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Integrating Safety in the Rural Transportation Planning Process

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2.0 Safety and Transportation Planning

Section 2 provides background on recent transportation and safety legislation and the transportation planning process. It also identifies why, among other interests, safety should be considered in transportation plans, including opportunities for RPOs to engage in safety planning and programming.

Rural Regional Planning

In approximately 30 states, RPOs assist state DOTs and local officials with regional transportation planning in nonmetropolitan areas. RPOs are voluntary organizations that typically function under contract to state DOTs to assist with tasks related to statewide planning, including public involvement, gathering input of local officials in the consultation process in statewide planning, and providing technical assistance to local governments.

Most of the RPOs that existed before MAP‑21 were formed after the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA‑21) strengthened the role of local officials in the statewide transportation planning process. RPOs are often organized similarly to metropolitan planning organizations (MPO), with membership comprising primarily of local governments within the region and governed by a policy board or committee that receives recommendations from a technical committee.

RPOs are often housed in a multipurpose RPC or COG, or in a county transportation commission or county planning office. In some cases, a state DOT district office conducts the RPOs' functions and acts as the local conduit on transportation issues.

2.1 Legislation and Requirements

Title 23 of United States Code (U.S.C.)5 focuses on safety as an important characteristic of the transportation network. Recent Federal requirements for transportation planning processes stayed much the same as the requirements under earlier transportation laws, although new processes and concepts such as performance measurement are changing the way planning organizations complete their required plans.

Statewide and Nonmetropolitan Planning

Planning for rural areas, not served by a metropolitan planning organization (MPO), falls into the general category of Statewide and Nonmetropolitan Planning. State DOTs are responsible for developing two major statewide planning documents; a long-range transportation plan (LRTP), and the shorter-range statewide transportation improvement program (STIP).

The LRTP lays out the vision and goals regarding all aspects and modes of transportation over the next 20 or more years. Safety is usually highlighted in an LRTP and often appears in vision statements that describe the characteristics of a transportation network that stakeholders desire in the state or particular region. The LRTP reviews current trends and conditions to assist in identifying policies, programs, and projects that help a state achieve its goals. The STIP is a listing of priority transportation projects (highway and transit) that are selected to receive Federal funds usually in the next four or so years.

Including Safety in Vision Statements

The 2013-2037 LRTP adopted by the Southern Alleghenies Rural Planning Organization in Pennsylvania is centered on the following vision:

Provide a safe, efficient, and sustainable multi-modal transportation system that fosters economic development, protects the environment, and meets the needs of all residents in the region.

The state may decide to seek assistance with completing statewide planning tasks and outreach from RPOs and other planning partners in rural areas. Many states have chosen to contract with rural planning partners to complete regional LRTPs that influence the development of the state's LRTP. RPOs also often identify project priorities and submit them to the state for possible inclusion in the STIP. RPOs provide a forum for the state to consult with local officials on transportation issues and priorities and assist with public involvement.

Title 23, U.S.C. identifies several issue areas that are required to be considered during planning, called planning factors. These factors are intended as guidelines for considering strategies, as well as specific projects and safety plays a prominent role. These planning factors can serve as a starting point for organizations to develop a vision, goals, and objectives in their long-range plan. The Federal planning factors also provide a basis for developing project ranking criteria, if a scoring process is used to determine which projects are the highest priority.

Federally Required Planning Factors

Title 23, U.S.C. requires planning agencies to consider eight planning factors in the development of plans and project selection:

  1. Improving safety;
  2. Supporting economic vitality;
  3. Increasing security;
  4. Increasing accessibility and mobility;
  5. Protecting the environment and promoting consistency between transportation investments and state and local growth plans;
  6. Enhancing connectivity for people and goods movement;
  7. Promoting efficient system management and operations; and
  8. Emphasizing preservation of existing transportation infrastructure.

Major changes to Title 23, U.S.C. include a new focus on transportation performance management. The law identifies several national goal areas, and also requires states and MPOs to adopt performance targets in several areas, including safety. For safety, states are responsible for reporting on numbers and rates of fatalities and serious injuries.

In addition, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP‑21) created an optional opportunity for states to formally designate regional transportation planning organizations (RTPO) to assist with statewide planning. Designated RTPOs would be required to have a policy committee; have a parent organization to serve as the administrative and fiscal agent, and provide planning staff; conduct public involvement; and complete regional transportation improvement programs and long-range plans.

Highway Safety

Beginning with legislation passed in 2005, known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA‑LU), and continuing under MAP‑21, states are required to develop Strategic Highway Safety Plans (SHSP)6. The State DOT is responsible for the development of the plan. Staff assigned to the SHSP may not be the same as the persons involved in overall statewide transportation planning. The SHSP is to be developed in consultation with a variety of multidisciplinary stakeholders, including regional planners and county transportation officials, and should be updated no later than every five years.

Safety Funding

Federal-funding programs and funding levels are set through authorization bills that historically have covered multiple years, rather than being subject to annual appropriations like other Federal funds.

Federal funds that are dedicated for safety projects come through the Highway Safety Improvement program (HSIP). However, other Federal programs can be used to enhance safety as well, provided that funds are spent within the parameters of those programs, such as the National Highway Performance Program, Surface Transportation Program, and Transportation Alternatives Program.

In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has funds for educational, enforcement, and other programs that enhance safety. These grant programs may be open to states and localities; localities generally apply to the state for funding for their projects. Contact your state Highway Safety Office (HSO) to learn more (Appendix B includes a link to the Highway Safety Plans (HSP) for every state. Most include contact information for the HSO).

The SHSP is a data-driven plan that presents a framework for reducing deaths and serious injuries. Each state's SHSP identifies safety problems, as well as key emphasis areas that direct safety efforts. Federal Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP)7 funds are applied to projects and initiatives that are consistent with the emphasis areas and strategies found in their state's SHSP and applicable to all public roads. Other funds, such as those administered by NHTSA (e.g., Section 402), may also be used to implement SHSP strategies.

Linking Transportation and Safety Planning Documents

Federal regulations strengthen the expectation that the SHSP, Highway Safety Plan (HSP), and Motor Carrier Safety Plan have shared goals and performance measures and suggests other state and local plans should also align. The SHSP and HSIP are also required to coordinate since the obligation of HSIP funds must be directly related to the data-driven emphasis areas identified in the SHSP. State and regional LRTPs, as well as other rural/local plans, should be developed to coordinate with the SHSP.

2.2 Planner's Role in Transportation Safety Planning

Federal legislation may be moving toward a more defined role for RTPOs, but many RPOs already participate in or have initiated a rural transportation planning process essentially following the same Federal transportation planning requirements as DOTs and MPOs. The extent to which RPOs address safety during this process is at the discretion of the agency based on available resources, identified need, and staff time and expertise. However, a number of factors, including momentum in states to adopt Toward Zero Deaths targets, the proportion of accidents occurring on rural roads, and advances in the availability of rural roads crash data, places RPO planners in an excellent position to address regional transportation safety issues. Research completed by the NADO Research Foundation8 and input from TOWG members provides insight into the capabilities and tools RPO planners have at their fingertips to play an active role in transportation safety planning.

2.3 Defining Safety in the Rural Planning Context

Transportation legislation provides the basic framework for including safety in the transportation planning process. American Association of State Transportation Organization Highway Safety Manual refers to safety as the crash frequency or severity, or both, and collision type for a specific time period, a given location and a given set of geometric or operational conditions. In general, transportation safety refers to reducing fatalities, serious injuries, and economic loss resulting from crashes on the transportation system.

Discussing safety in the planning context is an opportunity to open up a dialogue with regional stakeholders, if safety has not been systematically addressed before.

At a regional meeting, such as a transportation advisory committee meeting, it may be beneficial to schedule time in the agenda to ask: What does transportation safety mean to you?

Give respondents some time to write down their ideas, and discuss the responses as a group. Issues that appear multiple times might become safety emphasis areas for that community or region.

However, defining safety in the planning context and identifying how to provide safe facilities for all users is at the discretion of the planning agency and stakeholders. RPO planners can facilitate discussions with transportation and safety stakeholders to develop a description of safety pertinent to the region. Potential options are to spend time discussing this within an RPO Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) meeting or during public involvement efforts.

2.4 Transportation Safety Challenges

Rural regions continue to see the majority of fatal crashes on their roads, but addressing safety in the planning process can be challenging.

Rural roadway networks are often extensive with sparse populations, and crashes tend to be dispersed across the network and usually not found in clusters. Systemic analysis is a tool to overcome this challenge. The approach provides a more comprehensive method for safety planning and implementation that supplements and complements traditional site analysis. It helps agencies broaden their traffic safety efforts and consider risk, as well as crash history when identifying where to make low-cost safety improvements. However, conducting systemic analysis requires data, staff time, and analysis expertise.

Like MPOs, RPOs develop staff expertise as planners, conveners, and analysts, but the regional organization itself is not an owner of roads or bicycle and pedestrian paths, and usually does not operate transit; as a result, finding an appropriate role in addressing safety sometimes proves challenging.

RPOs often have fewer resources to comprehensively consider safety, including the development of specific safety plans at the local or regional level or programs (e.g., road safety audit programs) that could assist in identifying safety projects.

In their role to assist state DOTs with statewide planning, RPOs often work most closely with state DOT planning and programming offices and do not have the same familiarity with state DOT safety staff who can assist with safety analyses and safety funds for local projects.

Crash data collection and analysis are central to identifying safety problems. Some states lack timely and/or accurate crash data for local and rural roadways. This can hinder the understanding of regional safety issues. Limited staff and resources at both state DOTs and RTPOs may preclude crash data from being reviewed or analyzed for a rural region. In addition, RTPOs may not have access to state or local crash databases, and need to rely on other agencies to generate reports or provide training on the crash databases. In some states, legal issues prevent the DOT from sharing safety data.

2.5 RPO Transportation Planning Process

MAP‑21-defined tasks for RTPOs for the first time in Federal statute. RPOs that existed prior to MAP‑21 have no Federally required standard work program across states, but they generally exist to assist state DOTs with requirements for statewide planning, particularly in conducting outreach to local officials and the public in nonmetropolitan areas. Many RPOs already comply with a number of these tasks, including the development of a long-range plan, similar to state and MPO long-range plans. These plans have a time horizon of about 20 years and outline vision and goals.

Regions that do not develop an LRTP typically have a planning process in place to identify regional needs. For instance, some rural regions complete a regional plan, but with no specific time horizon, which describes the region's transportation context and strategies to improve it. In areas that do not complete a long-range plan, community-specific comprehensive plans may convey desired transportation outcomes shared across a region. Another option is to integrate safety-related objectives into other plans they complete at the regional level. In addition, RPOs commonly assist the state with other types of planning, such as coordinated human services transportation planning.

Defined Tasks in MAP‑21 for Designated RTPOs

  • Establish a policy committee of a majority of local official.
  • Have a “parent” or “host” organization to serve as administrative and fiscal agent and provide planning staff.
  • Develop rural, regional long-range transportation plans.
  • Create a short-range transportation improvement program.
  • Conduct public outreach.
  • Coordinate transportation with other relevant planning areas.

It also is common for rural regions to develop a list of priority transportation needs. In some regions, the list is fairly formal and resembles a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), similar to those required to be developed by MPOs. In other states, the RPOs submit a list of projects for consideration to be included as the state DOT develops its STIP. To develop a rural TIP or priority list of projects, most regions use a set of criteria to sort projects into higher and lower priorities. Sometimes the criteria are shared among all members of the board or committee conducting the prioritization, but others allow individual members to define their own criteria related to the overall vision for the region. Regardless of the process used to rank projects, the identified projects are typically consistent with the overall vision laid out in the long-range plan or other planning documents.

The level of transportation planning varies among RPOs. However, every RPO engages in some type of planning process to understand the regional issues and needs, either through the development of a regional plan, by providing input into the statewide plan, or coordinating the development of other planning documents. Common planning tasks exist across RPOs, and when they are combined, they form a structured process to identify transportation priorities. The terminology may differ across agencies, but the basic elements of a transportation planning process include Public Involvement and Outreach, Multidisciplinary Coordination and Input, Development of Goals and Objectives, Identification of Performance Measures, Data Collection and Analysis (Problem Identification), Project Prioritization and Programming, and Monitoring and Evaluation.

The core planning tasks outlined above are being used by a number of RPOs to conduct transportation planning, including examples below from three states.


The 20 Virginia Planning District Commissions (PDC) partnered with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to evaluate the State's rural transportation system, and recommend a range of transportation improvements that best satisfy existing and future needs. Each PDC has completed a 2035 LRTP that identifies needs based upon goals and objectives established by each region. The planning approach used to develop all the LRTPs included:


In Ohio, ODOT began a two-year RTPO program with five existing regional planning agencies, and provided funding and assistance so each can develop the first regional transportation plan for their regions. The plans will provide a metric-based analysis of existing transportation infrastructure, and propose a list of regional multimodal transportation needs. The planning approach being used to develop all the LRTPs includes:

In addition to developing a transportation plan, one key part of the pilot program is the development of transportation expertise at each of the RTPOs. One way this is happening is through MPO mentorship. Each of the five agencies has an existing Ohio MPO that is providing mentorship over the two-year pilot program.


In Alabama, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) funded a two-year pilot program with the West Alabama RPO to understand the effectiveness of the rural transportation consultation process. The effort was deemed successful and 12 RPOs were established throughout the State. All the RPOs do not follow the same planning process, but the approach used by the West Alabama RPO is similar to that of the others and includes:

2.6 Fitting Safety into the RPO Transportation Planning Process

Table 2.1 lays out how safety can be integrated into the tasks that constitute the transportation planning process with associated strategies. It shows the basic elements of the transportation planning process, and depicts overarching strategies to integrate safety into each element of the planning process. The elements of the transportation planning process are further explored in Section 3: Methods for Integrating Safety into the Transportation Planning Process. In addition to the strategies presented below, RPOs may find it beneficial to complete a standalone safety plan, which is also described in Section 3.

Table 2.1 Elements of the Transportation Planning Process

Transportation Planning Process Tasks Strategies to Integrate Safety into
Transportation Planning Processes
Public Involvement/Outreach Utilize available public involvement tools (e.g., surveys, public meetings, comment cards, web sites, and newsletters) to collect information on transportation safety issues and needs.
Multidisciplinary Coordination Discuss safety at various RPO committee meetings and/or identify opportunities to engage safety stakeholders in committee discussions.
Data Collection and Analysis Collect and analyze safety data to identify goals, objectives, and project/program priorities.
Develop Regional Goals and Objectives Utilize public and stakeholder input, the results of data analysis, and information in other plans to develop safety goals and objectives in planning documents.
Establish System Performance Measures and Targets Identify performance measures and targets to track progress toward the safety goals, objectives, programs, and/or projects.
Evaluate and Prioritize Projects Include safety considerations in the prioritization and programming processes for the TIP.
Monitor and Evaluate Performance Routinely monitor and track safety performance to evaluate progress towards meeting performance measures and targets.

2.7 Committing to RPO Planning – Iowa Example

In Iowa, the RPAs are successful in their planning efforts and in integrating safety into the transportation planning processes. The success is due, in large part, to the coordination and collaboration between the Iowa DOT and the RPAs on institutional and planning topics.

The table below presents an example of how the RPOs in Iowa, known as RPAs, are approaching transportation safety integration in their planning processes.

Table 2.2 Elements of the Transportation Planning Process

Transportation Planning Process Tasks Iowa RPA's Approach to Integrate
Safety into Transportation Planning Processes
Public Involvement/Outreach
  • Utilize a variety of methods for incorporating safety considerations in the public involvement process, including Internet surveys, formal public participation meetings, and project review meetings.
  • Local safety workshops held across the State.
  • Must develop a Public Participation Plan.
Multidisciplinary Coordination
  • Every RPA has (or is encouraged to have) a regional multidisciplinary safety team (MDST), which meets regularly to discuss regional safety issues, goals, and future projects.
  • RPAs periodically discuss safety issues with members of their TAC and Policy Committee. During these committee meetings, RPA staff provide relevant safety data and funding information to foster regional safety improvement decisions.
Data Collection and Analysis
  • RPAs have access to a robust historical crash database and leading-edge evaluation software, which they use to evaluate safety needs.
  • Most RPA staffs include people who possess skills with GIS, CAD, and other technical evaluation programs.
  • RPAs participate in crash analysis workshops and road safety audits.
  • DOT currently is evaluating systemic safety improvements, which will be shared with the RPAs. The results of this analysis can assist the RPAs in identifying priority locations for future improvements.
Develop Regional Goals and Objectives
  • Each RPA LRTP has a safety component that may include regional goals and objectives as well as analysis of safety and other trends in the region. The Southeast Iowa RPA's LRTP includes the following safety goal and objectives, and more examples can be found in section 3.5 of this report: Improve regional transportation system to make it a safe place to travel for all users
  • Create a regional traffic safety study.
  • Educate regional partners on current best practices for transportation safety.
  • Work with regional partners and Iowa DOT to implement safety improvements in locations where improvements are most needed.
  • Identify and secure funding sources to implement needed safety improvements.
Establish System Performance Measures and Targets
  • RPAs are waiting for MAP‑21 performance requirements to be finalized through a rulemaking, so they can better direct resources toward data collection, performance tracking, and evaluation. Iowa DOT will provide guidance to RPAs based on final performance measurement rulemaking.
Evaluate and Prioritize Projects
  • RPAs are responsible for coordinating programming efforts and development of the TIP. Included in the programming process are safety considerations and projects. Some planning agencies provide increased weighting to elevate safety as an important component.
Monitor and Evaluate Performance
  • RPAs are waiting for MAP‑21 performance requirements to be finalized through a rulemaking, so they can better direct resources toward data collection, performance tracking, and evaluation. Iowa DOT will provide guidance to RPAs based on final performance measurement rulemaking.

Some of the keys to a successful planning partnership in Iowa that can be applied in other states include:

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6A web site listing the links for all the SHSPs for every state can be found in Appendix B

7HSIP funds are federal funds, administered by the State DOT, and eligible to be spent on all public roads (regardless of ownership). Planners should check with their respective State DOTs for state specific requirements for these funds.


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