“Safer by Design” Tool Aims to Save Lives on Texas Rural Roadways
The Roadway Safety Foundation has honored the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) with a 2021 National Roadway Safety Award. The foundation lauded the TxDOT-sponsored, TTI-developed “Safer by Design” tool, a user-friendly innovation roadway designers can use to assess the safety characteristics of rural highway design.
Nearly 4,000 people died on Texas roadways in 2020, more than in any year since 2003. Texas roadway crash fatalities rose 7.5 percent over 2019, despite a 9.8 percent decrease in miles traveled during the pandemic. Nationwide, an estimated one-third of highway fatalities are related to deficient roadway conditions. In Texas, fatalities on rural non-interstate roadways occur at twice the rate of other road types.
“Last year’s jump in fatalities was alarming, but innovations like the ‘Safer by Design’ tool will save lives by helping roadway designers better evaluate the safety outcomes of a wide range of design elements,” notes Roadway Safety Foundation Executive Director Greg Cohen. “We urge DOTs across the nation to look at TxDOT-TTI and other awardees’ innovations and replicate them wherever possible.”
Roadway engineers have traditionally designed roadways using established standards that define, say, how sharp a curve should be for a given speed, or how steep the slope of the roadside should be. Following construction, safety data gathered over time helps engineers determine the actual safety performance of the roadway and whether improvements are needed to reduce injuries and fatalities resulting from crashes.
“That approach has resulted in improved levels of safety, but it’s inherently reactive,” says TTI Senior Research Engineer Robert Wunderlich, director of the Institute’s Center for Transportation Safety. “We now know a great deal about the impact of changing various design parameters on safety, but many of the procedures are data-intensive and challenging to implement. This simple and straightforward spreadsheet tool incorporates sophisticated analysis techniques in a way that allows designers to model how changes in design affect safety. It’s a proactive approach designers can use at the planning stage to optimize roadway safety from the get-go.”
Using the Microsoft® Excel®-based tool, engineers can compare two design options at a time. The tool assigns a score between 1 and 100 for each safety option based on safety performance. The tool can also compare alternatives designs to one another, as well as to the standard design for the proposed roadway and a conceptual optimal design for that roadway segment. Using this information, engineers can make more informed design decisions when prioritizing safety options before a road is ever built.
The tool was developed under contract with TxDOT as part of the department’s continued emphasis on improving safety, one of its core missions. TxDOT’s #EndTheStreakTX campaign aims to end the 20-year streak of daily traffic fatalities on Texas roadways, part of its larger goal of achieving zero roadway deaths by 2050 and cutting those fatalities in half by 2035.
“Safety is top of mind for everything we do at TxDOT, and we strive to innovate and integrate safety improvements in all our projects around the state,” says TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams. “I am proud of the work we have accomplished on this and the continued collaboration with TTI to develop tools and technologies that will help us combat the growing number of traffic fatalities that we have seen across both Texas and the nation.”
TxDOT now requires use of the tool for all non-interstate rural projects, ranging from routine maintenance to complete reconstruction projects. While initially focusing on rural roads, the department plans to incorporate similar “Safer by Design” practices for all Texas roadways.
The award given TTI and TxDOT was one of just seven National Roadway Safety Awards selected from a nationwide pool of applicants and evaluated on three criteria: effectiveness, innovation, and efficient use of resources. Since 1999, the foundation’s awards program has honored outstanding projects across all facets of the transportation landscape.
“This tool is an excellent example of how TTI and TxDOT have worked together for more than 70 years to improve transportation safety for Texans,” says Greg Winfree, TTI agency director. “We recognize that rural traffic safety is an issue in all 50 states, with rural roads being a major contributor to vehicle fatalities. This tool can help save lives, not only in the Lone Star State but nationwide.”
In a virtual event streamed Oct. 6, the foundation recognized award winners from across the United States. Wunderlich and Winfree were joined by TTI Research Scientist Raul Avelar, the project’s principal investigator, and TTI Senior Research Engineer Karen Dixon to accept the award on behalf of the Institute. TxDOT personnel were also present to represent the department.
A 501(c) (3) charitable and educational organization, the Roadway Safety Foundation’s stated mission is to “reduce the frequency and severity of motor vehicle crashes, injuries, and fatalities through improvements to roadway systems and their environment.” Sponsored jointly by the Federal Highway Administration and the foundation, projects are selected biannually to receive the national awards.
“All of us know friends, family, acquaintances, loved ones lost in traffic crashes in the United States.… but we know that it doesn’t have to be this way,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg told recipients during the ceremony. “From cutting-edge video analytics in Bellevue, Washington … to an innovative new safety scoring tool from Texas DOT and Texas A&M University that’s making rural roads safer, these award recipients serve as models for other states and cities to emulate.”