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Road Management & Engineering Journal
Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.
March 1, 1997
TranSafety, Inc.
(360) 683-6276
Fax: (360) 335-6402

Addressing Human Factors and Injury Accidents Through the Safety Management System
Winter Maintenance Technology Practices -- Learning from Abroad
Township Must Erect and Maintain Stop Signs Where Township Road Intersects State Road
Inventorying Highway Signs
Call Boxes in Freeway Medians?

Addressing Human Factors and Injury Crashes Through the Safety Management System

Will the newly implemented strategic management system (SMS) "be the mechanism that turns our attention to accident and injury reduction"? In his article "Some Thoughts About Traffic Accidents, Traffic Safety and the Safety Management System," Stanley F. Polanis expressed his hope that it will. The article appeared in the October 1995 (Volume 65, Number 10) edition of the ITE Journal.

An Assistant Director of Transportation for Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Polanis earned a B.S. from Ashland College in Ohio and graduated from the Bureau of Highway Traffic at Penn State University. In this article, he traced the history of traffic safety efforts in the United States and refuted myths and misconceptions that he feels hinder efforts to improve highway safety. He defined SMS as "a process that invites participation of a diverse group of people and professions." The success of that process, he maintained, will depend on its ability to meet highway safety challenges; Polanis proposed that transportation engineers must meet the same challenges.


In 1924, the first full-time traffic engineer assumed responsibilities that included "the development of ways to move traffic safely and expeditiously through Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle." Traffic engineers found then that the more order and efficiency they brought to the transportation system, the safer that system became. Efficiency and safety were synonymous. Polanis noted that over the years this attitude has changed. Highway departments today set aside funds for specific safety projects and assign remaining funds to other categories--suggesting safety is a goal by itself, but safety is not an integral part of everything they do.

Clarifying the challenge for today's transportation engineers, Polanis used Ezra Hauer's distinction between types of safety:

  • nominal safety--safety measured against conformance to standards, warrants and design procedures; and
  • substantive safety--safety derived from a count of accidents.

Substantive safety, Polanis argued, should be the goal.


The product of a highway transportation system is mobility for the people who use it; crashes are byproducts of the process of providing mobility. Polanis referred to Minnesota researchers Caples and Vanstrum who found that "opportunities to increase mobility may be chosen in lieu of chances to increase safety." As an example, Polanis cited the national 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, which became law as part of an effort to conserve fuel. While the 55-mile-per-hour limit controlled the highways, Americans conserved fuel and, according to the research, had fewer and less severe crashes. When fuel availability increased, however, speed limits increased. In striving to provide the product efficiently (i.e., faster mobility), we sometimes ignore or accept unwanted and unintended consequences. But crashes are costly byproducts of the transportation system.

Beyond their human cost in death and injury, highway crashes represent an economic burden on society. Polanis cited Thomas Larson, who placed the 1990 cost of highway crashes at more than $65 billion. By 1991, that figure rose to over $72 billion. Larson pointed out, "[O]ur annual accident costs equaled the sum of our annual investment in construction, maintenance and operation of our highways across all levels of government." By comparison, the 1990 cost of traffic congestion was only about $16 billion. Polanis speculated that if we could get people to pay as much attention to the challenges of decreasing the number of traffic crashes as they pay to the problems of lessening traffic congestion, society would realize a substantial financial and human benefit.


Transportation engineers design and create the roadways that provide mobility to the public. When crashes happen on those roadways, the driver is most often assigned the blame. Polanis wrote:

One of the most significant threats to an effective safety management system, and to our profession's successful involvement in the process, is the myth that driver error produces most accidents.

Engineers do not seek an engineering solution to a problem when they believe drivers are the cause of the problem. "Dismissing the myth," argued Polanis, "will free the process to pursue an understanding of the elements that produce accidents, and allow us to see and take actions that can produce meaningful results." Polanis quoted Howard Anderson, former Federal Highway Administration Safety Administrator, who had considerable faith in engineering solutions to highway safety challenges. Anderson claimed that if traffic engineers would pursue an aggressive strategy of designing for safety, we would find "very little left for other safety programs to accomplish." (For highlights of Anderson's December 1976 article on this subject, see "Looking Back-- FHWA Administrator Wrote about Human Factors and Engineering Safety Considerations" in this issue of the TranSafety Reporter.)

According to Polanis, engineering solutions to reducing the number of crashes should go beyond the traditional approach of focusing on high-crash locations and beyond the limiting practice of emphasizing a decrease in fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles of travel. Engineers do not have to wait until a hazardous roadway has resulted in numerous crashes to learn what locations they need to reengineer. Traffic engineering techniques and tools can identify potential hazards and prevent the need to allow injuries and deaths to accumulate before highway departments take action. Moreover, engineering solutions have historically emphasized reducing the rate of fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles of travel. The fatality rate has declined steadily, but little reduction has resulted in the rate of nonfatal injuries. Polanis proposed that a focus on reducing all crashes, rather than just fatal crashes, might produce results equally beneficial to the reduction of fatal crash rates while also reducing injury-only crashes, which are more frequent and comprise 60 percent of total crash costs.


Polanis emphasized the importance of seeing safe mobility and efficient mobility as compatible rather than competing goals. With this perspective, participants in SMS can help turn the tide toward crash and injury reduction.

Copyright © 1997 by TranSafety, Inc.

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