How can it be, as we claim, that the history of the pivotal change in road traffic safety policy that was originated in America in the 1970’s can be lost? It certainly is a reasonable question.
The new policy, established in America from the mid-1970’s to the mid-1980’s and mostly duplicated by other rich world countries, was to make existing roads as safe as possible as soon as possible. This was a departure from the traditional countermeasures focused on trying to change the behavior of drivers and pedestrians. Reflectorized edge lines and center lines were installed and maintained on hundreds of thousands of miles of mostly rural, two-lane primary and secondary roads; uncontrolled intersections got signs or signals or were channelized; dangerous alignments were corrected and sight distances cleared. Roadside obstacles were removed, guardrails were installed and rail-highway crossings were upgraded with lights or gates. These actions collectively came to be known as road safety engineering. In America from 1973 to 1985, even though traffic increased, fatalities decreased 35% on two-lane, rural, federal-aid roads where the efforts were concentrated.
The Highway Safety Act of 1973 Road Safety Engineering Programs
These tangible, useful and highly visible safety improvements seen by millions of drivers on “their” roads supplanted a diatribe of appeals for safe driving and walking. Rather than scolding them, the improvements to the roads helped drivers keep a significant share of mistakes from happening or from becoming crashes. This seemed to also capture and marshal at least some additional public interest in road safety. Campaigns started in the 1980’s focused on curbing drinking and driving and promoting seatbelt use then produced long-term, incremental, results.
“These tangible, useful and highly visible safety improvements seen by millions of drivers on “their” roads supplanted a diatribe of appeals for safe driving and walking.”
But, if these historic safety actions to the roads enacted by the American Congress and implemented by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) are so important, how can this history “be lost?”
Well, it was not entirely lost. The FHWA published highway safety stewardship reports clearly showing in detail how money was used and the results from the road safety engineering program. Sorely missing though were stories and reports in the serious popular and trade newspapers, magazines and professional journals about the change brought about in America with data and analysis showing the results. Further, there were strange events influencing and interfering with the normal reporting and publicizing of the successful road safety engineering program.
Overshadowed by Other News
A fundamental obstacle to media attention for the road safety engineering program resulted when the Highway Safety Act of 1973 was joined with major ongoing construction and funding issues as Title II of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973. As title II, the Highway Safety Act of 1973 was a step removed from the attention of the media. With the number of fatalities almost 5,000 higher in 1972 compared to 1966, there would normally have been plenty of interest in the programs enacted by the Highway Safety Act of 1973 to address these increases. Its predecessor, the Highway Safety Act of 1966, was well publicized with press releases and a signing ceremony at the White House.
However, when the road safety initiatives were joined with the new initiative to allow states to use highway trust fund money for urban rail transit expansion, road safety was eclipsed by this even larger step forward for funding mass transit expenditures. This new act was famous, or infamous, for raiding the highway trust fund. The new transfer of billions of dollars instead became the subject of press conferences, speeches at various venues and hundreds of news articles. The immediate opportunity to develop public and academic interest in road safety engineering, and its potential as a road crash and death countermeasure, was lost in the excitement about using the trust fund for mass transit expansion in cities and suburbs. Nobody in the United States’ Congress or at the FHWA called press conferences or arranged presentations about the new road safety measures.
“The immediate opportunity to develop public and academic interest in road safety engineering, and its potential as a road crash and death countermeasure, was lost in the excitement about using the trust fund for mass transit expansion in cities and suburbs.”
The proponents of urban mass transit projects had found themselves looking for money in a Washington dominated by airlines, aircraft manufacturers, auto manufacturers and the highway construction lobby. They saw the interstate highways nearing completion and a highway trust fund brimming with cash from gasoline taxes from ever-increasing vehicle miles of travel. In 1968, they made their first play. The American Public Transport Association and others argued that new mass transit initiatives were needed to alleviate commutation congestion. Because of this, there was a justification for rail systems to be built or upgraded with assistance from the highway trust fund. Further, as the building and maintenance of highways were to some extent government funded aid for economic development, they argued that the new rail transit projects should be treated the same way.
After lamenting the heresy voiced by the transit promoters, the answer from the highway construction lobby leadership was that all of the communities of America use the road infrastructure but only a few would need rail transit systems. The contract with the American people, they claimed, was that the highway trust fund should only be used for highway construction and maintenance. Support for the urban rail use of the highway taxes, however, grew with a realization that there was no other available funding source for the transit projects.
The Senate passed its version of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973 including the diversion of billions of dollars from the highway trust fund for rail transit projects. The House disagreed, passing its version with no money allocated from the fund for rail transit use. A conference committee was appointed to resolve the differences between the two versions of the legislation. All variances, except the raiding of the trust fund, were resolved by the end of April. Then, from early May to late July, the argument regarding the use, or not, of the highway trust fund for rail transit projects fumed in a room on the west front of the Capitol. Bill Harsha, who had led the road safety initiatives, was also the leader of the opposition to breaking into the highway trust fund. He believed in sustaining the intended use of gasoline taxes but more important, he foresaw large future needs for highway expansion and maintenance. He also doubted the extent of the benefit claims for new or expanded metro transit systems.
In the end, when money for current construction projects began to run out and with the fiscal year closed with no new funds authorized by congress, Harsha had to give in as his supporters needed to keep crews working. He chose a course of action that would let everyone know his views about raiding the highway trust fund had not changed. In a speech to a crowded House floor, he urged every member to vote for the bill, specifically to get the road safety engineering action programs started. He then registered his protest by voting against it himself. He headed for the garage elevator, his driver and the airport. He did not want to be interviewed. Nor did reporters, who knew him as a good and dedicated person, relish meeting with him considering his mood. The important story of what he and his group had fashioned in road safety policy, and the expected results from it, was never told at its beginning enactment. There were no press releases or memorandums to the press. There was no press conference nor was the media interested. Academia had mostly been left out of the legislative process and were never brought into the dialog leading up to it. The big story was that billions of dollars would help build or improve rail metro systems in America. From that shadow, no one stepped forward to proclaim the other story of billions of dollars for road safety engineering and reducing road traffic tragedy.
“It was the lowest of a low key signing of greatly significant legislation.”
When President Nixon signed the bill, there was no ceremony with Senators or members of the House. Only few of the committee staffs, who had not yet left with their families for vacation, joined him in the Oval Office to open the highway trust fund to rail transit construction and commit to a priority of making roads as safe as possible as soon as possible. It was the lowest of a low key signing of greatly significant legislation.
The Missed Opportunity to Publicize the Road Safety Engineering Results
Reports to Congress are commonly required to follow up on legislation concerning new initiatives. In the case of the new highway safety provisions, this meant yearly reports concerning activities and the results for each of the road safety engineering actions. This was clearly specified in the legislative language. Normally, positive results would be publicized into news. Every year there would be a new account of progress resulting from the road safety programs. But, the reporting and the results were again eclipsed by other news, this time by the Arab oil embargo.
In October 1973, Egypt and Syria suffered a humiliating defeat in the Yom Kippur war, which they started with Israel. The Arab oil exporting nations tried to use their economic influence to force repatriation of the lands occupied by Israel after the Six-Day war in 1967. Shipments of oil to the United States and most of Western Europe were stopped. Suddenly, American driving habits were forced to change. Lines of cars formed at gas stations. Oil prices rose and gasoline pump prices doubled. Conservation was the keynote message to the public. Slower driving was promoted for getting more miles per gallon of gas. A national 55 mph speed limit was imposed. It was enthusiastically, and often onerously, enforced.
From the reports by the states and some research of the findings, it was clear that the road safety engineering programs worked. Just as important as reducing road tragedy, the work of making existing roads as safe as possible appeared to have stimulated public interest in paying more attention to road safety. Edge lines and center lines, intersection treatments, warning signs, guardrail and rail-highway crossing upgrades were dramatic and permanent advertisements for road safety efforts. Following 1985, when most of the road safety engineering work had been completed, drunk driving declined and seatbelt use increased in rich world countries as campaigns promoting these behavioral changes gained effectiveness.
“However, the news media of the time presented misunderstandings of the possible causes of the road traffic fatality reductions.”
However, the news media of the time presented misunderstandings of the possible causes of the road traffic fatality reductions. There were exaggerated claims that vehicle safety standards were a major contributor. These were no more than a small part of the story. Others credited the enforcement of the national speed limit. However, by 1985, speeds had resumed to the 1973 level, or nearly so, on all road systems except on the rural interstate highways. Still others remarked on a reduction of travel. There was a net decrease in travel of less than 3% in 1974 and then increases again in subsequent years. Car sales continued to increase with Baby Boomers reaching driving age. The higher price of gasoline was also a possible influence for reduced driving. It rose from 39 cents per gallon in 1973 to 86 cents in 1979 and then to $1.19 in 1980 when a second oil panic was settled with a floating world price for oil. No one in government spoke out about the road safety engineering results or tied them at least in part to the huge work done to improve the safety on rural roads off the interstate highway system. Once again, there were no press conferences, no memorandums to the media, no announcements and no interviews.
“No one in government spoke out about the road safety engineering results or tied them at least in part to the huge work done to improve the safety on rural roads off the interstate highway system.”
Those who conceived the ideas for the road safety engineering program did not follow the results as they left government or otherwise moved on. Your co-author included. We originators left it to others to record the history. However, the FHWA had comprehensive data but the leadership took no action to publicize it. The originators and others who knew about the success were satisfied that the program had worked. Some of us who were involved should have let the highway communities of the world know about the program and the results. We failed.
Silence from Government Agencies
The United States, Germany, Japan, Sweden and the Netherlands are leading nations contributing advanced efforts to reduce road traffic tragedy. The record is clear enough. The original tests of safety work on deficient roads was done in six American and two German states. Japan in turn won “the traffic war” in that country. In Sweden, the safe system theory of Vision Zero was seeded and took root with the concept of a perfected road system. Similar thinking developed in the Netherlands. However, no country has clearly reported to the international community about the effectiveness of road safety engineering as a key road traffic crash reduction countermeasure.
In our work, we often emphasize road markings because they are the best-measured, science-based crash countermeasure. There were many tests and installation experiences that supported the concept that the most important step to take to reduce road traffic crashes and fatalities is to install reflectorized edge lines and center lines. Concerning such use and testing, governments of rich countries have not given clear summaries of the results or given any resulting recommendations useful to low- and middle-income countries in readily accessible publications. It is with those countries that road traffic tragedy is doing much harm and where the core issue of road traffic tragedy reduction now lays.
“Regrettably, the important role road markings serve in reducing road traffic crashes is overlooked in traffic manuals around the world.”
Regrettably, the important role road markings serve in reducing road traffic crashes is overlooked in traffic manuals around the world. In the latest version (2009 edition with revisions one and two in 2012) of the United States’ Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), these two paragraphs from the segment on functions and limitations of markings demonstrates not only the incomplete thinking in the United States, but also in much of the rich world:
“Markings on highways and on private roads open to public travel have important functions in providing guidance and information for the road user. Major marking types include pavement and curb markings, delineators, colored pavements, channelizing devices, and islands. In some cases, markings are used to supplement other traffic control devices such as signs, signals, and other markings. In other instances, markings are used alone to effectively convey regulations, guidance, or warnings in ways not obtainable by the use of other devices.”
“Markings have limitations. Visibility of the markings can be limited by snow, debris, and water on or adjacent to the markings. Marking durability is affected by material characteristics, traffic volumes, weather, and location. However, under most highway conditions, markings provide important information while allowing minimal diversion of attention from the roadway.”
Thus, the American Federal Highway Administration speaks with no mention of the key safety benefits of road markings.
However, the European Commission got involved in pavement marking starting in 1995 with a large and expensive study. The report of the work, labeled COST 331 – Requirements for Horizontal Road Marking, was produced by the Directorate General for Transport under the Directorate General for Research within the program of Cooperation on Science and Technology (COST).
The COST 331 report did not set out to prove the value of reflectorized pavement marking as a tool to improve road safety. Instead, the study started with the premise that reflectorized pavement marking already was a proven tool and based on that premise, COST 331 did set out to “…establish an up-to-date scientific method with which, on the basis of drivers’ visual needs, to determine the optimal pavement marking design in order to ensure that it is visible, by day and by night, in all weather conditions.”
"Re-stated, the views of traffic experts from the then (1999) 15 member countries of the European Union who participated in producing COST 331 from 1995 to 1999 took as a fact that pavement marking is a proven tool to improve road safety."
Re-stated, the views of traffic experts from the then (1999) 15 member countries of the European Union who participated in producing COST 331 from 1995 to 1999 took as a fact that pavement marking is a proven tool to improve road safety.
Further, in the introduction, it is also stated:
“Later trends in road safety look, more and more, towards Low Cost Road Engineering Measures (LCM), such as minor changes in junction operation, road lay-out, lighting, signs and markings which can be implemented quickly and make significant contributions to road safety. Within the above mentioned set of LCM, those concerning road signing in general (and in particular, road markings), have been traditionally considered interesting alternatives to improve road safety. Unfortunately, this potential benefit – and well proven effectiveness – of road markings is not sufficiently exploited by the relevant decision makers.”
This statement is, unfortunately, also a comment on the failure of officials in Western Europe to recognize the importance of road markings as a road traffic crash countermeasure. The same can be said about officials in the United States.
Cost 331 breaks new ground in evaluating the retroreflectivity of road markings. It confirms the value of lines wider than 10 cm (4 inches) and promotes widths of 20 cm (8 inches) and wider. It also adds:
“The conclusions show that there is a need to establish a national policy (taking account of driver age, headlamp intensity and glare from opposing traffic and climate) for road marking design, due to their influence on road safety.”
The main contributions of COST 331 is that it specifies optimal retroreflectivity values for road marking installations and it supports the general findings of using wide lines on roads. It also promotes uniformity in road marking operations. In concluding the report however, maybe this statement from the report’s authors is the most valuable from a policy and decision making perspective:
“…to encourage road authorities and other relevant decision makers to accord to road markings the role they deserve as one of the most effective (i.e. with one of the highest cost-benefit ratios) low cost engineering measures available for improving road safety.”
“What is most surprising with COST 331 is that the knowledge contained therein, primarily that road marking is a proven, effective and cost beneficial road crash countermeasure, has gotten lost in the debate for reducing traffic tragedy in low- and middle-income countries.”
What is most surprising with COST 331 is that the knowledge contained therein, primarily that road marking is a proven, effective and cost beneficial road crash countermeasure, has gotten lost in the debate for reducing traffic tragedy in low- and middle-income countries. This omission, or lack of understanding, by those responsible for the current global road safety efforts led by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, has to be immediately addressed.
The action now necessary is to recover the history of the interventions of road safety engineering and to use this knowledge to devise appropriate programs for reducing road traffic tragedies in low- and middle-income countries. As can be noted in most any rich world country, interventions implemented by the original road safety engineering programs are continuously maintained. Edge lines, center lines and other pavement markings are renewed year after year; intersection upgrades are updated; rail crossing warning devices are checked; guardrails are repaired and updated were needed with ongoing additional installations. Analyses of results are examined. It is obvious that rich countries see value in these efforts and the resulting safety improvements. Why else do they keep maintaining the programs? However, why is it that those leading the current global road safety efforts, many of them from those same rich world countries, do not see that same value of improved road safety from implementing road safety engineering in developing world countries?
“The action now necessary is to recover the history of the interventions of road safety engineering and to use this knowledge to devise appropriate programs for reducing road traffic tragedies in low- and middle-income countries.”
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