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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Planning It Safe to Prevent Traffic Deaths and Injury

Safety has always been somewhere at the bottom of the “to do” list
for transportation planning project development and design.

By Susan B. Herbel

Although the annual death toll on America’s roadways is at an historic low of 1.5 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles of travel, a reduction from 1.9 fatalities in 1991; it has remained virtually unchanged for the past decade. Roadway safety remains among the most serious public health issues facing the nation.

In 2002, 42,815 fatalities, almost three million injuries and more than six million police reported crashes occurred on the roadways. In 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated the annual financial loss to be in excess of $230 billion.

Now there is encouraging evidence all across the nation that the passage of the Transportation Equity Act (TEA-21) was a watershed moment in changing all this. TEA-21 moved transportation safety to the top of the planning “to do” list, right alongside air quality, capacity enhancement, operations, congestion management and other considerations. In doing so, it instigated a nationwide effort to prevent roadway accidents and injuries altogether through “safety conscious planning” (SCP).

“First and foremost, transportation safety is the highest priority for the Department of Transportation and the Bush Administration,” says Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta. “Overall, we have made great progress on safety, but we know we can do more.”

Outreach, Re-Education and Research

Safety conscious planning promises to reduce roadway fatalities but it is a dramatic change in traditional planning practice that requires new ways of thinking. Traditional safety planning practice is often reactive. A problem is identified, primarily through analysis of accident data, and an appropriate enforcement, education or engineering countermeasure is implemented. SCP takes a different approach. It certainly addresses these important countermeasures, but it also aims to prevent accidents and unsafe conditions.

Because change is often uncomfortable for some people, in 2000 the Transportation Research Board (TRB) formed the Safety Conscious Planning Working Group (SCPWG) to ease the way. SCPWG efforts have concentrated on developing educational materials for transportation stakeholders, building an arsenal of safety conscious planning tools, and spreading the word across the nation to as many elected officials and nontraditional partners as possible.

According to Mary Peters, FHWA Administrator, a principal sponsor of the SCPWG, “a multifaceted approach to safety issues and safety conscious planning is an important part of this effort. SCP brings together experts from the planning and safety fields to ensure that safety strategies are pursued early in the planning process.”

So far outreach has been state by state, community by community. There have been SCPWG supported forums in Arizona, California, Florida, Iowa, Mid-America Regional Council (Kansas City), Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Another dozen or so states are either planning or considering forums within the next year. Events have been scheduled in Alaska, Louisiana, Georgia, New Jersey and Washington.

These meetings establish an important dialogue among transportation planners, engineers, safety experts, law enforcement, transit operators, metropolitan planning organizations, regional councils, researchers, data managers and analysts, and a host of others with a stake in the safety of the transportation system.

Changing ideas and practices requires an array of informational and educational materials as well as training. SCPWG members are in the process of developing those materials and training programs. For instance, members are helping the National Transit Institute and FTA add a two day SCP training curriculum to its schedule for planning and safety practitioners.

As further incentive to recognize noteworthy practices in safety conscious planning and to promote SCP concepts, workgroup members, the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) and the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO), are sponsoring awards and challenge grant programs. Funding for the programs is coming from FHWA and FTA.

Successful adoption of SCP concepts also requires research and development on data collection and management as well as analysis tools. With help from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), the SCPWP is in the process of cataloguing relevant planning tools that can be used by state DOT and MPO transportation planners.

Just as an environmentalist collects data on emissions to determine air quality, the safety conscious MPO transportation planner will necessarily have to depend on road accident data to identify collision prone locations and “sites with promise.” MPOs are hard-pressed to collect data on existing federal mandates, much less on collision prone locations. Regardless, such data collection and analysis tools are absolutely necessary for MPOs to carry out the federal mandate calling for integration of safety into the transportation planning process.

Taking Safety Forums on the Road

Transportation decisions are still too often based on political judgments. Planners need effective strategies and tools for educating and influencing policy makers. The model for full SCP implementation does not exist yet, but it is definitely growing in importance as states and communities realize its benefits in human and economic terms. This should not preclude the attempt to try safety conscious planning. Many forward thinking transportation planning and safety professionals are doing just that.

There is now ample evidence of transportation planners who ask for data, analytic assistance, planning tools, effective partnerships, training and expertise, resources and other assistance. As a result, at the various forums around the country, SCPWG representatives have discovered many safety conscious planning practices worth noting and repeating elsewhere. Here are just a few of them.

Data Sharing and Analytic Assistance

With support from Iowa’s DOT and its governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, Iowa State University’s Center for Transportation Research and Education (CTRE) has become the central provider of safety analysis, training and other services related to safety conscious planning. CTRE coordinates and manages university research on transportation, education and technology transfer. Safety is an integral part of that.

During a forum on SCP in Iowa, maps developed by CTRE showing traffic hot spots and impaired driving incidents were displayed. A discussion of alternatives for analyzing and displaying data, hot spots, and impaired driving incidents proved extremely effective in capturing the attention of the forum participants, many of whom were unaware that such information was available to them as well.

Indeed, CTRE resources available to them include the Iowa Traffic Safety Data Service, safety data on request to Iowa's local agencies in geographic information system (GIS) and other formats. Also available is training for safety enforcement built around the state and Iowa's award winning Safety Circuit Rider program.

Part of the state's local technical assistance administered by CTRE, the Circuit Rider gives safety workshops to local governments, offers suggestions for improving roadway safety and provides programs on safety management systems, excavation safety, pavement markings, county engineers' safety policies and other topics. The immediate objective of the SCP forum in Oregon was to initiate collaborative planning efforts within MPOs. The Rogue Valley Council of Governments (RVCOG), the association of local governments that does regional planning for Jackson and Josephine counties in southern Oregon, took data sharing a step further by helping one of the MPOs develop its own data infrastructure and analytic capability.

RVCOG approached the state DOT for a grant to develop a program to prioritize and select appropriate traffic safety projects. With the grant in hand, RVCOG helped the MPO convert DOT electronic accident data into a usable ArcView/Info GIS format.

This was crucial. Without this conversion, accident locations could not be identified precisely. Without precise identification, it is impossible to put resources where safety problems exist.

Once in place, RVCOG used the new system to include accident analysis and other transportation safety information in the recent update of their long range transportation plan.

Planning Tools

Colorado DOT’s Jake Kononov found inspiration for implementing SCP in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). NEPA suggests a relevant model from the standpoint of applying principles to practice in the transportation planning process. The law contains a declaration of national environmental policy and goals as well as “action-forcing” provisions for federal and state agencies to implement those goals.

To comply with NEPA, Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) or Environmental Assessments (EA) must demonstrate for each transportation alternative under consideration, complex, multivariate regression models of existing and future air quality, delineation of wetlands, survey habitats of threatened and endangered species, measurements of noise levels and water quality.

Kononov developed a similar level of analysis to implement SCP in Colorado. He measures safety by the frequency and severity of accidents on specific roadway segments over a unit of time. Total accidents overall and accidents resulting in injuries and deaths are placed on a four-point  scale of safety performance, i.e. Levels of Service of Safety (LOSS).

  • LOSS-I Indicates low potential for accident reduction
  • LOSS-II Indicates better than expected safety performance
  • LOSS-III Indicates less than expected safety performance
  • LOSS-IV Indicates high potential for accident reduction

The LOSS concept is widely used by Colorado’s DOT in system level planning and project scoping. It brings badly needed consensus to transportation professionals on the magnitude of safety problems for different classes of roads.

This is a far cry from mere compliance with design standards. It is an objective measure of safety for different classes of roads based on solid data that assess how much safety can be obtained at what cost.

Local and Regional Guidance

State departments of transportation and highway safety offices often must provide guidance and assistance on local safety planning. They are well advised to have incentives available for safety conscious planning at the local or regional level. Some states, especially those that have held forums and have begun a dialogue with their MPOs about safety planning, are devising strategies to encourage local planning efforts.

After a statewide forum on safety conscious planning, Michigan’s DOT and its Office of Highway Safety Planning Michigan hoped to duplicate the forum for their local and regional planning counterparts. The first MPO to step up to the plate was Bay City.

With help from FHWA, the state planning officials helped organize the Bay City forum agenda and develop a regional safety profile for the area. The forum took place in June 2003.

Despite an economic crunch and literally hundreds of people retiring from state government, progress has been steady. With the exception of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) which already had safety analysis capability, by the end of 2003, every MPO in the state had similar safety forums and safety profiles for their regions.

State officials are hopeful that the action plans developed during these regional forums will lead to explicit recognition of safety issues in the MPO long range transportation plans and the transportation improvement programs.


There is no silver bullet in the safety business and, even if there were, no one could afford it. Accidents are caused by a plethora of conditions which can only be addressed through effective partnerships implementing multifaceted solutions.

The value of partnerships among and between public agencies and private organizations, in combination with appropriate public involvement, has been demonstrated at each of the forums held throughout the country.

The North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA) recognized this from the start and formed a broad based Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) representing the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), the New Jersey Transit Corporation (NJ Transit), the Governor’s Office, the Department of Motor Vehicles, AAA, emergency medical and response providers and advocates for motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and the elderly.

The TAC is undertaking a study to develop regional safety priorities for the 13 northern New Jersey counties, including the cities of Newark and Jersey City. The NJTPA safety initiative is regional, multimodal and multidisciplinary in scope. It builds upon NJDOT’s Safety Management System and safety research underway at the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Technology at Rutgers University.


Excellence in data collection, management and analysis, superb planning tools, explicit safety plans,  p-programs and projects will not save lives and prevent injuries without effective implementation. Consequently, the first step is to secure support from the public and its elected representatives.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) is often referred to as the model for safety planning at the local level because it has a long history of commitment and effective implementation. SEMCOG believes that safety planning complements the traditional transportation planning process and it makes good sense because of the high costs of crashes, liability issues, crash trends and return on investment. Traffic safety improvements tend to be low cost and produce high benefit which, in turn, enhances the citizens’ quality of life.

SEMCOG generates support from the public and local elected officials by implementing a patient, repetitive process of education using data driven information. In other words, their approach is “by the numbers.” The information is disseminated through briefings and presentations, news releases and special studies on selected issues.

The Best Is Yet to Come

Though SCP protocols are still evolving, a few things are already clear. To anticipate and prevent road accidents and unsafe conditions before they occur, there must be close collaboration among each and every transportation stakeholder.

The list of stakeholders includes: federal, state, regional, local and rural transportation planners, data collectors, managers and analysts, engineers, safety experts, law enforcement, transit operators, government officials, researchers, developers, land use planners, road builders, private citizens, elected officials and everyone else affected by the safety of the transportation system. By the way, in today’s world, who isn’t affected by on the safe and efficient operation of the surface transportation system?

Only such wide-reaching collaboration yields the necessary performance measures to ensure systemwide safety. To be effective, safety conscious planning must be multidisciplinary and integrate planning and engineering with enforcement, education and emergency management activities.

Susan B. Herbel is principal partner of Transportation Safety Solutions and a proponent of safety conscious planning.

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