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Road Warriors

Road Warriors

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    Freeborn (Minn.) County Engineer Sue Miller, pictured here with Engineering Technician Tim Stapleton, reviews a pavement safety edge for this year's construction projects.

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    Guardrails and more visible signage are just a few of the low-cost improvements that can be made based on the results of a road safety audit. Photos: Curtis Johnson/Aurora Select.

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    400 by 2010: Fatalities on Minnesota state and local roads

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    Drowsy workers driving home from night shifts at casinos in Laughlin, Nev., were vulnerable to drop-offs and soft material on unpaved shoulders (top). The Bullhead City Public Works Department used $2 million from its capital improvement budget to add rumble strips and pave shoulders to provide recovery areas. Photos: Arizona DOT

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    The non-traversable grates in the median of the Bullhead Parkway in Arizona could have caused drivers to lose control if they ran off the road, so public works raised the grates to provide traversable slopes. Photos: Arizona DOT

A subset of HSIP, the High Risk Rural Roads Program funds safety programs after HSIP funds have been apportioned to the states. To be eligible, local governments must propose improvements to roads where fatality and injury crash rates are higher than the state average.

Many departments believe — erroneously — that gathering such statistics requires more time and effort than resources allow. “States don't need to get hung up on not having detailed crash data,” Miller says. “Single, run-off-the-road crashes on rural two-lane roads lead just about every state in crash data.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System compiles data from every state but doesn't provide details for the local level. Thus, though they aren't required under SAFETEA-LU, one way to develop an eligible project is to conduct a road safety audit. Many agencies refer to them as assessments to emphasize that states aren't required to conduct them and that local road departments aren't bound to follow them. Whatever they choose to call it, cities and counties are more likely to receive HSIP funding if they've performed one.

A team of public works, engineering, and public safety employees and, ideally, residents visits a site during the day and at night to determine what's causing crashes and identify preventive enhancements. Freeborn County presents the analysis in a formal report during a stakeholder meeting that includes members of the local city council or county board. To date, 34 audits have been conducted statewide.

In Arizona, where the Governor's Traffic Safety Advisory Council was established in 2004 to address the highest fatality rate in the nation — 1,300 annually — the state DOT's Highway Enhancement for Safety team conducts audits for free.

Road departments complete a one-page application before scheduling an audit. Within a couple months a team of volunteers including law enforcement, traffic engineers, highway designers, and mayors is established. After three days of field analysis, the team reports to the department before issuing a final report. The local road department then has one month to develop an improvement plan.

The 17 audits conducted since 2006 identified vegetation that's blocking signs, inadequate pedestrian accommodations on rights of way, steep slopes, uncontrolled access near intersections, edge drop-offs, and unpaved shoulders, according to Arizona Road Safety Audit Program Manager Michael Blankenship.

Though extremely helpful in providing actionable data, departments in only 12 states conduct audits for fear of liability. Federal law doesn't protect audit data from Freedom of Information Act requests, but it does prohibit the use of that information as evidence in tort liability lawsuits against local governments. And in a 2003 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that all reports, surveys, and data collected during an audit are protected by that federal law.

Although public disclosure laws require that findings be made public, some states don't allow that information to be used in court. Minnesota law protects local agencies if a fatality occurs between the time the audit is performed and when safety enhancements are enacted, but not all states offer the same legal protection.

Tom McDonald, safety circuit rider for the Center for Transportation, Research, and Education at Iowa State University, says the state and local agencies that have done audits haven't “expressed significant concern for liability.”