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Optimizing Organizational Decision Making Structures for Integrated Roadway Safety Initiatives


Implementation of sustained roadway safety advances requires leadership and commitment within transportation agencies, coupled with strong technical and communication skills to support effective deployment of safety improvement resources [1, 2].

In the United States, responsibility for oversight of the transportation system and its users is highly fragmented. In addition to more than 50 state and territorial transportation departments, the country has dozens of tollway and toll bridge operators, along with more than 30,000 units of tribal, county, and local government [3, 4]. Together, these entities share responsibility for the planning, design, construction, operation, and management of the transportation system. Many of these governmental units also influence roadway safety outcomes through their responsibilities for post-crash response, incident management, law enforcement, and the adjudication of criminal penalties and civil claims resulting from transportation incidents.

The organizational structures related to roadway safety are complex. Each governmental unit typically establishes separate groups for functions such as engineering, enforcement, and education/outreach. Through formal and informal channels, these groups interact with non-transportation agencies, regional/metropolitan planning organizations, and non-governmental stakeholders such as special interest groups, transportation companies, land owners, and individual road users. The sheer number of actors involved in the transportation system amplifies the complexity of its planning and management.

To illustrate, state transportation departments are large agencies. In geographically compact states (such as Vermont) it is possible to conduct the majority of DOT activities from a single location, while in larger states (such as Ohio) there is typically a headquarters office and several district or regional offices. In most cases, both headquarters and district/region employees are affiliated with a specific “functional area.” Functional areas with titles such as Design, Construction, Maintenance, Traffic Engineering, Transportation System Management & Operations (TSMO), and Planning, often have duties that strongly influence system safety. In many cases a “safety group” has been established (often in the Planning or TSMO area). While safety groups often serve as a hub for crash data and expertise on crash countermeasures, their levels of human and financial resources are rarely sufficient to coordinate all of the agency activities that affect system safety.

Federal regulations (beginning with The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) and continuing with the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act strongly supported the view that quality data for all public roads provides the foundation for making important decisions regarding the design, operation, and safety of roadways. The federal regulations require states to maintain safety data (e.g., roadway, traffic, and crash) systems with the ability to perform safety problem identification and countermeasure analysis. Currently each jurisdiction collects safety data, sometimes just on state roads and on different and sometimes incompatible databases. This results in the lack of integration of safety data from all state and local sources thus inhibiting safe systems solutions.

County and municipal governments also vary widely in size and staffing levels, but even the smallest are usually divided into departments. Departments with titles such as Public Works, Street/Highway, and Police/Sheriff strongly influence roadway safety, while Planning, Parks, and Public Health influence safety to a lesser degree. In contrast to the state level, except in the largest cities, it is rare for a county or municipality to have a specific person or group devoted to transportation safety at the system level. More likely, safety is a fractional job duty for a number of individuals.

The complexity of transportation system ownership and decision-making is accompanied by imprecise (and often overlapping) responsibilities for various organizational entities. As a result, it can be easy to “pass the buck” when a safety problem is identified. For example, a transportation agency might attribute run-off-the-road crashes at curves to insufficient enforcement, while a police agency might view them as a roadway design problem well beyond its authority and expertise.

Very often, the result of internal or interagency disagreements about authority, resources, and priorities is inaction. In most cases, these missed opportunities are not readily apparent to the public, or even to higher-level decision makers. As the International Transport Forum observed, “[the] combination of low visibility and weak risk perception can create a demand deficit for road safety that undermines public and political support for policies that would make traffic safer.”[1]

The transportation community lacks clarity about how to structure public agencies in a manner that best supports transportation system safety. One manifestation of this uncertainty is debate about whether top-down or bottom-up solutions are the best way to address safety issues. For example, New York City’s successful Vision Zero program and the widespread deployment of automated speed enforcement in France have both been associated with visible support from a top elected official. Conversely, a reduction in casualties involving schoolchildren in Japan was attributed to creating neighborhood-level safety committees made up of school officials, road administrators, and local police [1]. Research is needed to contextualize these micro- and macro-scale approaches, considering varying local attitudes and the differing levels of authority granted to state, local, and tribal governments under the provisions of various state constitutions, local charters, and other laws, as well as variations in the level of community engagement required to sustain a safety transformation.

Since the way the internal structure of transportation agencies affects the ability to address safety holistically, research addressing the organizational dimensions of the safety problem should consider the complexities of interagency relationships. These include:

  • Transportation agency coordination with other agencies at the same level of government, such emergency response, law enforcement, natural resources, and public health agencies.

  • Horizontal coordination among neighboring jurisdictions.

  • Vertical coordination between the federal, state, county, and local levels of government, as well as coordination with special authorities, tribal governments, MPOs, etc.

  • Consistency of safety data collection and integration (8).


The Transportation Research Board recently published Critical Issues in Transportation 2019, which organizes the challenges facing the US transportation system in 12 areas. This problem statement addresses virtually every one of the 12 in one way or another, but it appears to be most closely related to Public Health and Safety: Safeguarding the Public and Governance: Governance: Managing Our Systems. The purpose of this project is to develop case examples that illustrate organizational models successfully applied at the state and local levels to accelerate and sustain reductions in transportation deaths and serious injuries, supporting implementation of a Safe System approach to roadway safety.

  • The research should include a state-of-practice review of roadway safety organizational structures currently used by state and local agencies in the U.S., along with case examples describing the formal structures and informal working practices of high-performing agencies.
  • Organizational characteristics that support or deter safety-related horizontal and vertical coordination should be described.
  • Transportation safety organizational structures used by state/provincial, regional, county, and local agencies in countries with comparable cultures (e.g., Australia, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, or the United Kingdom) should be documented to identify relevant organizational features that can potentially be incorporated into U.S. practice.

  • Noteworthy organizational features that support multilateral coordination and systematic risk reduction in sectors such as healthcare, national defense, and high-hazard industries (aviation, chemical manufacturing, nuclear power, etc.) should also be identified.

Other important elements of the research include:

  • Incorporating previous research and guidance such as NCHRP Synthesis 523:_ Integration of Roadway Safety Data from State and Local Resources, NCHRP Synthesis 486: State Practices for Local Road Safety,_ the OECD/ITF report_ Zero Deaths and Serious Injuries: Leading a Paradigm Shift to a Safe System, and the SHRP2/AASHTO TSM&O capability-maturity model. _

  • Identifying relationships between safety outcomes and pre-existing organizational norms, such as leadership styles, communication structures, data management systems, and information-sharing methods.

  • Determining the extent to which success in reducing transportation casualties has been contingent on organizational champions such as an agency chief executive or senior elected official.

  • Identifying differences between official organizational structures and actual communication and leadership pathways, and the extent to which successes were related to unofficial leaders, ad-hoc working groups, or other back channels.

  • Identifying the extent to which organizational structures have helped or hindered agencies’ ability to sustain their safety efforts in the face of routine problems such as financial shortfalls, employee turnover, and pressure from external groups whose policy objectives conflict with roadway safety.

  • Determining the extent to which successes were contingent on (or spurred by) specific safety incidents, transportation projects, data integration, etc.

  • Identifying the role of safety targets in motivating and sustaining the development of effective organizational structures.


State and local transportation agencies face rapidly-increasing pressure to deliver quantifiable safety performance improvements. More and more, the elimination of transportation-related deaths and serious injuries is being framed in new ways: as an opportunity to slow the growth of medical costs, as critical public health issue, as moral and ethical obligation, and (in New York City and elsewhere) as an issue that matters to a wide range of citizens and can yield visible near-term results.

With these changes comes an urgent need to spread the implementation of safety principles to all aspects of the planning, design, and operation of the road transportation system [2]. At present, most agencies are dependent on a handful of advocates to convince others of the value of systematic approaches to safety. To sustain a safety transformation, this must be supplanted by institutional capacity for long-term efforts, backed by committed leadership.

To avoid being caught flat-footed in a rapidly-changing policy environment, transportation agencies must overcome organizational “silos” that impede progress toward safety goals. This includes, for example, supporting better collaboration, stronger partnerships, and improved internal and external coordination to assure the rapid uptake of proven analytical tools and safety strategies, as recommended in the Toward Zero Deaths National Strategy, the National Safety Council’s recent Road to Zero report, and the AASHTO Standing Committee on Highway Traffic Safety Strategic Plan [5-7].

The proposed research will address organizational dimensions of the road safety issue, especially the interaction of “functional areas” within state transportation departments and the interaction of “departments” within county and municipal governments, by developing case examples that can serve as templates for organizations seeking to improve their safety performance. Thus, the project will provide results suitable for near-term implementation by a wide range of state, county, and local agencies. Specifically, the findings from this project will help illustrate organizational models that support improved safety management and help address the need for safety partnerships, performance management, workforce development, and technical capacity for data-driven decisions. Thus, it supports organizational needs that have been identified in numerous local, state, national, and international safety plans.

Sponsoring Committee:ACS10, Transportation Safety Management Systems
Research Period:24 - 36 months
Research Priority:High
RNS Developer:Eric Tang, John Shaw, Sharon Newnam, Carlyn Muir, Tony Giancola, Dan Magri, Joe Marek, Susan Herbel
Source Info:1. ITF, Zero Road Deaths and Serious Injuries: Leading a Paradigm Shift to a Safe System. 2016, OECD Publishing: Paris, France.
2. Johnston, I.R., C. Muir, and E.W. Howard, Eliminating Serious Injury and Death from Road Transport. 2014, Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
3. United_States_Census_Bureau, Government Organization Summary Report: 2012. 2013, United States Census Bureau: Washington, DC.
4. Shaw, J.W., C. Muir, and D.A. Noyce, Developing Australia’s Highway Safety Professionals: What Can the United States Learn? Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 2016. 2582: p. 87–94.
5. TZD_Steering_Committee, Toward Zero Deaths: A National Strategy on Highway Safety. 2014, TZD Steering Committee: Washington, DC.
6. RAND_Corporation, The Road to Zero: A Vision for Achieving Zero Roadway Deaths by 2050. 2018, National Safety Council and RAND Corporation: Santa Monica, CA.
7. AASHTO_SCOHTS, Strategic Plan - Standing Committee on Highway Traffic Safety 2011, American Association of State Highway Transportaion Officials - Standing Committee on Highway Traffic Safety: Washington, DC.
8. NCHRP Synthesis 523, Integration of Roadway Safety Data from State and Local Sources (2018)
Date Posted:03/15/2019
Date Modified:05/21/2019
Index Terms:Decision making, Highway safety, State departments of transportation, Transportation departments,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Administration and Management
Safety and Human Factors

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