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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

LOW-COST, HIGH-IMPACT UPGRADES

“Once you identify the hazards using an audit and crash data, understand that reconstructing that roadway is never going to happen,” says Miller. “There aren't enough resources to do it.”

Freeborn County, for example, has deployed a “safety edge” — a strike plate that is installed on a bituminous paver and cuts the pavement at an angle to soften the slope — rather than leave a sharp drop-off on the 35 miles that have been completed so far.

In Arizona, state DOT Traffic Engineer Mike Manthey focuses on making systematic improvements. “Instead of chasing our tail trying to fix random crash sites all the time, we try to make an improvement throughout the entire system,” he says.

For example, the state changed its design standard for pavement markings from 4 to 6 inches. “We've also installed cable barriers on urban freeways in the Phoenix area,” says Manthey, who adds that the $10 million project was funded by the federal Hazard Elimination Safety program for freeways already open to traffic.

On a 10-mile bypass around downtown Bullhead, Ariz., 14 fatalities occurred between 2001 and 2006. An assessment determined that 80% were single-vehicle, off-the-road crashes due largely to unpaved shoulders and substandard guardrails combined with a 55-mph speed limit that caused drivers to hit fixed objects, such as trees, after losing control of their vehicle.

In response, the Bullhead City Public Works Department built an 8-foot paved shoulder on the outer lanes with rumble strips and a 4-foot paved shoulder in the interior lanes of the divided highway, installed flexible delineators along the shoulder, and moved guard-rails away from fixed objects. Since then, there have been no fatalities.

FOMENTING CULTURAL CHANGE

The zero-death concept is lofty, but is it realistic?

If Minnesota's experience is any indication, it is. Fatalities are on a four-year downward trend (see chart on page 46). In 2006, fewer people died than in any year since 1945, when the state had 2.8 million residents. Today it has 5.2 million.

The chance of achieving such success, and for accessing funding, increases exponentially when agencies partner with other agencies. To make it easier for local agencies to cut through the red tape of federal grant programs, Mn-DOT took charge by allocating money based on need—something most states don't do. Crashes are reported to the Department of Public Safety, which gives the details to the state DOT. The state compiles the data and makes it available to local agencies online.

“What's worked in Minnesota is the partnership with county engineers sitting at the table with the state DOT, federal highway safety engineers, and local transportation reps,” says Free-born County's Miller. “We sit down as a team to figure out what makes the best sense. Everybody's shifted to a safety culture philosophy.”

Every six weeks, county representatives ranging from sheriff's deputies and emergency responders to mayors and a community education director meet to share insight into crash-prone areas from people who live and work there. Following each fatality, the responding emergency crews and law enforcement attend to debrief the rest of the group.

“You want to set short-term goals that are stepping stones,” says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. The organization is pushing for a streamlined grant process in the reauthorized highway bill. “Zero deaths is an aspirational goal.”