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Addressing America's traffic safety epidemic

Jeffrey Bagdade, PE, P.Eng., PTOE | 25 May 2015 | Comments

While not a shocking fact to most Americans, traffic crashes are the leading cause of injury-related death in the US for people under the age of 45. What might be surprising however, is that traffic fatality rates in the US are three times higher than other industrialized nations. Which begs the question—what can be done to improve what is now one of our nation’s most significant public health issues?

Putting global best practices to work

Extensive research has been conducted throughout the globe on the most effective strategies for preventing traffic crashes. The measures we can take to improve safety are well documented. For instance, the Federal Highway Administration identified nine countermeasures that have been proven to reduce traffic crashes. This includes the key attributes of “complete streets” that allow safe travel for various modes of transportation, types of road users, and play a role in the development of livable, attractive communities.

The benefit of having offices around the world, is that we’ve been able to work on traffic safety initiatives implemented in countries with some of the lowest fatality rates, and are able to share that knowledge and lessons learned across the company. For example, our redesign of Oxford Circus in London—one of the most congested intersections with more than 80 million pedestrians crossing each year—was inspired by Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crossing. And currently, our safety experts are collaborating to apply ISO 39001 for road traffic safety management on a variety of projects around the globe. By sharing and collaborating internationally, we can identify and implement positive changes more quickly and effectively.

Deploying cutting-edge technology

We are now witnessing a true disruption in transportation in the form of connected and automated vehicles. Vehicle data transmissions (both vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure) will help inform us about roadway hazards and dangerous situations that we can’t see from the driver’s seat. In fact, according to the US Department of Transportation, connected vehicles have the potential to eliminate more than 80 percent of unimpaired traffic fatalities, saving tens of thousands of lives each year. However, as my colleague Suzanne Murtha details, careful planning and collaboration with experienced teams, as well as effective communication with stakeholders and the public are essential to realizing its full potential. We are actively working with public and private sector clients across the globe to help deploy this cutting edge technology.

The power of data analytics

In just the past few years, we’ve greatly increased our ability to apply analytical techniques to enhance traffic safety. Predictive methods such as the AASHTO Highway Safety Manual (HSM) and the International Road Assessment Program (iRAP) provide a framework for implementing data-based safety measures. The HSM applies advanced statistical techniques to help transportation professionals predict how safe a roadway will be when improvements are implemented. iRAP predicts safety using a risk-based approach and is extremely effective at predicting safety performance for pedestrians, bicyclists and in particular large scale complete streets programs. These methods allow agencies to analyze different scenarios to make informed financial decisions on traffic safety investments.

New data sources have also become available, including probe data that captures vehicle position and time. This information is collected from cell phones and GPS, and can provide real-time and historical data on congestion and vehicle speeds. As speed is a significant factor in many crashes, access to this information will allow transportation professionals to make more informed decisions related to safety. By harnessing “big data” transportation professionals can better pinpoint the specific locations and contributing factors of safety issues.

The economics of safety

Traffic safety also impacts our nation’s economy. The cost of traffic crashes in 2010 was $871 billion, equivalent to nearly two percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). To put this in perspective, during the recent economic downturn which started in 2008, the US GDP declined by about four percent. In making significant improvements to traffic safety, we will not only prevent serious injury and fatalities, but will also benefit our nation’s economy.

Integrating safety in all we do

With infrastructure and transportation funding currently at all-time lows, safety can sometimes fall to the bottom of the list when perceived as a stand-alone task. But by making safety the absolute priority in all we do, we raise the bar in all aspects of transportation design, planning, and engineering. After all, it is our families, clients, and friends traveling the road with us—nothing less than our best is acceptable.