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Auto and Road User Journal
March 1, 1997
TranSafety, Inc.
(U.S. and Canada)
(360) 683-6276
Fax: (360) 335-6402

Highway Safety Publications Catalog. Articles on Road Engineering, Road Maintenance & Management, and Injury Litigation. Information and consulting for the Automobile and Road User, as well as for law professionals in accident investigations.
TranSafety's free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and highway safety publications catalog. See our free consumer journal for automobile and road users, three subscription journals on road maintenance, engineering, and injury litigation, and a highway safety publications catalog.

Looking Back--FHWA Administrator Wrote about Human Factors and Engineering Safety Considerations

In 1976, Howard Anderson was the Safety Administrator at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). His presentation that year to the National Highway Safety Advisory Committee resulted in publication of a December 1976 paper entitled "Dispelling a Myth: A Viewpoint on Highway Safety." Almost twenty years later, Stanley Polanis quoted one of Howard Anderson's resounding endorsements for engineering solutions to highway safety problems (see "Addressing Human Factors and Injury Accidents Through the Safety Management System" in this issue of the TranSafety Reporter). A further review of Anderson's comments provides valuable insight into issues faced today by those trying to reduce highway injuries and fatalities.

Anderson prefaced his arguments in support of engineering solutions to highway safety problems with statistics documenting the success of such programs. When California completed 1,497 highway safety improvement projects between 1968 and 1973, follow- up studies showed the changes prevented approximately 5,000 crashes, 1,900 injuries and 210 fatalities each year. In addition, money saved by this reduction in crashes returned $5 to the taxpayer for each $1 spent. California's CURE program (Clean Up the Roadside Environment) effectively cleared hazards from the state's interstate system and resulted in an 18 percent fatality reduction--saving about 1,000 lives in eight years.

The United States Interstate System incorporated many engineering safety design improvements, and Anderson called it "probably the most outstanding example of the impact of good roadway design on highway safety." Boasting about half the fatality rate of other U.S. highways, interstates saved lives through incorporating such design principles as concrete median barriers and breakaway light poles.

Citing a "lack of funds, a vast highway system, and resistance from the highway profession itself" as factors slowing progress toward improved safety, Anderson emphasized the need to debunk the myth that driver error is responsible for most highway crashes. He called this "nut behind the wheel myth . . . only a half truth." Statistics assigning fault to drivers for 80 to 90 percent of highway crashes originate with police crash reports. Anderson pointed out that police personnel who write these reports are law enforcement officers, and the responsibility of a law enforcement officer is to find violations of the law. In the vast majority of cases, an officer looking for a violation can find one. Calling that officer "more of a fault finder than a fact finder," Anderson urged highway engineers to look beyond the "failure-to-yield-right-of-way" conclusion that assigns fault to the driver and asked engineers to consider also the blind intersection that contributed to a right-angle collision.

Anderson's counter to the myth of driver error continued:

[H]uman error . . . is not the only factor. As an example, would you consider an accident caused by a driver stopping suddenly because of a confusing direction sign driver error only? Is that head-on collision on a narrow bridge driver error only? Is that pedestrian accident in a residential area without sidewalks driver error only? Are those 12 right-angle collisions at an unsignalized intersection driver error only? Of course not . . . In fact, the environment may lead the driver into error or prevent him from making the right decision.

For highway engineers, the problem with believing the driver-error myth is that the myth becomes an excuse for inaction. Anderson emphasized:

The real danger of the 80-90 percent myth is that it leads to the false assumption that we can shrug off our safety responsibility. . . . Our reasoning is that we can only impact a small percentage of accidents because most accidents are caused by the driver and this small percentage is not worth our attention. Nothing could be further from the truth. The environment has a highly significant impact on safety payoff. . . . In fact, environmental safety improvements have shown more substantial results than the results of both vehicle and driver programs combined.

Drivers make mistakes; Howard Anderson did not deny that fact. Because they do, however, he deemed engineering improvements all the more effective. He wrote, "Highway safety improvements have a double payoff--better engineered roads mean less driver error and a more forgiving environment when an error is made." Expressing his strong faith in engineering solutions to highway safety problems, Anderson wrote in 1976 the words that Stanley Polanis quoted in 1995. Howard Anderson concluded, "[T]he contribution of the engineer should be so effective that there will be very little left for the other safety programs to accomplish."

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