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Although the national crash rate has dropped 50% since the 1970s, fatalities have hovered at 40,000/year for nearly two decades. At least half occur on rural roads.

The emotional toll these deaths represent has spawned a movement — Toward Zero Deaths — that's gaining traction as federal, state, and local agendas align. Last year, the Governors Highway Safety Association announced its goal to reduce fatalities by 1,000 every year through 2030. This dovetails nicely with incentives in the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), designed to radically reduce fatalities by midcentury.

“Many counties aren't pursuing these dollars right now,” says Sue Groth, director/state traffic engineer of the Minnesota DOT's Office of Traffic, Safety, and Technology, which works with the agency's Office of State Aid for Local Transportation to distribute state funding. For the 2009 – 2010 fiscal year, $11 million has been awarded for county safety projects. “And they're missing out on an opportunity.”

Freeborn County Engineer Susan Miller isn't one of these managers.

Tired of the finger-pointing from residents and public safety officials after crashes on her department's 634 miles of road, the mother of four took it upon herself to establish and lead Toward Zero Deaths initiatives. Her office helped create a regional effort in southeast Minnesota five years ago, and two years ago the county established its own.

“I wanted to give better answers to the people who came to my office after a fatal accident,” she says. “And I don't want it to be anyone else's kids.” Though it increases her work load, she believes it's logical to spearhead the program because she and her colleagues are most familiar with the infrastructure in question.

Though much of her work involves existing assets, over the last three years Miller's department has received $16 million from Minnesota's Local Road Improvement Program for new infrastructure. Last year, it also received $450,000 through three SAFETEA-LU programs:

The Highway Safety Improvement Program, which has allocated $11 million to Minnesota counties over the past five years.

  • The High Risk Rural Road Program, which provides $1 million/year for Minnesota counties.
  • The Comprehensive Highway Safety Program, which provided $2 million and has funded many local safety audits.

Best of all, Miller can prove her department's efforts paid off and deserve continuing investment. Countywide, deaths are down to two in recent years from about seven annually a decade ago.

Some experts think funding levels in the next federal surface transportation bill could be significantly lower, so managers must demonstrate significant need. They can do so by adopting a comprehensive, four-step approach: Know the facts, conduct an audit of safety hazards, identify and access available funding, and make the improvements.

HOW AUDITS HELP BUILD YOUR CASE

States may use up to 10% of their Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) allocation for projects that address the “4Es” of SAFETEA-LU: engineering, education, enforcement, and emergency medical services. The rest must go toward railway-highway crossing projects and highway safety improvements.

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.”

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.”