New Funding Available for States to Improve Transit Safety
Partially in response to a 2009 crash on the Washington, DC Metro system, which killed nine, Congress made safety an underlying concern of federal transit policy. This tragedy, combined with the knowledge that while fatality rates have fallen in other modes, rates incurred from transit have stagnated, became a call for action for the federal government to not only better oversee the safety of America’s transit system but also to fundamentally change the way the transit sector considers safety.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has announced its intention to release $21.9 million in funds for State Safety Oversight Agencies (SSOA) and public transportation operators to enhance oversight of public safety. SSOA are new, rail-focused agencies established under MAP-21, the surface transportation authorization bill passed by Congress last year. Following in the footsteps of a successful program implemented by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), these funds are intended to smooth the adoption of these new guidelines in order to build an overall culture of safety through a program known as Safety Management Systems (SMS).
What is SMS?
Of the SMS program, the FTA says this:
“Every public transportation agency that assumes responsibility for the safe transit of passengers and the safety of its workers should have a system in place that allows its executives to identify risks and act upon them.”
These risks are contingent on each agency’s own characteristics, including mode, land use, and size. A southwestern Bus Rapid Transit System will have different risks and obstacles than the Northeast Corridor and SMS is designed to be malleable in order to accommodate these differences. The program, FTA has said, is designed to build upon decades of safety protocols which were less focused on management principles and organizational culture than SMS. Whereas the traditional safety paradigm, known as System Safety, was more focused on the technical aspects and the components of the system under consideration, SMS supplements this focus by also considering the human factor.
“a constant, never-ending operation that aims at maintaining and, if possible, improving safety levels that are commensurate with the organization’s strategic objectives and supporting core business functions. In this sense, an SMS is profoundly different from the traditional notion of accident investigation, which waited for an accident to occur, then extracted and distributed as many safety lessons as possible learned from the investigation in order to prevent similar accidents. An SMS actively looks for hazards, continuously assesses safety risks, to contain them before they result in an accident.”
Much like the planned SMS project for transit agencies, the FAA utilized pilot programs to study both implementation and results. The FAA noted that program participants saw improvements in overall communication, training and safety awareness. Safety consideration was particularly improved as it became part of a systemic process. Results indicated that SMS had produced a higher standard of safety than the previous policies enacted by the FAA.
Why is Safety Management Important to Your State?
Many states are already watching the ongoing implementation of MAP-21 closely and the FTA plans to deeply integrate the SMS program into the new MAP-21 public safety guidelines. The FTA is tasked with the responsibility of rulemaking with regards to next year’s planning and training activities. MAP-21 introduces a number of new tools and requirements for safety planning and preparedness including: the National Public Transportation Safety Plan, Public Transportation Agency Safety Plans, a Public Transportation Safety Certification Training Program and the State Safety Oversight Program. Any state in which a transit agency provides rail service and is not currently under the regulatory authority of the Federal Railroad Administration will be required to establish a State Safety Oversight Program. Both transit providers and SSOA will be able to apply for grants for the assistance in building their SMS program. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood noted that these funds would require a twenty percent match.
The FTA has announced its intention to use these new programs as an opportunity to implement SMS. Much of this planning and training process will require direct action by states and adherence to SMS appears to be quickly becoming integrated into the national guidance on these requirements.
Implementation is estimated to take between three to five years. Its proponents claim that SMS can mitigate injury, loss of life and accidents which lead to service loss and disruption once fully adopted by an organization.
Safety research often indicates that in many accidents, no single behavior or individual is the cause. These accidents often arise from a series of consecutive failures across the transit organization that originated from several persons working with distinct responsibilities. The SMS system is designed to instill a culture of safety into all agency employees. This requires establishing a system of just accountability and inventive leadership that is focused on safety.
SMS will take time to implement fully and the programs will likely be diverse due to the sheer differences in America’s transit agencies. It will be even longer before research produces additional sets of best-practices to reinforce the guidance offered to states. In the meantime states have an opportunity to explore creating a safer transit environment in the face of new federal regulation.