The Roadway Safety Foundation honored the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) with a 2021 National Roadway Safety Award Oct. 6. The foundation lauded the TxDOT-sponsored, TTI-developed “Safer by Design” tool for use by roadway designers 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. Fatalities on rural non-interstate roadways occur at twice the rate of other road types in the Lone Star State.
“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 Greg Cohen, Roadway Safety Foundation executive director.
Transportation engineers traditionally design roadways using established standards that focus on elements such as how sharp a curve should be for a given speed. Data gathered over time help engineers determine the actual safety performance of the roadway and whether improvements are needed.
“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. “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 also compares alternatives designs to one another, to the standard design for the proposed roadway, and to a conceptual optimal design for that roadway segment. Engineers can use this information to make better design decisions when prioritizing safety options before construction.
TxDOT sponsored development of the tool as part of its continuing efforts to improve roadway safety. 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,” 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.
“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.”
Wunderlich and Winfree were joined for the award presentation by TTI Research Scientist Raul Avelar, the project’s principal investigator, and TTI Senior Research Engineer Karen Dixon, head of TTI’s Traffic Operations and Roadway Safety Division. TxDOT personnel were also present to represent the department.
“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 [TxDOT and TTI] that’s making rural roads safer, these award recipients serve as models for other states and cities to emulate.”
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