Highway Safety:

More Robust DOT Oversight of Guardrails and Other Roadside Hardware Could Further Enhance Safety

GAO-16-575: Published: Jun 8, 2016. Publicly Released: Jul 7, 2016.

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What GAO Found

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) oversees and promotes states' installation of crash-tested roadside safety hardware through guidance and policy directives to states and by issuing letters to roadside safety hardware developers that provide states with information on roadside safety hardware that has been crash tested. States that responded to our survey generally stated they require crash testing. However, some inconsistencies across state practices exist, and states' movement to require installation of devices successfully tested to updated, improved crash test standards—in the Manual for Assessing Safety Hardware (MASH)— has been slow. FHWA, in partnership with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), recently established transition dates to the MASH standards for states, but some challenges exist in developing and approving a sufficient quantity of roadside safety hardware tested to MASH standards. FHWA currently does not have a monitoring plan to report on progress to meeting the established dates; monitoring and reporting would allow FHWA to keep decision makers aware of progress and position FHWA to take corrective actions as needed.

In general, laboratory crash testing appears to be well documented and thorough; however, FHWA's oversight of the process does not address potential threats to independence. GAO found that six of the nine accredited U.S. crash test laboratories evaluate products that were developed by employees of the parent organization—a potential threat to lab independence. FHWA reviews crash tests' results and related documentation, if they are submitted for review, but FHWA relies heavily on the labs to make a pass/fail determination. We found that some other federal agencies in oversight of similar labs' testing settings require third party verification of test results or independent entities to make pass/fail determinations. FHWA does not have a process for formally verifying the testing outcomes and making its own or providing for an independent pass/fail determination. Developing a process for third party verification of roadside safety hardware's lab test results could provide greater assurance that potential threats to independence are fully addressed.

Little is known about the in-service performance of roadside safety hardware because few evaluations of this performance have been done. FHWA and AASHTO recommend that states and others perform in-service performance evaluations (ISPE) of installed roadside safety hardware because crash testing cannot fully capture real-world crash conditions. However, few ISPEs have been done, in part, because of a lack of inventory and crash data. In the summer of 2015 in four states, FHWA began a pilot study that could provide useful information, but according to FWHA officials, the purpose of this phase of the pilot is to determine best practices on data collection rather than assess performance of roadside safety hardware. FHWA officials told us they currently have no plans to include performance findings as part of future phases of this study or in their broader research portfolio. Continuing this study or planning to make ISPEs part of future research could add to the limited ISPE body of knowledge.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2014, 54 percent of traffic fatalities in the United States occurred as a result of a vehicle's leaving the roadway, according to U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) data. Roadside safety hardware, such as guardrails, is meant to reduce the risk of a serious crash when leaving the roadway. But in the last several years, a number of serious injuries and deaths resulted from crashes into roadside safety hardware. GAO was asked to review FHWA's oversight framework for roadside safety hardware.

This report assesses: (1) how FHWA performs oversight of state policies and practices related to roadside safety hardware; (2) the laboratory crash-testing process and FHWA's oversight of this process; and (3) the extent to which information is available on roadside safety hardware's performance once installed. GAO reviewed federal and state policies, surveyed state DOTs and received 44 responses, and reviewed documentation from nine U.S. crash test labs.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making recommendations, including that DOT monitor and periodically report on the transition to the MASH crash test standards; develop a process for third party verification of crash test results; and support additional research on roadside safety hardware's in-service performance. DOT concurred with the recommendations and provided technical comments, which were incorporated in the report, as appropriate.

For more information, contact Susan Fleming at (202) 512-2834 or flemings@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOT concurred with this recommendation and stated that FHWA will review existing state policies and procedures regarding the installation of appropriately crash-tested roadside safety hardware on the National Highway System and complete this review by July 2017. Based on these findings, DOT stated that FHWA will, by December 2017, direct its division offices to work with state Departments of Transportation to modify or improve state DOT written policies as appropriate.

    Recommendation: To promote the transition to improved crash test standards, to strengthen FHWA's oversight of the roadside safety hardware's crash-testing process, and to make more information available to states and industry on how roadside safety hardware performs in actual conditions, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FHWA to direct FHWA's division offices to help ensure, through their oversight of states' standards and design specifications, that states have written policies in place to require the installation of appropriately crash-tested roadside safety hardware on the National Highway System to address inconsistent practices across states.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: DOT concurred with this recommendation and stated FHWA will collect information on states' progress in implementing a policy to use MASH-tested hardware and post this information on FHWA's website. DOT also stated that FHWA will coordinate with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials to monitor the progress of the MASH transition and to have this monitoring process in place by July 2017.

    Recommendation: To promote the transition to improved crash test standards, to strengthen FHWA's oversight of the roadside safety hardware's crash-testing process, and to make more information available to states and industry on how roadside safety hardware performs in actual conditions, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FHWA to monitor and periodically report to Congress (or report through the agency's publicly available website) progress states and the industry are making in transitioning to the MASH crash-testing standards for roadside safety hardware.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: DOT concurred with this recommendation and stated that FHWA will conduct outreach to determine how conflicts of interest are viewed and addressed by labs and by the accrediting bodies. FHWA will also determine how to most effectively provide any additional guidance on mitigating potential these conflicts within its current legal authority. DOT stated FHWA will complete this outreach by June 2017 and issue additional guidance communicating FHWA's expectations by December 2017.

    Recommendation: To promote the transition to improved crash test standards, to strengthen FHWA's oversight of the roadside safety hardware's crash-testing process, and to make more information available to states and industry on how roadside safety hardware performs in actual conditions, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FHWA to provide additional guidance to crash test labs and accreditation bodies to ensure that labs have a clear separation between device development and testing in cases where lab employees test devices that were developed within their parent organization.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: DOT concurred with this recommendation and stated that FHWA will conduct outreach to identify potential processes for third party review of results from crash labs. DOT stated FHWA will complete this outreach by July 2017.

    Recommendation: To promote the transition to improved crash test standards, to strengthen FHWA's oversight of the roadside safety hardware's crash-testing process, and to make more information available to states and industry on how roadside safety hardware performs in actual conditions, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FHWA to develop a process for third-party verification of results from crash-test labs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: DOT concurred with this recommendation and stated that FHWA is conducting a pilot effort to establish a protocol for the collection of data from crashes involving guardrail terminals, and that this pilot will be completed by November 2018. In addition, DOT stated that FHWA continues to support additional research through the National Research Council and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program.

    Recommendation: To promote the transition to improved crash test standards, to strengthen FHWA's oversight of the roadside safety hardware's crash-testing process, and to make more information available to states and industry on how roadside safety hardware performs in actual conditions, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FHWA to support additional research and disseminate results on roadside safety hardware's in-service performance, either as part of future phases of FHWA's current pilot study on guardrail end terminals' performance or as part of FHWA's broader research portfolio.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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