Improving System Prioritization Using Safety-Focused Decision Making

January 08, 2013

As transportation professionals and agencies have sought to better manage and optimize transportation infrastructure, the approach to performance measurement has evolved from a narrower focus on output—miles of rumble strips or number of reflectorized road signs installed, for instance—to data-driven outcome measures that quantify safety and performance. These new approaches are made possible by innovative tools that are improving transportation system management and operations amid shrinking public budgets and a drive for greater government accountability.

“We have been in the performance measurement business for some time, but what is changing is what we measure, evaluating outcomes, and thinking in terms of the highway user,” said Joe Toole, who recently retired from the Federal Highway Administration, where most recently he was the Associate Administrator for Safety.

Where and how do the new tools and approaches provide the most benefit to agencies in making project decisions? Innovations such as the Highway Safety Manual, which introduces a science-based, technical approach that predicts safety, allow transportation professionals to compare countermeasures and consider the most effective treatments in a quantitative process.

The Highway Safety Manual “has very much changed the entire outlook of safety because it gives you better tools to evaluate where you can get the biggest bang for the buck and also provides a better assessment of options,” Toole said. “It’s not just a matter of improving safety, but helping transportation managers make the best use of limited financial resources. They can look at something through the lens of safety and analyze the impact on other aspects of transportation, such as congestion.”

John Milton, PE, Director of Enterprise Risk and Safety Management for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), notes that traditional approaches focused on the nominal impact of safety and were not driven by a benefit-cost ratio or return on investment for a given solution. “Now, we analyze contributing circumstances to a crash and address those in the most optimal way,” he said.

Toole credited local governments and state transportation departments over many years for being the “test bed” in helping develop tools to better analyze system management and safety, using data to identify and address so-called “hot spots” where crashes are concentrated as well as system-wide transportation challenges.

One of the changes WSDOT implemented to adapt to the emerging tools entails gathering data and quantifying crashes and contributing factors at the earliest stage. “The benefit over time is great because you know more clearly what the strategies could be at a given location early on, so that when you move into scoping and design the potential project solutions are not inconsistent with budget constraints or public expectations,” Milton said.

Today, new federal requirements are bringing performance-based management into greater focus and importance. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, was signed into law this past summer, creating a streamlined, performance-based, and multimodal program to address challenges that face the US transportation system—among them improving safety, maintaining infrastructure, reducing traffic congestion, gaining system and freight movement efficiencies, protecting the environment, and reducing delays in project completion.

Toole said one of the evolutions he expects to see in performance-based analysis, particularly in the safety arena, is expanded use of innovative tools from the project level to an entire system. For example, a state or county transportation agency experiencing single-car crashes involving vehicles leaving a roadway has the ability to evaluate whether such crashes are an issue system-wide. In addition, he foresees greater use of tools to evaluate potential engineering solutions as well as enforcement actions and public education.

“One of the things MAP-21 does is it gives states more flexibility to move funds between those categories,” Toole said. “What we’re doing is refining tools more and more to make those decisions with a greater certainty in terms of what the impact will be.” Given the wave of new ideas and approaches, it is a prime learning opportunity for local and state governments. “They don’t have to make the decision to overhaul their entire program, but to pilot some of these tools,” he said.

Bend, Ore., for example, experienced tremendous population growth in the early to mid 2000s. Amid this growth, the City in 2006 created a transportation division that managed arterials and collector streets, collected traffic data, and addressed citizen concerns. Cutbacks and consolidation came amid the recession. Working with a consultant team, the City began asking critical questions such as how it could best improve transportation safety amid tight budgets. That led to adopting a data-driven approach that prioritizes safety issues and implements cost-effective solutions without the need for full-fledged capital projects.

“It’s a phased, focused approach that led us to a better way to analyze and use data,” said Nick Arnis, Transportation Engineering Manager with the City of Bend. “The benefits are most obvious with injury crashes and creating a safer transportation system for all users—bicyclists, pedestrians, and drivers.” Arnis noted the importance of Bend’s Traffic Safety Advisory Committee in providing an effective forum to keep the City’s data-driven approach to safety a focal point moving forward. The committee also is valuable in communicating with citizens about the longer-term outcomes of improvement projects.

WSDOT’s Milton said agencies can help advance the integration of tools such as the Highway Safety Manual and other progressive approaches by “scaling” them to their respective issues rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach.

“To me, the bottom line as it relates to safety is reducing fatal and serious crashes,” Milton said. “For agencies, that means reliable, predictable solutions over time. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but utilizing the tools in a way that fits. I would suggest that agencies look at their strategic goals and objectives, the policies for achieving them, and how the tools can assist them in meeting those goals and objectives more effectively.”

This article is one of a four-part series about safety performance measurement tools. Please use the links below to navigate to the other articles:

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