Source: The Freedonia Group Inc.

As the U.S. DOT touts the lowest fatality rate ever — 33,693 in 2009 — public works operations deployed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's $28 billion highways allocation to roll out $1.3 billion in safety enhancements.

Coincidence? Or the result of “Zero Deaths” efforts by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and other national organizations?

Either way, FHWA Associate Administrator for Safety Joe Toole is pleased.

He had the unenviable task of combing through to quantify how the law's emphasis on safety affected roads and bridges. The stimulus package established seven safety categories. Toole chose “safety & operational improvements,” then searched further using key words like “rumble strips,” “rumble stripes,” “roundabouts,” and “cable barriers.”

He found 820 projects. But since many others, such as resurfacing, incorporated those as well as other safety measures — raised-profile pavement markings, paved shoulders, safety edges, and upgrading signs to retroreflectivity standards — Toole considers his analysis “just the tip of the iceberg.”

As the stimulus package was being developed, the agency tried to help rural road departments increase their chances of getting funds by incorporating low-cost enhancements into applications. Meanwhile, states focused on systemwide enhancements that sometimes involved high-risk rural interstates.

Washington used a database of priority locations for centerline rumble strips and cable median barriers to invest its safety-related allocation. Arizona added passing lanes to two-lane roads on long, steep grades and left-turn lanes at rural intersections. Kansas funneled applications through metropolitan and regional planning organizations to help local road departments meet their needs.

Still, not as much funding reached local agencies as FHWA hoped; and rural roads remain the nation's greatest safety challenge.