Highway Safety Improvement Program:

Further Efforts Needed to Address Data Limitations and Better Align Funding with States' Top Safety Priorities

GAO-09-35: Published: Nov 21, 2008. Publicly Released: Nov 21, 2008.

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About 43,000 people died and another 290,000 were seriously injured on the nation's roads in 2006. To reduce these numbers, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) nearly doubled funding for the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP). SAFETEA-LU added requirements for states to develop strategic highway safety plans that include four key elements and to publicly report on at least the top 5 percent of hazardous locations on all of their public roads. The act also set aside funds for a legacy rail-highway crossing program and a new high-risk rural road program. As requested, GAO examined (1) states' implementation of HSIP following SAFETEA-LU, (2) HSIP results to date, and (3) FHWA's guidance and assistance to states. GAO analyzed plans from 25 states, including 19 randomly selected states and 6 states that GAO visited. GAO also interviewed FHWA and state safety officials.

All states adopted strategic highway safety plans, and the 25 state plans that GAO analyzed addressed the 4 key elements added by SAFETEA-LU, although states lacked some of the crash data and analysis capabilities described in the law. GAO's analysis showed that the 25 states (1) involved multidisciplinary safety stakeholders; (2) defined areas of safety emphasis through analyses of state fatality data using crash data analysis systems; (3) identified strategies and projects to address these emphasis areas through infrastructure improvements, behavioral approaches, and emergency medical services; and (4) provided for overall and individual project evaluations. However, many of the 25 states lacked components of the prescribed crash data analysis systems, such as a system for locating crashes and roadway data for local roads. FHWA is developing such a system for the states, but many states lack necessary data for local roads because they do not maintain or operate them. Without the prescribed components, states cannot conduct some of the safety analysis defined by SAFETEA-LU or report to FHWA on their most hazardous locations on all public roads, determine appropriate remedies, and estimate costs--all requirements added by SAFETEA-LU. While FHWA has set a deadline for states to develop the capability to locate crashes on all public roads, it has not done so for roadway data. Because states were not required to submit their strategic highway safety plans to FHWA until October 2007, they have not had sufficient time to implement and evaluate their HSIP strategies and projects; hence, it is too soon to evaluate HSIP results carried out after SAFETEA-LU. However, two of HSIP's statutory funding provisions may not be aligned with some states' safety priorities contained in their strategic plans. First, FHWA data show that most states have not used a new flexible funding provision that allows states to allocate some HSIP funds for behavioral approaches or emergency medical services. Some states may be reluctant to use this provision, according to state officials we interviewed, partly due to an HSIP certification requirement that all state highway safety infrastructure needs have been met. Second, the rail-highway crossing set-aside program does not target a key safety priority ofsome states and provides significant funding to some crossing areas that have relatively few fatalities. Better alignment of federal funding with state priorities in their strategic plans could help ensure that HSIP funding best addresses those priorities. Lastly, as states implement the high-risk rural roads program, they are hindered by limited data on rural roads and crashes, which are needed to identify qualifying roadways and appropriate remedies. FHWA provided comprehensive guidance and training to assist states in preparing their strategic highway safety plans, and participated in states' strategic safety planning processes. FHWA's guidance to states on reporting their most hazardous locations took states' data limitations into account and gave states latitude in defining the methodology and scope of their 5 percent reports. Consequently, these reports vary in content and format and may not increase public awareness of highway safety as intended.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: To improve HSIP's effectiveness, Congress may wish to consider eliminating the requirement for states to prepare the 5 percent report, given states' current data limitations that hinder their complete and consistent reporting.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2009, we reported that the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), August 2005, added requirements for states to publicly report on at least the top 5 percent of hazardous locations on all of their public roads--in what is known as the "5 percent report"--to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for posting on its public Web site. FHWA provided states with comprehensive guidance and assistance to support their planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), but the agency gave states latitude in preparing the 5 percent reports on states' most severe hazardous locations. Because many of the states lacked roadway inventory data, FHWA's guidance for the 5 percent reports took states' data limitations into account and gave states latitude in defining the methodology and scope of their reports. Consequently, states' 5 percent reports varied widely in their content and completeness, and their formats for identifying the most severe hazardous locations did not always appear easy for the public to understand, raising questions about the quality of the reports and their usefulness in advancing public awareness of highway safety hazards and needs, as intended. FHWA officials also raised concerns about the usefulness of the 5 percent reports, and the Secretary of Transportation recommended eliminating the 5 percent reporting requirement in a proposal for reforming surface transportation programs, which was delivered to Congress in July 2008. As a result, we recommended that Congress eliminate the requirement to prepare the 5 percent report, given the states' data limitations. In July 2012, Congress passed P.L. 112-141, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), which eliminated the requirement for the 5 percent report. Thus, MAP-21 eliminated a reporting requirement that produced reports that varied in content and format and may not have increased public awareness of the most severe highway safety hazardous and needs as intended.

    Matter: To better align HSIP funding with states' top safety priorities, Congress may wish to consider restructuring two of HSIP's statutory funding provisions by (1) modifying HSIP's flexible funding provision to either revise or eliminate the certification requirement so that states can more freely direct HSIP funds to behavioral and emergency medical services projects--rather than infrastructure improvement projects--when data analysis indicates more fatalities and serious injuries could be prevented by doing so and (2) revising the rail-highway crossing set-aside program to ensure that its funding level is more closely and appropriately tied to the number of fatalities and serious injuries that such improvements can be expected to prevent in the states, and to ensure that any resulting additional funds be directed to highway safety projects that promise greater benefits.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2009, we reported that our analysis suggested that two Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) funding provisions may not be aligned with some states' safety priorities and therefore may not allow states to focus federal safety dollars on their highest-priority safety improvements. Under the HSIP flexible spending provision, most states nationwide had not taken advantage of this provision that allowed states to use up to 10 percent of their program funds for behavioral programs or emergency medical services enhancements--even though states' strategic highway safety plans indicated substantial interest in implementing these strategies, and these strategies were routinely funded by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration grants--because program restrictions may have made it difficult for interested states to do so by requiring states to first certify that all of their highway safety infrastructure needs were met. In all six states we visited, officials agreed that making this certification was difficult. In two of those states, officials told us that they were interested in using some of their HSIP funds for behavioral or emergency medical services projects, but they could not meet the certification requirement because of ongoing infrastructure needs and concerns about the potential legal liability that a state could incur by certifying that all of its infrastructure needs had been met. These program restrictions on using HSIP funds for non-infrastructure remedies may have precluded some states from using these funds for high-priority behavioral or emergency medical services projects that the states' data indicated could save more lives, because of states' ongoing infrastructure needs and concerns about the potential legal liability of making such a certification. To better align HSIP funding with states' top safety priorities, we recommended, among other things, that Congress consider modifying the HSIP flexible funding provision to revise or eliminate the certification requirement so states could more freely direct HSIP funds to behavioral and emergency medical services projects when data analysis indicates more fatalities and serious injuries could be prevented by doing so. In July 2012, Congress passed P.L. 112-141, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), which expanded project eligibility so that HSIP funds could be used for both infrastructure and non-infrastructure projects that are consistent with a state's strategic highway safety plan and address data-driven needs. Also, MAP-21 eliminated the cap and certification requirements limiting the use of HSIP funding for non-infrastructure safety projects. As a result, the states are granted the flexibility to implement the full complement of approaches described in their strategic highway safety plans and to more fully achieve the goal of using data to identify and select projects that best address their highway safety priorities.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help states fully implement the data-driven project selection process prescribed for HSIP, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FHWA Administrator to set a deadline for states to finalize development of the required roadway inventory data and to require states to submit schedules to FHWA for achieving compliance with this requirement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FHWA was unable to fulfill this recommendation since they recommended, but did not require, that states develop a minimum set of safety data elements. FHWA, after assessing state capabilities to collect minimum data for all public roads, determined that, due to limited resources, it would be impractical for some states to collect the minimum data in the next 10 years. Therefore, FHWA proposed a safety data improvement program to help fund state collection and use of roadway data.

    Recommendation: To help states fully implement the data-driven project selection process prescribed for HSIP, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FHWA Administrator to define which roadway inventory data elements--contained in its proposal for a Model Minimum Inventory of Roadway Elements, as appropriate--a state needs to meet federal requirements for HSIP.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2009, we reported that the states were implementing the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) and developed strategic highway safety plans that addressed the key elements identified in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU), but generally lacked some prescribed data and analysis capabilities. Although our analysis of 25 states' highway safety plans indicated that they had fatality and serious injury data that were useful for developing these plans, states generally did not have complete crash data analysis systems as described in SAFETEA-LU. These systems must include, among other things, roadway inventory data describing roadway characteristics for all publicly owned roads. However, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had not yet defined the specific roadway data elements needed to meet federal requirements for HSIP. FHWA had taken a first step in defining these data elements by developing a proposal for a set of 180 roadway inventory and traffic data elements--called the Model Minimum Inventory of Roadway Elements (MMIRE)--that could be used to address HSIP's roadway inventory requirements as well as other safety analysis needs. FHWA officials told us that they anticipated testing a set of the MMIRE elements by states in 2009. However, FHWA had not yet defined which of the specific roadway data elements contained in MMIRE were needed to meet HSIP's requirements. Without roadway inventory data, states cannot analyze the safety characteristics of crash location to identify potential remedies and estimate costs for each location. As a result, we recommended that FHWA define which roadway inventory data elements meet federal requirements for HSIP. On August 1, 2011, FHWA issued a guidance memo to help states adopt safety data for their top priority roads and, as resources permit, collect data for additional roads according to each state's prioritization method. The memo described 38 fundamental data elements needed to use current safety analysis tools. On December 27, 2012, FHWA issued new guidance on state safety data systems that clarified state safety data capabilities to satisfy the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21, July 2012), which cited FHWA's list of specific roadway data elements needed to meet federal requirements for HSIP. With these data elements, states will be in a better position to implement the data-driven, strategic approach to highway safety identified by SAFETEA-LU.

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