Safer to home

May 1, 2015

Local/county officials must meet call of MAP-21

The current federal transportation bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), was signed into law on July 6, 2012.

MAP-21 legislation demonstrates that Congress recognized the great strides made by the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), the previous bill, in driving down fatalities. SAFETEA-LU mandated the development of data-driven Strategic Highway Safety Plans (SHSP) by each state. MAP-21 requires that states update their SHSP and sets in place a mechanism for regularly recurring revisions. MAP-21 also increases safety funding along with increased accountability to show measurable decreases in fatalities and serious injuries for the safety investments made.  

Recent success in fatality reductions is attributable to multidisciplinary programs involving the 4Es (engineering, enforcement, education and emergency medical services) and the implementation of proven engineering solutions on state-maintained facilities. However, as Figure 1 demonstrates, almost half of U.S. road fatalities occur on local or road systems off the state-owned network. These roads are the responsibility of counties and municipalities, and county and local police departments. 

Looking at individual states, the importance and magnitude of the local road system varies. Figure 2 shows the distribution of local fatalities around the country. In nine of the 51 states (including the District of Columbia), local roads account for more than half of state fatalities. This group includes large and diverse states such as California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Texas and Washington. Another 19 states show fatalities of 40% to 49%. Overall, the local road system accounts for at least 40% of fatalities in 28 states, more than half of the states.

State SHSPs are the foundation for safety program development. SHSPs are coordinated with the state Highway Safety Plan (HSP), which directs driver behavior programs (restraint usage, impaired driving, distracted driving, teen driving, focused enforcement), and the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), which is the federal infrastructure safety program. SHSPs require broad-based input from the 4Es, as well as federal and local agencies and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).  

As states complete the mandated update of their SHSPs by Aug. 1, 2014, they should be including county and local municipal engineers and administrators in the process. County engineers not directly involved in the SHSP update should be aware of the process and outcomes and be prepared to take advantage of programs or initiatives that emerge. 

With a lot at stake, focus  is on the stakeholders

The SHSP establishes statewide emphasis areas and identifies key programs to reduce traffic fatalities. 

Most SHSPs focus on four to six emphasis areas and outline an array of strategies that might be applied for each emphasis area. The 4E strategies are selected based on what is known to be proven and effective and what is most implementable given a state’s organization, resources and unique characteristics.  

State SHSPs do not identify specific locations or countermeasures for individual projects. Implementation of the plan is the responsibility of individual stakeholder agencies. States establish programs and projects that address known safety problems, with solutions consistent with the SHSP. Similar implementation programs are not as well established for the local system.  

After SAFETEA-LU and the development of state SHSPs, some larger MPOs took the initiative to prepare county or MPO-area SHSPs. For example, the Champaign, Ill., County Regional Planning Commission developed the Champaign County SHSP in 2007 to help identify safety issues, coordinate with stakeholders and develop and implement safety projects and programs. 

Such efforts, however, were the exception. Local agencies are faced with various hurdles when addressing their transportation-safety needs. There may be limited access to quality data, or staff skill sets may be lacking, particularly in the area of safety analyses, which has undergone significant change in recent years. Whereas state departments of transportation (DOTs) maintain and analyze safety data, it is often the case that a county or city has at most one person who performs such work in addition to other duties. The majority of counties and local units of government generally do not have the resources, expertise, analytical tools or programs to tackle safety problems at the programmatic level to the extent required under MAP-21. Some state DOTs, recognizing challenges at the local level, have demonstrated leadership through the sponsorship of county strategic safety plan development. 

County SHSPs (CSHSPs) are developed using the same basic process as the state SHSPs. This process includes key stakeholders from organizations with responsibilities, resources, data and an interest in addressing highway safety. At the county level, a working stakeholder group would include the county sheriff and state police post; county health organizations; and representation from towns, cities or MPOs, the state DOT, school districts and nongovernmental interest groups.

Beginning in 2009, the Minnesota DOT (Mn/DOT) was the first state DOT to fund the development of CSHSPs for all 87 of its counties. All counties will have a roadmap of action items and funding commitments to contribute to the overall state fatality-reduction effort when the program completes in the summer of 2013. Following the success of Mn/DOT’s efforts, other states (North Dakota, Illinois and Missouri) have initiated similar county strategic planning efforts.  

Finding a driver

A local or county safety plan will be similar to a statewide SHSP in that it should be data driven; it identifies predominant crash types involved in severe crashes; and is produced through the engagement of a broad-based community of partners. County SHSPs may be more specific than SHSPs, identifying the locations with the greatest risk for a future severe crash and possibly suggesting recommended countermeasure deployment.

State-level safety infrastructure programs are developed using analytical techniques that identify locations where certain crash types are over-represented, and hence where there is a high degree of confidence that a targeted countermeasure or treatment may be effective over the long term in reducing the occurrence of such crashes, as shown in the AASHTO Highway Safety Manual. 

Such approaches apply to roads and road systems with sufficient traffic volumes that statistically significant patterns can be observed over reasonable time periods. A challenge for local road systems and their owners is that for the most part these “reactive” analysis methods don’t provide the insights on crash risk. On lower-volume roads (generally less than 2,000 vehicles per day) crash clusters typically do not occur; fatalities will be scattered widely across the system. Consider that the 43% of fatalities in 2011 (13,926) occurred over 2.8 million centerline miles of local road. This amounts to one fatality every 200 miles of road annually. 

Fortunately, researchers have developed other methods for making data-driven, cost-effective decisions about safety-infrastructure deployment for such lower-volume facilities. Systemic safety planning has emerged as a reliable methodology for use in networks or crash types for local roadways. This method evolved from efforts by the Missouri DOT to mass deploy low-cost, proven effective strategies on a significant portion of their state system. 

Mn/DOT extended the model by developing a process to assess the risk of low-volume, rural, local roads—coined as systemic safety planning. The systemic method involves evaluation of the characteristics of sites where severe crashes do occur and seeks common attributes associated with such locations. An example may be that a greater proportion of road-departure fatalities involve running off the road on curves sharper than a given radius.

Having identified such attributes, low-cost treatments designed to address the crash type would be applied to all such locations within a county. Again, from the example, one might apply warning signs, rumble strips and wider edge lines on the approaches and through all such sharp curves in the county. To learn more about this method and its applications, refer to NCHRP Research Results Digest 345, Alternate Strategies for Safety Improvement Investment. 

Do what’s effective

Systemic planning approaches rely on application of treatments or countermeasures that research has proven to be effective. Local infrastructure programs should focus on these treatments first, depending on the nature and type of serious crashes they experience. 

The implementation of one such countermeasure in North Dakota is longitudinal centerline rumble strips.

“The SHSP development process was key in helping us identify the importance of local roads to achieve our long-term safety goals,” said Grant Levi, interim director, North Dakota DOT. “This data-driven process helped us to transition to a systemic identification of crash types on all roads in addition to our traditional crash location (or hot spot) approach on the state system. As a result, the NDDOT has partnered with local stakeholders to prepare road-safety plans that will identify potential safety projects consistent with the SHSP.”

Application process

Building a data-driven program at the county level is an important step in identifying and securing resources for implementation. Traditionally, states have allocated HSIP funds based on applications from local jurisdictions. The applications are reviewed by a safety committee and approved, denied or adjusted based on their recommendations. Absent an established safety plan for the local roads, and recognizing a general lack of experience in performing safety studies, many local applications for HSIP funding fall short of demonstrating cost-effectiveness. 

In an effort to encourage local participation and improve the quality of applications, some states have taken several approaches to provide incentive and technical support. In Washington, for example, the DOT has established four programs, the Quick Response Safety Program, City Safety Program, the County Safety Program and the City/County Corridor Safety Programs. Each program has clearly defined goals based on statewide data analysis and the state SHSP. Since 2005, the allocation to local jurisdictions and number of projects funded has increased dramatically. In 2005, there were 15 city safety projects funded with a total cost of $5.8 million. In 2012 this increased to 76 projects at a cost of $50 million. Although Washington DOT supports this program, the local jurisdictions analyze their data and apply for grants for specific projects. The City/County Corridor Safety Program utilizes both HSIP and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grants to address both the infrastructure and behavior-related issues in the corridors.  

Similarly, the Illinois DOT (IDOT) has an application process for local HSIP project selection and has increased resources dedicated to the local roadway system. Since 2005, IDOT has held technical training workshops to increase the safety skill set, geolocated historic severe crash data for analysis purposes and prepared an HSIP policy with specific application examples. In more recent years, IDOT has increased the level of technical support by providing road-safety assessments (RSA) for local roadways, conducted safety workshops and initiated a safety program focused on the counties with the greatest safety need.  

“With half of the fatalities on the local system, the Illinois Department of Transportation has established a program to provide technical expertise to locals to assist in safety efforts and direct resources to local roadways,” said Priscilla Tobias, state safety engineer for IDOT. “The program includes identification of high-priority areas, recommendation of low-cost strategies implemented systemically based on severe crash-contributing factors and support for implementation of projects on local roadways to save lives and reduce injuries. The counties are establishing transportation-safety committees so that county engineers, the fire department, law enforcement and educators can continue to work together to develop and implement county strategic safety plans. The plans and regular meetings help to lay a foundation so that Illinois will reach zero fatalities.” 

Every state is different in terms of its highway system, DOT organization, extent and nature of its problems involving highway fatalities and injuries, and capabilities. The majority of states do have two things in common. First, a large portion of fatalities occur on roads owned and operated by their county and local peers. Second, all states know they can and must do better in driving down fatalities statewide. Through successful partnerships between local agencies and state DOTsand additional tools, analysis approaches and directed resourcesprojects and programs can be implemented on all roadways to save lives and reduce injuries. ST

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