sites for audit, and six were chosen for the first year’s program: two existing roadways (U.S. 17, SC-34); three under construction (SC-296, SC-14, U.S.-501); and one new infrastructure project (I-585).

Teams consisting of four to six auditors were sent to the selected sites to apply their newly acquired techniques to real problems. They evaluated geometry, sight-distance obstructions, turn-lane design, acceleration- and deceleration-lane design, illumination, median barrier placement, pedestrian accessibility, superelevation, drainage, shoulder and lane widths, access management, driveway consolidation and intersection approaches.

All operating environments—day, night, overcast, rain, summer, winter, spring and fall—as well as times of day and lighting conditions were carefully evaluated in the audit process. Probable use patterns and traffic densities also were considered and evaluated.

Resulting reductions

In 2003, an RSA was conducted on I-585 in Spartanburg County, S.C. Of the eight recommendations made by the audit, four were implemented. In 2004, there was a reduction in the total number of crashes on I-585 from 36 to 32, a decrease of 12.5%, resulting in an economic savings of $40,000.

Also in 2003, SCDOT performed an RSA on U.S. 17 in Horry County. Of the 13 suggestions for improvements, two were incorporated into the project. The total crashes on U.S. 17 in 2004 increased by 15.8%. However, this audit discovered a hydrology problem that, if not discovered at this early stage, would have cost the DOT substantially in future retrofits and repairs.

All nine suggested safety improvements resulting from an RSA of SC-14 in Greenville County were implemented. Fatalities on SC-14 were reduced from five in 2003 to two in 2004, a reduction of 150%, and a savings of $3,660,000 in estimated economic costs.

Another Spartanburg County road audited by SCDOT in 2003, SC-296, had a 23.4% reduction in crashes in 2004. Twenty-five of the 37 safety recommendations were adopted. The average economic impact in savings was $147,000.

“It’s too early to directly attribute these reductions to the audit-induced changes. Accumulating data over time is the only way to evaluate the success of a program, and since the RSA program in South Carolina is basically in its infancy, we don’t yet have the information on which to base meaningful conclusions,” William Bloom, director of research and statistics for SCDOT, said. “However,” he continued, “the numbers do appear to be very promising.”

SCDOT and FHWA also used the RSA approach in 2004 during the Phase I implementation of a program to reduce crashes on secondary roads in the state.

Multidisciplinary teams conducted safety audits of 50 of the secondary roads in the state with high proportions of lane-departure crashes or high crash rates. The teams developed specific recommendations for all 50 roads, and many of the lower cost, short-term recommendations are currently being implemented. Having the roads examined from a variety of perspectives results in much more comprehensive recommendations. And including representatives from the local coroner’s offices, EMS and local law enforcement on audit teams is truly an advantage to identifying safety concerns. They recall specific crashes and can give insight that would not be able to be ascertained from just reviewing a crash report.

SCDOT will be closely monitoring the data on these roads. Data for five years prior to implementation has already been compiled.

Worth the price?

In South Carolina, an average of three people die every day in motor vehicle crashes. In 2005, 1,091 people died on South Carolina’s roads. The average economic impact of each fatality is $1,120,000. In nonfatal crashes, the economic impact of each incapacitating injury is $55,500; each nonincapacitating injury is $18,200; and property-damage-only crashes have an average economic impact of $8,200.

“Common sense tells us the benefits of RSAs are obvious,” said Mabry. “It is always cheaper to get it right from the beginning than to start over and fix the mistakes later. There is an even more crucial question to be considered in the decision-making process: Can this program improve safety and save lives? We believe that it will, and that’s why SCDOT is implementing the program.”

It has and does, according to Philip Jordan of VicRoads in Australia. As a presenter at the 2003 Institution of Highways and Transportation Conference on Road Safety Audits in London, Jordan summarized RSA benefits from several different studies. Depending on the size of the project, the average audit cost was between $1,000 and $8,000 U.S.

According to Synthesis 336, published in 2004 by the Transportation Research Board of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, several studies summarized by Jordan analyzed before- and after-crash data of similar projects. One study examined crash data over a two-year period for 19 audited and 19 nonaudited project sites in the U.K. The audited sites had an annual casualty savings of 1.25. Annual casualty savings for the nonaudited sites were only 0.26.

In another U.K. study cited in the Synthesis, the cost of implementing audit changes during the project was compared with the cost of retrofitting the sites after completion. The average savings was $19,600 per site.

In Australia, an analysis of nine audit sites in the design stage, incorporating 250 post-audit changes, resulted in benefit-cost ratios ranging from 3:1 to 242:1. On existing roads, the benefit-cost ratios ranged from 2:1 to 84:1.

Although not enough data has been compiled and analyzed in South Carolina, early anecdotal evidence, though not scientific, seems to indicate similar successes.

Perhaps the more appropriate question to consider is the potential economic impact of not implementing the program. If the goal of the DOT is to reduce the number of crashes and fatalities by a specified percentage within a defined period of time, continuing to employ the same strategies toward that end will not reach that goal.

Despite the fact that actuaries can determine the monetary impact of crashes on society and on individuals, the truth is that a human life cannot be valued by such an inadequate measure. With annual traffic fatalities in South Carolina continually increasing and routinely above the 1,000 mark, the search for new methods of reducing the carnage is intense and continuous.

SCDOT intends to perform at least seven RSAs in 2006 on projects throughout the state in various stages of development. In addition, data is being compiled on the completed projects to allow meaningful analyses of the effectiveness of the improvements recommended by the audits.

About The Author: Brown is road safety audit coordinator at SCDOT. He can be reached at [email protected]. Wilson is director of safety at SCDOT. She can be reached at [email protected].

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