Episode 43 – Roadway Safety Assessments

Topics: Roadway Safety Assessments a.k.a. Roadway Safety Audits

Websites and Citations:

Hello and welcome to another episode of Talking Traffic. My name is Bill Ruhsam and I host this podcast and it’s sister website, talkingtraffic.org. Today is January 5, 2014 and this is episode 43 of Talking Traffic. Today’s topic is Roadway Safety Assessments.

What is a roadway safety assessment, which are sometimes called Roadway Safety Audits? Well, it’s really exactly what it says. It’s an assessment of the safety of a segment of roadway. This segment might be a piece of a boulevard, or an intersection, or a tight curve in a rural location, or something else. A roadway safety assessment, which I will now call an RSA, is a process for looking at a possible safety issue and finding potential solutions that might address the problem.

Now, you have probably noticed that I’m using weasel words in that description. Words like “possible” and “potential” and “might”. There’s a reason for that, and it’s a reason that the RSA is designed to address. Here’s an anecdote from my personal experience:

There was an intersection in my county that happened to be within a roadway project I was the traffic engineer for. During our normal process of looking at all the intersections along the roadway, we analyzed that intersection for whether a traffic signal would be needed after the construction was complete. My conclusion was, No. No signal was needed. There wasn’t enough traffic, nor were there a number of crashes that could be addressed by a signal. Don’t forget, faithful listeners, that signals can *increase* the number of crashes that occur. That’s episode 12, where I also related this anecdote. Signals can increase the frequency of crashes, although they will generally decrease the *severity* of those crashes. However, if an intersection doesn’t *have* any severe crashes, than a new signal might increase the total number of crashes *and* injuries. That’s not a good situation. But, back to the intersection. When we went to the public meeting that was a part of the road project, I was asked at least four times when we were going to install a signal at that dangerous intersection. I kept answering no, we were not going to install a signal because it wasn’t warranted. Several attendees became a little short with me. After the meeting, I went back and did some more digging to see if there had been collisions out there that just hadn’t been reported, but to my knowledge, no additional crashes had occurred. This was an intersection that was perceived as dangerous, but wasn’t. Thusly why I’m using all these weasel words. Sometimes, when we’re looking for problems to solve, we have to be careful about requesting hot-spots from the public because we’ll get places like this one.

So an RSA is methodical look at a safety problem to determine what the root cause is, or if there are more than one, and how they can be addressed. Before I get much further along, you can stop right here and go to the Roadway Safety Audits website at the FHWA and read for yourself in a formal format exactly what they are. The website is http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/rsa/ and contains all the details.

There are a couple components of the RSA that distinguish it from a safety evaluation that I might do, or your local town might do on a regular basis. The RSA brings together a multidisciplinary, independent team to do the work. By multidisciplinary, I mean you may have a traffic engineer and a roadway engineer, but you’ll also have a cop who works road crashes, and the local maintenance supervisor, and an EMS first responder. The exact composition of the RSA team isn’t set in stone, but it’s important that a mix of expertise, and especially expertise that is outside of the engineering realm be represented.

The other component of the team that is important is independence. Often, an RSA will be conducted as a part of a roadway project. The RSA team must be people not involved and therefore not invested in that project. They must have an independent and unbiased look at the project. This independence will allow for a view of solutions that may not have occurred to the design team, or that may have been discarded due to factors that might be difficult to overcome due to institutional resistance, or project budgetary issues. More on that in a second.

Once the RSA team is assembled, they get together and go over the issue in a methodical and documented way. This documentation is one of the items that distinguish it from a “normal” safety review.

Argh, it’s times like this that I wish I could footnote a podcast. I’m not implying that “normal” safety reviews aren’t documented or anything like that. What I’m saying is that an RSA is a formalized process with specific goals and deliverables, while there’s really no such thing as a “normal” safety review. Everybody and every agency does those differently.

Anyway, the RSA team documents their review and process and then presents their conclusions and recommendations to the project design team, or to the agency, depending on who asked for the RSA. Another important part of the RSA is that the recommendations and conclusions are supposed to be addressed in writing by the design team. For example, and going back to the intersection I was describing above, a recommendation from the RSA team might have been to signalize the intersection. However, they would probably also suggest alternatives such as installing a roundabout or addressing the angle of the intersection, or maybe other engineering adjustments. The design team would say what they were going to do, and why, and why NOT they weren’t going to do something else.

So an RSA is a formal, independent, multi-disciplinary process for evaluating a safety problem and making recommendations for solving that problem. That’s the good.

The bad is that RSAs requires money and time from the sponsoring organization in order to bring together the team. It also requires time and money from the design team, if this is an RSA under a roadway design project, to provide information and to address the RSA recommendations.Additionally, and here’s what I was talking about earlier concerning institutional resistance and project budgetary issues, a lot of roadway design work is set to fixed budgets. You literally cannot exceed your design budget unless something big changes. RSA recommendations typically do not fall under “big changes” which would make it crystal clear that an adjustment to the design budget is needed. Instead, they tend to be “you can make that small change within your budget, right?” type changes. Design teams hate those sorts of things. They would prefer to do everything once, and never touch it again. That’s how you deliver projects under budget, and make money, and earn your quarterly bonus.

So, the bad part summary is that it requires an institutional acceptance of the process and the potential budgetary fallout. While we’re not talking about a large amount of money when you look at the total for a road widening or other transportation project, it still has to come from somewhere and with most agencies in cost-cutting mode, it can be hard to convince people that these assessments are valuable.

And they *are*. They are totally worth the upfront money spent, even if every dollar is borne by the funding agency of the project. If an RSA can adjust a road project to make it safer, this will reduce the maintenance on the project after construction, reduce the number of crashes which will reduce the societal costs of those collisions, and eliminate potential rework and reconstruction after the fact when those safety problems come to light. Finding problems before they’re installed is one of those invisible benefits that only comes out when the bean counters get done looking at the budgets and expenses. RSAs are worth it and *you* can help by asking your local DOT or Public Works whether they use the RSA process and if not, why not?

And that’s it for today! I’ve given you a very high-level overview of the Roadway Safety Assessment or Roadway Safety Audit. There are additional details, of course. I attended an 8 hour workshop a few years ago that was also just an overview, so I don’t expect to get across all the details in a 20 minute podcast. Hopefully you’ll have a better idea of one of the tools that are being used across the country to help make your roadways safer.

Thanks for listening to talking traffic. If you like what you heard, or didn’t, be sure to let me know by leaving a comment on the show notes or sending an email to bill at talking traffic.org.

The music you’ve been listening to is by five star fall and can be found at magnatune .com. This episode is released under a creative commons attribution share alike 3.0 license. Feel free to distribute and/or modify this podcast, but please link back to me and to talkingtraffic.org.

Until next time, have a great week.

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