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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(202) 512-2834
flemings@gao.gov

 

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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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2014, 54 percent of traffic fatalities in the United States occurred as a result of a vehicle leaving the roadway, according to U.S. Department of Transportation's 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. In 2016, GAO reported that Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) oversees and promotes the installation of crash-tested roadside safety hardware through guidance and policy directives to the states, and states generally require crash testing. While GAO's state survey results indicate that FHWA's guidance for states to have requirements for crash-tested hardware has been widely implemented at the state level, the survey results also indicate some inconsistencies in state policies. Ten of the 44 states that responded to GAO's survey indicated that they do not have a specific law, regulation, or policy document that establishes crash-testing requirements. Federal standards for internal control highlight the need for agencies to design control activities-policies, procedures, techniques, and mechanisms-to achieve objectives and address related risks. Therefore, GAO recommended that FHWA help address inconsistent practices across states by ensuring that states have written policies in place to require the installation of appropriately crash-tested roadside safety hardware. In 2018, GAO confirmed that FHWA took sufficient action to ensure that states have the appropriate written policies for crash-tested hardware. Specifically, FHWA conducted outreach to the 17 states that indicated they did not have a requirement, or did not respond to GAO's survey, to verify: 1) whether the states had a policy or procedure in place, and 2) if the state responded that they did not, FHWA follow up on the plans to complete one. FHWA identified that 8 states had policies, which FHWA obtained and verified. For the remaining 9 states that did not have a policy or procedure in place, FHWA requested that the state develop a policy or procedure. All 9 states responded and provided documentation of a policy or procedure to FHWA. As a result, all states should now have written policies or procedures in place that require crash-test standards for their roadside safety hardware and FHWA has better assurance that states are fully implementing the appropriate crash-testing standards.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: 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. In 2016, GAO reported that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) oversees and promotes the installation of crash-tested roadside safety hardware through guidance and policy directives to the states, and states generally require crash testing. In 2016, FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials released a Joint Implementation Plan stating that states should transition to improved roadside safety hardware test standards by 2019, in phases depending on the type of hardware. However, GAO found challenges for states to meet the phase-in dates for some roadside safety hardware because there were not sufficient quantities of hardware that had been developed and tested and approved to meet the improved standards. Moreover, GAO found that states had generally been slow in transitioning to implement the improved standards and that FHWA did not have a monitoring plan to report on states and industry progress in meeting the established dates. Additionally, FHWA and states did not collect information that would assist in monitoring the transition to the improved standards. Therefore, GAO recommended that FHWA monitor and periodically report to Congress or report through the agency's publicly available website on the progress states and the industry are making in transitioning to the improved crash-tested standards for roadside safety hardware. In 2018, GAO confirmed that FHWA established a website to periodically report on state and industry implementation of the improved standards. To periodically report, FHWA has begun monitoring progress in transitioning to the new standards when it identifies states that are lagging behind in meeting the new dates. For example, FHWA officials provided documentation regarding the status updates of four states that were lagging behind in meeting the new date and the states' intended timeline for meeting the improved standards. With such information, Congress and the public are aware of the state's progress, which enhances transparency. FHWA also is in a better position to take corrective actions as needed to better assure that states and industry are successfully moving to meeting improved standards.

    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: As of May 2019, FHWA officials stated that the agency is working with state departments of transportation to establish a mechanism for third party verification of results from crash-test labs, along with an outside organization that would assume this responsibility. FHWA officials said it is their goal to have a third party verification regime in place by mid to late 2020. This new organization would also be responsible for developing guidelines with respect to lab independence and dealing with cases where a testing lab and a hardware developer are owned by the same parent company.

    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: As of May 2019, FHWA officials stated that the agency is working with state departments of transportation to establish a mechanism for third party verification of results from crash-test labs, along with an outside organization that would assume this responsibility. FHWA officials said it is their goal to have a third party verification regime in place by mid to late 2020.

    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: As of May 2019, FHWA officials stated that the agency expects the pilot program report to be issued in December 2020, but it will not report results because the sample sizes were too small. In addition, officials told us that no further research into in-service performance evaluations are planned.

    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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