Highway Safety Research and Development--Better Management Can Make It More Useful

CED-80-87: Published: Jul 28, 1980. Publicly Released: Sep 8, 1980.

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A national program, established by Congress in 1966 to reduce fatalities and improve highway safety programs at all levels of government, has provided about $380 million in federal highway safety research funds. The objective of the research has been to design and demonstrate methods generally relating to drivers and pedestrians and to help state and local governments increase the effectiveness of their programs. Highway safety is difficult and complex, mainly because of unpredictable human behavior. Highway safety research has had many financial management problems. It has suffered from weak planning and a credibility gap, many of its results are unsuccessful, and there is a lack of knowledge about the use of results. Problems also exist in contract management. Readily accessible information to differentiate highway safety research funds from other program funds is not available. This has contributed to duplication of programs and misuse of state funds.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's budget presentations to Congress are confusing, misleading, or inaccurate. Federal research objectives lack credibility with the states because individual projects have been poorly planned, promoted, and evaluated. Although the agency has produced usable results, it has also done considerable research that produced results which could not be used by the states or had minimal user acceptance. Research frequently has been started which had little chance of success or has taken more time than anticipated to complete. Researchers and users have little input into program planning and know little about the use of research results, and projects do not address the most important topics. An improved research plan has been developed which should help alleviate problems, but more needs to be done. The present contract management practices have resulted in unmet time schedules, added costs, and a general lack of continuity in many contracts. The agency has tried unsuccessfully to spread contracting throughout the year, does not have an up-to-date accurate list of highway safety research contracts, and suffers from contract technical manager turnovers. GAO made a limited review of the Federal Highway Administration's highway safety research program and found fewer problems than in the Safety Administration's program. However, annual obligations for all highway safety research contracts need to be accurately identified and both administrations need a formal process of evaluating research results.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should require the Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to: (1) identify highway safety research and other program obligations and expenditures so that detailed and summary information on contract and administrative matters is available to aid the agency in effectively administering its programs; (2) make clear budget presentations to provide Congress with schedules and narration showing specific areas where highway safety funds will be spent, including administration; and (3) use highway safety research funds only for that program's activities unless specifically authorized by Congress to do otherwise. He should direct the Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to: (1) define the responsibilities of the agency's two offices which are performing research, establish who will have overall responsibility for the highway safety research program, and delegate authority to carry that work out accordingly; (2) consistently use internal and external input in its formal planning process to compile and analyze available research in each program area, set priorities for countermeasures and projects which will be most beneficial to users, and incorporate all highway safety research activities; (3) use the successful planning processes of other highway safety research groups as a guide for its planning; (4) formally evaluate successful and unsuccessful research and determine what uses have been made of the results; (5) make available to the highway safety community research results; and (6) closely monitor contracts so that usable results can be developed with fewer delays. He should direct the Safety Administrator to initiate a system of contract design and monitoring that will reduce modifications and award contracts throughout the year. Also, the Safety Administrator should maintain accurate contract lists and take steps to reduce unnecessary contract technical manager turnovers. The Secretary should require the Administrator, Federal Highway Administration, to account annually for safety research contract obligations. Both administrators should be required by the Secretary to develop formal processes to assess the use of research results.

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