Episode 24 – National Traffic Signal Report Card

Topics: National Traffic Signal Report Card, 2007 Fataliity Rates, ITE Annual Meeting

Websites and Citations:
NTOC National Traffic Signal Report Card for 2007
NHTSA 2007 National Fatality Report Press Release
2008 ITE Annual Meeting
Theme Music: Five Star Fall, Mercurial Girl, Magnatune.com

Talking Traffic Episode 24 – National Traffic Signal Report Card

Hello and welcome to episode 24 of Talking Traffic. Today is Monday, August 18, 2008. My name is Bill Ruhsam and I’m going to talk about several things, including the National Traffic Signal Report Card. Also, I’ll briefly mention the latest news out of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the Institute of Transportation Engineers Annual Meeting. Whoo! Those are some big names, fortunately, like everything else in the transportation industry, they come equipped with acronyms so that instead of saying National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, I can just say NHTSA! Or, my personal favorite, instead of the wordy name of the most recent highway authorization act, the Safe Accountable Flexible Efficient Transportation Equity Act, A Legacy for Users, I just use SAFTEA-LU! Only a politician could come up with that one. But, I’m getting off track. Firstly we’re going to discuss the news about 2007 fatal crashes in the United States.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, otherwise known as NHTSA, has released the official 2007 traffic crash numbers. The good news is that we’ve reached the lowest number of fatalities in traffic crashes since 1994. The second good news is that the *rate* of traffic fatalities, that is the number of people dying per 100 million vehicle miles, has also dropped. The bad news is that despite the drops in both absolute numbers and the rate of fatalities, still 41,059 people died on our highways and streets in 2007. That’s 13 and 2/3 times greater than the number of people who died during 9-11. While I’m not trying to equate these two events on any serious level, I will point out that after 9-11, we invaded two countries. After over 42,000 people die every year since 1994, we don’t have much public awareness at all. This is not a good situation for our country to be in. Let me restate that. Since 1994, and not including any numbers from 2008, we have slain the entire population of Washington DC on our highways. That is 590,000 people, over half a million, have been killed due to a traffic collision. This discounts entirely the vastly greater number of people who were severely injured. 42,000 people per year. I’ll say it again, 42,000 neighbors, friends, family, and fellow citizens, dead. This is huge.

What do we do to fix this? The problem is that these collisions are so diffuse. They occur everywhere across the country, in ones or twos or threes, not in job lots like the 9-11 attacks. There are exceptions, of course, like the bus collision last year here in Atlanta where a baseball team on the way to a game ended up crashing through a bridge fence and plummeted to I-75, killing seven. These types of crashes tend to make the national news and cause “things to happen” but generally, a fatal wreck is something to be lamented and not something that anybody thinks that things can be done about. This episode isn’t about traffic safety, though. In fact, several episodes must be devoted to that topic, and I don’t have them ready yet. I’ve been promising this since about episode 2, but I’ll get to it, I swear. The thing to take away is, yes, we improved our collision rates since 2006, and that was an improvement since 2005, but really, we’re not much better off than we were because we still had 41,059 fellow human beings die on our roads last year.

The meat of today’s topic has a little bit to do with traffic safety, but only indirectly. The National Traffic Signal Report Card is an attempt to grade the signalized intersections around the country on a letter scale, A to F, regarding how well they are installed, maintained and operated. The 2005 score was a D minus and the most recent 2007 score was a D, so there’s been some improvement nationwide. The Report Card was put together by The National Transportation Operations Coalition (or NTOC) with the help several different agencies and organizations including the US Department of Transportation, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, The American Society of State Highway and Transportation Officials and others. There were a lot of different people who assisted this production.

An important point to note is that this report card is more of a marketing campaign than an engineering solution set. Many of my fellow engineers, especially those who are in administrative or political posts with cities, counties and states have been robbed of their budgets by their overseers because the signal maintenance and operations line item is seen as an easy target. After all, theres a signal there, and it’s changing red yellow green, what do you need more money for. The report card is trying to show to the public that there’s more to a traffic signal than installation, and having an unmaintained, or badly maintained signal system can be worse than having none at all.

The report card is broken down into six categories: Management, Signal Operation at Individual Intersections, Signal Operation in Coordinated Systems, Signal Timing Practices, Traffic Monitoring and Data Collection, and finally Maintenance. The data were gathered through self-assessment surveys sent in by various agencies at the city, county and state level. I remind my listeners that there isn’t really any Federal level traffic engineering with some very few exceptions. Everything happens at the state level or below. The only thing that the feds have to say, generally, is “do it this way, or we won’t fund your project”; they don’t actually do any of the engineering or maintenance.

Anyway, back to the report card. 417 respondents including several from Canada rated themselves in those six survey categories. What the study team found was that the larger the signal system an agency was responsible for, generally the better they scored, although that didn’t hold across all six categories. What did hold true was that agencies with 50 signals or less did considerably worse than the nationwide average. The full results of the signal report card can be found at www.ite.org/reportcard and I will of course, place that link in the shownotes.

To give you some examples of what these six categories mean, let’s go down the list:

Category 1: Management. This item was intended to see if the responding agency had systems in place to manage their signal system as a whole rather than just as individual signals. Things like pro actively dealing with special events, having multi-jurisdicational agreements so that signals are working together across county lines, on going training the signal maintenance staff, public outreach, yearly studies to establish benchmarks for the signal system as a whole, those sorts of things.

Category 2: Signal Operations at Individual Intersections: This category boils down to the following question: Does the agency have a documented system in place to regularly update individual signal timings based on existing conditions and to verify and fine tune that timing in the field.

Category 3: Signal Operations In Coordinated Systems: This survey category is similar to the signal operations at individual intersections, substituting “system wide” for individual. A focus of the survey questions were, “does the agency make regular evaluations” to ensure that the system as a whole is operating well. They place emphasis on the use of traffic modeling software and/or adaptive signal timing systems. Adaptive signal timing systems are where a centralized computer monitors the signals under its control and changes timings as the conditions demand. That’s another whole episode, right there.

Category 4: Signal timing Practices: This survey category is pretty technical, but it boils down to, “does your agency use the most up to date and accepted practices for timing your signals?”

Category 5: Traffic Monitoring and Data Collection: This one’s easy: Does your agency collect, validate, archive and share traffic information?

Category 6: Maintenance: This item was more thorough than any of the others except for Management. The survey asks questions such as “Does your agency maintain complete configuration management and inventories of all traffic signal control equipment?” and inquires as to how many resources are devoted to both proactive signal maintenance and reactive signal correction. In other words, “how often do you maintain a signal that doesn’t have a critical need” and “how fast do you get out in the field to fix a signal that does?”

Those are the six evaluation categories. All the agencies were compiled together and the results graphed with respect to system size and agency type. The final score was a D, as I mentioned before, which is an improvement from last year.

now, I’ve said several times that this is more of a marketing exercise than an engineering solution. It’s not an engineering solution because, for one thing, the results are highly general and are averaged across a large number of responses. For another, these were voluntary survey submissions and little effort was made to validate the quality of the responses. The traffic engineers from West Timbuktu could have entirely fabricated the responses (either up or down) for whatever reasons they wanted. That makes the report card not so useful for designing active signal maintenance programs.

However, the report card is very useful for pointing a finger at where the national signal system sits. Signals are one of the most visible portions of our transportation network and when one is broken or poorly maintained, it’s also one of the most sworn at. The benefit/cost estimates for our national signal infrastructure state that a 40 to 1 return on investment is seen by every dollar that is spent on signals. Correctly designed and maintained signal systems smooth out the flow of traffic and significantly reduce the delays experienced by drivers. This translates to time not spent in traffic, money not spent on gas, greenhouse emissions not mucking up the atmosphere, and, indirectly, fewer collisions. The key to generating a signal system that is this effective is to spend money on equipment and especially the trained personnel that are required to operate and maintain the system. This means having skilled staff from those that can skillfully alter the signal timing of a lone interesction to those that can operate an interlocking network of coordinated signals. This is not a trivial task and requires adequate funding from the political entities that oversee the transportation agencies. As a tool for demonstrating why this funding should be allocated to the signal department in an atmosphere of continued budget shortfalls, the National Traffic Signal Report Card has been doing a great job. I am continuing it by telling you, my listeners, about the less-than-great condition of our national signal network so that you may implore your cities counties and states to effectively fund their signal systems; the benefits are much much greater than the costs.

The last item I’m going to briefly mention today is the Institute of Transportation Engineers Annual Meeting which is going on this week in Anaheim, CA. This is a gathering of a slew of transportation professionals from around the country, and the world, to discuss topics of interest and learn about the latest and greatest that’s been going on. Unfortunately, I’m not there. I couldn’t swing it this year but I’ll try again next year. One of the reasons I wanted to attend this meeting was to corner the best in my field and talk to them about ways we can bring our crazy engineering rhetoric down to the level of the consumer. We need to be able to speak eloquently and concisely to people who have a direct effect on our budgets and our transportation systems. This includes politicians, city managers, and most especially, voters. That’s you. Like the Traffic Signal report Card, Talking Traffic is about publishing transportation information to people are *not* engineers or planners or any kind of roadway specialist. I like to think I do a good job with this, but I’ve listened to many who are better, and I’m trying to learn from them.

Talking traffic is released under a creative commons 3.0 attribution non commercial no derivatives license. Which means that the people at the ITE Annual Meeting could broadcast it 24/7 over the hotel radio, but they’re not allowed to sell it, or change it, and they should be crediting me and talking traffic.org. If you have comments, questions, concerns, or a bone to pick about the traffic signal in your neighborhood, you can ship an email to Bill@talking traffic.org or you can leave a comment on the show notes. One thing to remember about that traffic signal that annoys you so much is that the local agency which takes care of it might not be aware of the problem. Send them a polite email or call them up. They don’t drive every road every day, so they may not know what the issues are.

The music you hear is by Five Star Fall and can be found at Magnatune.com. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time. Have a great week.

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