U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
Designers and engineers are faced with many complex tradeoffs when designing highways and streets. A good design balances cost, safety, mobility, social and environmental impacts, and the needs of a wide variety of roadway users. Good design is also context–sensitive–resulting in streets and highways that are in harmony with the natural and social environments through which they pass.
Highway design criteria that have been established through years of practice and research form the basis by which roadway designers achieve this balance. These criteria are expressed as minimum dimensional values or ranges of values for various elements of the three-dimensional design features of the highway. The criteria are intended to deliver an acceptable, generally cost-effective level of performance (traffic operations, safety, maintainability, and constructability). The criteria are updated and refined as research and experience increase knowledge in the field of highway engineering, traffic operations, and safety.
Designers are trained to use accepted design criteria throughout the project development process. Striving to meet design criteria is important because it is the primary means by which a resultant high-quality roadway will be produced. A highway or roadway that reflects full compliance with accepted design criteria decreases the probability that safety or traffic operational problems will develop. Using design values that lie within typical ranges thus provides a high degree of quality control and reduced risk.
It must be recognized, however, that to achieve the balance described above, it is not always possible to meet design criteria. There is a wide variety of site-specific conditions and constraints that designers encounter. Roadways have a multitude of contexts. Establishing design criteria that cover every possible situation, each with a unique set of constraints and objectives, is not possible. On occasion, designers encounter situations in which the appropriate solution may suggest that using a design value or dimension outside the normal range of practice is necessary. Arriving at this conclusion requires the designer to understand how design criteria affect safety and operations. For many situations, there is sufficient flexibility within the design criteria to achieve a balanced design and still meet minimum values. However, when this is not possible, that is when a design exception may be considered.