Roads can be safer, top federal highway official says

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Acting Federal Highway Administrator Jim Ray has issued a “call to arms” on highway safety, urging state Departments of Transportation to adopt more coordinated, systemwide approaches to reduce crashes.

“Safety is our top priority, and while the fatality rate on our nation’s roads is the lowest in history, we are always seeking new ways to prevent tragedies where lives are lost,” says Ray, the nation’s top highway official. “We owe it to the traveling public to work even more creatively.”

Each year, nearly 43,000 people – motorists, passengers and pedestrians – die on America’s roads. Though the fatality rate – 1.41 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled – is the lowest in the nation’s history, the number of fatalities has hovered at about the same point for nearly five years.

FHWA safety officials met with transportation officials and safety experts Friday, July 25, in an online conference – a “webinar” – as part of a new effort to improve roadway safety nationally. In it, the agency strongly recommended better use of nine tools that are key to reducing roadway fatalities each year:

  • Roadway safety audits – State DOTs should formalize the use of these audits, which are comprehensive evaluations of existing or planned roads or intersections to identify potential safety improvements.
  • Rumble strips and rumble stripes – Used in centerline and shoulders, these cost-effective devices have shown demonstrable improvement in warning drivers of lane departure, reducing by 14 percent head-on collisions and opposite-direction sideswipe crashes. Shoulder rumble strips and stripes have shown a 38 percent reduction in run-off-road crashes on freeways, and between 13-18 percent on rural roads.
  • Median barriers – Used to separate opposing traffic on divided highways, these barriers have a long track record of reducing cross-median collisions. States are encouraged to consider using cable median barriers where appropriate to further heighten roadway safety.
  • Safety Edge – This paving technique, giving a 30- to 35-degree slope to the road’s edge, reduces the risk to drivers if their tire inadvertently falls over an otherwise near-vertical road edge, leading to loss of vehicle control and rollover crashes. Safety Edge makes such notoriously severe crashes far less likely.
  • Roundabouts – Roundabouts have demonstrated a 60- to 87-percent reduction in crashes.
  • Turning lanes at stop-controlled intersections – At intersections with significant turning volume, turning lanes for right- and left-turns on major road approaches can reduce crashes dramatically – in some cases, by as much as 55 percent.
  • Yellow change intervals – Red-light running crashes at intersections, which too frequently result in fatalities, can be reduced by setting yellow-light signals properly. Studies show a one-second increase in the yellow signal interval can reduce red-light violations by as much as 50 percent.
  • Medians and pedestrian refuge areas in urban and suburban areas – Raised medians or pedestrian refuge areas at pedestrian crossings at marked crosswalks have shown a 46 percent reduction in pedestrian crashes. FHWA recommends that medians be between 4 and 8 feet wide to improve pedestrian safety.
  • Walkways – Ensuring a sidewalk or pathway exists near a roadway can reduce pedestrian crashes by as much 88 percent. FHWA recommends a pathway of at least 4 feet wide of stabilized or paved surface in areas routinely used by pedestrians.
  • To review the FHWA’s new policy, go to