In the American legislative process, like in most well established democracies, the essential work of the congress is in committees. Their members and staffs become very familiar with, and often expert in, their jurisdictions. Journalists rely on them for insights. Lobbyists for various interests swarm around them. Representatives of foreign governments watch what they do. As the House of Representatives, by the Constitution, originates bills to raise revenue, its Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (formerly Public Works) has much influence on what happens on American roads. The mechanism of this is its essential control of the Highway Trust Fund, the repository of billions of dollars from gasoline and other taxes.

US Capitol, West Side. © Martin Falbisoner.

US Capitol, West Side. © Martin Falbisoner.

In early January 1971, Congressman Bill Harsha returned from the year-end recess to face a very serious issue as Ranking Minority Member of the Committee on Public Works. Road fatalities had increased in America annually for most of the years since 1961, when he was first elected to congress. The total advanced from 36,285 in 1961 to 38,980 in 1962. When it reached 47,089 in 1965, the committee brought forward the well-publicized Highway Safety Act of 1966. The Committee Chairman at the time, George Fallon of Maryland, staked his reputation on assurances that federalizing a “balanced approach” of traditional interventions of primarily appealing to drivers and pedestrians for safe behavior would reverse the tide. It did not. Fatalities on America’s roads rose to 53,816 in 1970.

New Data Leads to New Ideas

In the election of 1970, Fallon lost in a primary. The new committee chairman, John Blatnik of Minnesota, was not expected to take an initiative on road safety. It fell to Harsha, as Ranking Minority Member, to take on the responsibility to get something done. He was a graduate of Kenyon College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, a former county prosecutor, and a Marine in World War II. Congressman Jim Wright from Fort Worth, Chairman of the Public Works Subcommittee on Investigation and Oversight, who later became Speaker of the House, joined him in the effort. This enlarged the available staff. Harsha’s Associate Minority Council, Richard C. Peet, was an able young lawyer of broad interests who became the driver of the issue. The Minority Staff Director, Cliff Enfield, would join in amidst other tasks. The Chief Council and Committee staff director, Richard Sullivan, and Technical Advisor Lloyd Rivard, were both well-known on Capitol Hill and helped as needed with their many contacts and connections. Jim Wright contributed his Chief Counsel and Staff Director, Walter May and George Kopecky, Deputy and Technical Advisor.

A series of meetings and informal conversations began. What could be done beyond the 1966 act? All were aware of increasing traffic from four million new vehicles and three million new drivers per year and what seemed like ever-increasing fatalities. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) participated through the Director Lester Lamm, Robert Connor, essentially the chief traffic engineer in America, Howard Anderson, Deputy Administrator for Safety and Clark Bennett of his staff.

“... two-thirds of American fatalities were on rural roads and that in terms of risk of a fatal crash, it was six times more dangerous to drive on a rural road at night than on an urban street in daylight. Everyone realized that something about the roads had a lot to do with whether there were crashes and fatalities.”

There was new information of estimates of fatalities by road system in the United States from the FHWA. They reported that two-thirds of American fatalities were on rural roads and that in terms of risk of a fatal crash, it was six times more dangerous to drive on a rural road at night than on an urban street in daylight. Everyone realized that something about the roads had a lot to do with whether there were crashes and fatalities. Harsha and Wright decided to try to put together an omnibus highway safety bill focused on the roads to see what countermeasures or other concepts might appear.

Andy Lampe, a Vice President of 3M, was contacted and he offered research from the leading maker of reflectorized signs. He also recommended enlisting Will Sacks, director of the Highway Safety Foundation of Mansfield, Ohio, who had been focusing his research on road signs and road hazards. Ben Kelly of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety had good data and a film on the “booby traps” along American roads. Congressman Robert A. Roe, a member of the committee, introduced co-author Gerry Balcar, of Potters Industries at the time, to Walter May. Potters was an American multinational producer of glass beads (twelve factories in eight countries) used to reflectorize pavement markings and serve in many industrial applications, including aspects of aerospace metallurgy.

Potters was carrying out a large field test of pavement marking materials in Roe’s district in West Milford, New Jersey under Gerry’s direction. They were installing pavement markings on over 20 miles of previously unmarked roads with different formulations of the lines using varying types of binders, applying different thicknesses and varying the amounts of beads. May asked for a dossier that explained everything that was known about the safety effectiveness of reflectorized center lines and edge lines. A few days later, George Kopecky called Gerry and asked if an effectiveness test could also be done in West Milford. This new test would improve on, and use better controls than, previous tests.

A test of crash reduction effectiveness was added to Potters’ West Milford protocol. A segment of 4.6 miles of a 24 foot wide township road, carrying an average daily traffic of 2,000 passing vehicles, was marked with reflectorized center lines with passing zones and reflectorized edge lines. Prior to this, the road had only a white un-reflectorized centerline. Historically, there were multiple crashes and typically one death annually on this road segment. During the test period, crashes were reduced 44%. On other roads serving as simultaneous controls, crashes increased 17%. There were also county roads in West Milford that had reflectorized edge lines but only a single white center line. These were overpainted with yellow reflectorized center lines with passing zones. Crashes were then reduced 15% during the test period.

“The large scope of the Potters materials test was unprecedented. It extended over three years with repeated trials and with a comparison of different reflectometers in a fourth year.”

The large scope of the Potters materials test was unprecedented. It extended over three years with repeated trials and with a comparison of different reflectometers in a fourth year. With long lines, as opposed to transverse lines, Potters would show wear naturally and monitor it with monthly visual evaluations by officers of the police force and monthly motion picture recordings. Very quickly, staff and others from Washington and elsewhere asked to visit the West Milford test site. Many did, like House and senate committee staff, FHWA staff, and key state highway personnel. Even representatives from Great Britain, Germany and Japan appeared.

A New Road Traffic Safety Strategy Evolves

In further staff conversations, Harsha and Wright adopted Dick Peet’s idea of four action programs on rural roads. A high-hazard treatment program for dealing with uncontrolled intersections, dangerous alignments, and inadequate sight distances was first. An obstacle removal program to deal with trees, signposts and such close to the traveled way was second. A special pavement marking program was third, providing for many thousands of miles of reflectorized edge lines and center lines. The fourth was an extension of an existing informal effort to separate rail-highway crossings, focusing on upgraded lights and gates. These action programs were funded at $725 million for the initial years 1974-1976. No committee had ever proposed spending such an amount on road safety. This very strong fundamental step toward making roads safer was fully supported by the FHWA staff involved, and particularly by Bob Conner.

When word got out of the amount funded for road safety, equal to $3.3 billion in today’s value, howls of protest echoed through congressional offices. The road construction lobby was aghast at the amount Harsha intended to use for road safety improvements from the Highway Trust Fund. They hustled to get a bridge reconstruction and replacement item added to the “safety program.” The Governor’s Highway Safety Representatives, created by the 1966 act, protested spending anything on the four action programs. They were implementing “their” programs and said that adding the new amounts to their existing efforts instead would speed success and that it was folly to start something new.

“The road safety bill, HR 2332, was sponsored by every member of the full Committee on Public Works. Nothing can be more bipartisan.”

There was a draft highway bill in 1972 that incorporated all of the proposed safety provisions. However, it was not debated or acted on as Congress adjourned in mid-October for the presidential election pitting Richard Nixon, under the Watergate shadow, against George McGovern. By March 1973, with a new Congress, the Subcommittee on Transportation was ready for new hearings. The road safety bill, HR 2332, was sponsored by every member of the full Committee on Public Works. Nothing can be more bipartisan. While the committee was getting ready to defend the bill, opposition to it grew as well. Somehow, the Nixon administration was prodded into opposing the safety action programs. The governor’s highway safety representatives, the highway contractors and other traditionalists wanted the substantial new money for their programs. The theme was “give the money to the states as they know best what to do.”

Acting FHWA administrator, Ralph Bartelsmeyer, was sent to voice the administration theme at the hearings. With him were James Foley, Director of the Office of Highway Safety and David Wells, Chief Counsel. Together, they advocated that the committee should not be categorizing funds (itemizing funding for specific program actions). Harsha defended the bill aggressively. After several exchanges, he said:

“Let me remind you, sir, that we have to come to grips with these problems, and do it immediately. The longer we wait, the more time goes by, and the more difficult the job is going to be. We have heard from a number of witnesses here that any safety program that is going to be successful has to involve the public. In order to involve the public, and get the average citizen behind highway safety, is going to take leadership on a national level. Let me also remind you that we are not getting that kind of leadership out of the Department of Transportation. You are not doing enough for highway safety. We think it is time that you should.” (Page 229 1973 Hearings)

Three officers of the National Association of Governor’s Highway Safety Representatives appeared to testify. They ventured support for the objectives of the categorical safety programs but suggested the better way was to let the states have the money to do what they believed was best. Harsha made them admit they preferred not to have the categorical programs at all. He reiterated congress’ view that the aims and expected results from the categorical programs were essential.

Other important testimony came from well-known highway safety leaders. The subject of the need for public support of road safety programs came up several times. Public support for these programs was viewed as very critical for making them succeed. How the rich world dealt with it is a strong precursor as to how to garner public support in developing countries.

“Public support for these programs was viewed as very critical for making them succeed.”

Gerry Balcar, with Tim O’Leary, also of Potters Industries, Will Sacks and Ben Kelly appeared in the House Committee Hearings Room to testify. Gerry showed photos and motion pictures from the West Milford test of driving on a rural road at night without markings and then with reflectorized center lines and edge lines. The room was still dark when conversation began complementing the obvious improvements to the roads after installation of the reflectorized pavement markings.

Gerry, Tim, Will and Ben with others went to the other side of Capitol Hill the following week to appear before Senator Pete Domenici and his staff director Clark Norton. There the bill was amended with a concept of a safer road system for the action programs. It passed the Senate on April 12.

The New Thinking in Road Safety is Enacted into Law

The House was poised to pass the safety bill when on April 19 the Rules Committee brought a resolution to join the highway and safety bills. The Highway Safety Act of 1973 became Title II of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1973. The Senate and House versions of the safety act were similar. On March 14, the Senate, after debating the highway bill, voted 49–44 to allow states to use Highway Trust Fund money for urban rail transit expansion. On April 23, the joined acts passed the House but with no diversion from the trust fund for urban rail transit expansion.

With disagreement on the provision of allowing Highway Trust Fund money for urban rail transit expansion, a long Senate/House conference to resolve this difference in their respective bills ensued. However, there was no controversy or disagreement around the road safety aspects of the bills. As the end of the fiscal year passed, and the summer recess approached, funds to pay for ongoing construction were used up. The conference ended with the House giving in and allowing billions of dollars from the Highway Trust Fund money to be diverted for urban rail transit expansion. The combined act, the Highway Safety Act of 1973, was sent to the President who signed it into law as Title II of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973.

The Results

The new road safety thinking brought about with the Highway Safety Act of 1973 established priorities of action and emphasized the effect of the safety condition of roads in the traffic safety equation. It was a huge step forward. The principle was to start with the known effectiveness of road safety engineering to treat safety deficiencies of existing roads. Reflectorized center lines and edge lines were installed; stop signs, stop bars and approach markings were added to uncontrolled intersections; sight distances were improved; guardrails were installed; roadside obstacles were removed and rail-highway crossings were upgraded with flashing lights or automatic gates.  This approach worked, even though at the time, no one involved realized fully what a momentous change they were bringing about. In the US, fatalities on rural federal-aid roads, the focus of the program, were reduced 35.4% from 1973-1985 and the overall American fatality rate per 100,000 population was reduced from 25.6 to 18.4.

Road Traffic Fatalities on the Federal Aid System, Excluding Interstate, 1973-1985. Source: Federal Highway Administration

Road Traffic Fatalities on the Federal Aid System, Excluding Interstate, 1973-1985. Source: Federal Highway Administration

An added benefit with the road safety engineering actions was that they delivered unmistakable “messages” on the roads for road users. They noticed that “their” roads received road safety improvements. These improvements then became an unintended campaign that seems to have raised public support for road safety.

Like the United States, other rich nations also found themselves struggling with rapidly increasing crashes, injuries and deaths on their roads in the 1960s. While recovering from World War II, most followed America’s lead in implementing road traffic crash reduction countermeasures in line with those enacted in the US by the Highway Safety Act of 1973. Similar developments occurred in these countries with many of them achieving even better results than the US.

It is now time for low- and middle-income countries to benefit from the lessons learned by rich countries some 40 years ago. Implementing road safety engineering to help road users avoid making mistakes, followed up with other safety campaigns and furthering the involvement and support of the public, will produce results. The needs by individual nations will vary, but winning public support will be essential for success. There is in most nations a uniform cynicism about government actions and motives, especially if corruption is endemic. Road safety engineering demonstrates a tangible benefit provided by government. It can be the basis of an appeal to drivers and pedestrians to join in making “their” roads as safe as possible.

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