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Too weak to be effective: U.S. DOT’s first proposed performance measure needs work

While the 2012 federal transportation law, MAP-21, was not the transformational milestone many of us hoped for, it did put in motion a first-ever framework for accountability and transparency, establishing 12 basic metrics by which to judge agencies’ performance. It was left to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to put flesh on the bones by adopting rules for how to apply those performance measures. The first evidence of how the DOT is handling that job is now out in the form of a proposed set of requirements for judging progress on safety. Unfortunately, the draft out for comment does not bode well.

I-540 Head on collision

There are several reasons the proposed rule falls short – some technical, some less so – but the fundamental problem is that it is too weak to be useful as a standard for accountability.

The rule would require states to set their own targets for reducing, on public roadways, (1) the number of fatalities, (2) the number of serious injuries, (3) the rate of fatalities per vehicle mile traveled (VMT), and (4) the rate of serious injuries per vehicle mile traveled. These four measures were established in MAP-21; the state or MPO can develop additional measures if they choose.

Here are three key weaknesses in the DOT’s draft rule: (Read our full detailed analysis here – pdf)

  • States only need a 50 percent passing grade, meeting only half of the four measures required in law;
  • States can pass muster merely by showing little deviation from pre-existing trends; and,
  • States that miss their safety targets, however unlikely that is under this proposal, would be allowed an additional four years before they are required to implement any changes to improve their roadways’ safety.

There are many other issues around whether the rule adequately considers the safety of people on foot or bicycle – it doesn’t. Or differences among rural areas, small towns and large cities. (This post by the National Complete Streets Coalition examines these points and others in greater detail.)

This rule, if finalized as proposed, would allow the states that fail to meet the targets they set for themselves to avoid taking action to improve their outcomes. Further, the USDOT decision to require states to meet only two requirements gives short shrift to the idea of accountability.

As it stands, the federal incentives linked to performance measures, including achieving the nation’s goal of reducing the number of fatalities and serious injuries, are modest (though we hope they will grow as accountability becomes a more central feature of the federal program). States that cannot meet their own safety targets and cannot escape the exceedingly lenient evaluation would be required to submit an implementation plan that identifies how they will attempt to improve safety. They also will face constraints on their use of funding from the Highway Safety Improvement Program until the DOT secretary determines they have made significant progress.

Several factors in the way the DOT is implementing performance measures would seem to telegraph to states a lack of urgency or seriousness around accountability. States aren’t asked to begin working on setting targets until all the other measures are settled, expected no earlier than 2015. They are considered successful if they fall within 70 percent of predicted estimates, meaning fatalities and injuries could go up considerably and still be considered acceptable. A lag in data means they will be basing success or failure on a snapshot from four years past – enough time for a student to enter high school and graduate. Rather than push themselves and pertinent agencies to provide better data, faster, the DOT seems to consider the status quo acceptable.

There is still time to push for a better first effort at performance measures and show the DOT that the public demands a more serious and exacting approach to accountability. The public comment period ends on June 9, 2014. Final rules for all performance measures will be enacted at the same time, likely no sooner than spring 2015.

We’ll be back in touch right here soon with information on how to comment on this rule, along with our proposed recommendations and a mechanism for sending those in, but until then, you can submit comments directly to Regulations.Gov

Full rule text in the federal register.