Each year in the United States, nearly 12,000 people die in roadway departure crashes on rural roads. That is more than 30 people today, and every day.

It is easy to overlook how serious a problem this is because those deadly crashes happen in scattered locations across vast rural roadway networks. Rural roadway departure crashes (also called lane departures) do not cause massive traffic jams. There are no multicar pileups that make the news. They happen one here, one there, like a dripping faucet. Combined, however, those far-flung crashes account for roughly 30 percent of the Nation’s annual roadway deaths. It is truly a national problem.

Is there a way to save the people behind those numbers? Can agencies, with increasingly limited resources, hope to reduce rural roadway departures on their systems? The answer to both questions is yes, but it is a formidable challenge.

The Federal Highway Administration is working with State departments of transportation, Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) centers, local agencies, and Tribal and Federal land management agencies across the country to combat this issue under the Every Day Counts initiative called Focus on Reducing Rural Roadway Departures (FoRRRwD).

The FoRRRwD team is promoting further use of proven strategies to reduce rural roadway departures. Many agencies are already implementing these strategies and are seeing positive results. The efforts of these agencies are getting people home safely who may have otherwise died.

“The scale of the rural roadway departure problem is sometimes hard to grasp because it happens largely in the background,” says Matthew Enders, the technical services manager for the Washington State DOT. “Once you see it, though, it is obvious that we have to do something. We are passionate about helping agencies solve this problem.”

FoRRRwD is based on four pillars: consideration of all public roads, a systemic safety approach, proven countermeasures, and safety action plans. This article focuses on two of the pillars‐addressing the problem on all public roads and use of a systemic approach. A companion article in an upcoming issue of Public Roads will focus on proven rural roadway departure countermeasures and development of safety action plans.

Improving Safety On All Public Roads

Rural roadway departure crashes are a major problem on all public roads. Fifty to 60 percent of fatalities happen on roads typically maintained by State DOTs. That leaves more than 40 percent of rural roadway departure fatalities scattered across the 79 percent of the rural road mileage under the jurisdiction of the more than 3,000 counties, 16,000 towns and townships, or other jurisdictions across the United States.

Any national strategy to reduce rural roadway departure deaths that does not address these non-State roads is only working on half the problem. This is a crucial point for three reasons. First, most local agencies have insufficient resources for dedicated roadway safety staff. That means it is difficult for them to learn or apply the latest safety analysis techniques or to collect the data necessary to support the analysis. Second, many local agencies have little or no crash data to use. Third, most local agencies lack sufficient funding to mount a concerted effort on reducing rural roadway departure crashes. Some U.S. counties are larger landwise than some U.S. States and have tens of thousands of lane miles to monitor. Because rural roadway departure locations are scattered and random, many local agencies may have difficulty getting a handle on the problem on their own.

A graphic showing the four pillars of the Focus on Reducing Rural Roadway Departures (FoRRRwD) program: proven countermeasures, systemic approach, safety action plans, and all public roads.

Partnerships Create Solutions

The national problem of deaths on rural roadways requires going beyond the State network of roads. It demands local partnerships to address the problem on all public roads. Several State DOTs, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and regional planning commissions have stepped in to help their local counterparts. These agencies are making Federal and State funds available to local agencies based on the proportion of severe crashes happening on local systems. They are also making it easier for local agencies to apply for funding. And because data are key to this process, DOTs, MPOs, and regional planning commissions are helping local agencies with data acquisition, compilation, and analysis.

“Most drivers don’t know if they are on a State or local road,” says John Michael Walker, P.E., the State traffic and safety operations engineer for the Alabama DOT. “Those peoples’ lives depend on the safety of all public roads, and that means all agencies working together.”

North Dakota is another State assisting local agencies. They asked, “How do you to get to zero fatalities if you don’t address the local road system?” According to Bryon Fuchs, assistant local government engineer with the North Dakota DOT, the State splits Federal safety funds fifty-fifty with local agencies, because that is the proportion of fatalities on each system.

Washington State DOT splits its Federal safety funds between the State, counties, and cities based on the proportion of fatal and serious injuries on each, which results in 70 percent going to local agencies. Washington’s LTAP Center is one of several that have jumped in to assist local agencies with data analysis.

Read the full article at https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/20autumn/05.cfm