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Highway Safety Initiatives

Increasing Responder and Motorist Safety through Effective Traffic Incident Management

Meghann M. Casanova, Project Manager, IACP Technology Center

Almost as long as there have been automobiles, there have been traffic incidents. On July 3, 1886, Karl Benz unveiled the Benz Patent-Motorwagon, ushering in what would be later recognized as the dawn of the modern automobile and arguably one of the most significant and revolutionary technological changes in transportation.1 Five years later in 1891, James William Lambert had the dubious distinction of being involved in the first documented automobile collision in the United States when he lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a hitching post after hitting a tree root in Ohio.2

Traffic crashes, like the one experienced by Lambert, are what people typically think of when the phrase traffic incident is mentioned. In truth, traffic incidents include a broad range of scenarios. Besides vehicle crashes, traffic incidents may also include disabled vehicles; spilled cargo; special non-emergency events, such as sporting events, that have a significant impact on roadway operations; or any other situation that adversely affects traffic operations.

Since the late 19th century, automobiles have become an integral part of U.S. culture, and the number of registered vehicles in the United States has increased steadily, reaching more than 250 million in 2012.3 Though a single incident may seem to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience, the combined impact of all incidents on traffic mobility, motorist and responder safety, and societal and economic costs is significant.

In 2010, approximately 5.4 million reported traffic crashes occurred in the United States, resulting in 3.9 million injuries, including 32,999 fatalities, and costing roughly $277 billion in economic damage and $594 billion in societal harm.4 Furthermore, the traffic delays and congestion that result from traffic incidents that occur on interstate highways not only have financial consequences—accounting for $28 billion or 10 percent of the total economic crash costs—but also affect the safety of the public and emergency responders.5

Applying Traffic Incident Management Practices to Effectively Manage Incidents

Given the rising number of vehicles and ever-increasing impact of incidents, it is imperative that practitioners from various disciplines come together and utilize traffic incident management (TIM) practices to manage traffic incidents more efficiently and safely, thereby reducing the incidence and severity of secondary crashes and traffic congestion while increasing responder and motorist safety.6 TIM is the planned and coordinated processes involving multiple stakeholders to detect, respond to, and clear traffic incidents.7

TIM principles engage law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services (EMS), and transportation representatives to work closely in responding to traffic incidents and managing the scene. Wearing high-visibility safety apparel day and night, practicing safe parking practices, reducing lighting, and promoting uniformity in communication practices are just some of the TIM elements.8

Agencies must regularly assess their TIM practices and outcomes to determine whether they are having the desired impact. More specifically, agencies need to evaluate whether they are achieving reductions in three critical program-level TIM objectives: roadway clearance time, incident clearance time, and secondary crashes.9

  • Reduce Roadway Clearance Time: Roadway clearance time is the time between the first recordable awareness of an incident by a responsible agency, such as a transportation or law enforcement agency, and the first confirmation that all lanes are available for traffic flow.
  • Reduce Incident Clearance Time: Incident clearance time refers to the time between first recordable awareness of incident by a responsible agency and the time at which the last responder has left the scene.
  • Reduce the Number of Secondary Crashes: Secondary crashes are unplanned crashes beginning with the time of detection of the primary incident where a collision occurs either (1) within the incident the opposite direction, resulting from the original incident.

Seeing the Benefits

Implementing performance measures allows agencies to assess the impact of TIM practices and the business value of their programs, as well as the contributions those efforts make on quality-of-life issues, such as time wasted in congestion. After Maryland implemented TIM practices and began tracking roadway clearance times, it found a 13 percent reduction both for incidents lasting less than 30 minutes and those lasting between 30 to 60 minutes; a 41 percent reduction in incidents lasting between one to two hours; and a 35 percent reduction in clearance times for incidents lasting longer than two hours.10

The reduction in clearance times means a reduction in the amount of time a law enforcement officer or other responder must spend on the side of the road. Between 2003 and 2012, a total of 102 law enforcement officers were accidentally killed in the United States after being struck by a vehicle as they were conducting a roadside activity (e.g., directing traffic, assisting a motorist, or effecting a traffic stop or roadblock).11 The number of officers who were injured in traffic incidents is unknown, but one only has to look at the daily news to know it is a common occurrence. While an officer may be struck at any point during roadside activity, one thing is certain—the longer it takes to clear an incident, the greater the chance an officer or other responder has of being struck.

The reduction in clearance times also typically translates into a reduction in the number and seriousness of secondary crashes. People are naturally curious and “rubbernecking” is a common phenomenon in roadside incidents, which not only slows the overall flow of traffic, but also distracts the drivers. While reduced roadway capacity is prolonged and incidents remain a distraction, the likelihood of a secondary crash escalates. Research indicates that the probability of a secondary crash increases 2.8 percent for every minute the original incident remains a hazard.12

Reducing roadway clearance times also reduces traffic delays, as traffic incidents substantially reduce the mobility of public and commercial traffic. It has been estimated that on average, for every minute an interstate lane is blocked, traffic is delayed for four to five minutes.13 Researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute found that the capacity of a three-lane road was reduced by almost 20 percent when a traffic incident blocked only the roadway shoulder and by nearly 50 percent when a single travel lane was blocked.14

According to a report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), roughly 10 percent of all fatal crashes and 18 percent of injury crashes in 2010 were caused by driver distraction. These percentages represent 3,267 people killed in the United States in driver-affected crashes and an estimated 735,000 more injured in 2010 alone. Furthermore, these numbers are likely to be underreported—driver distraction status was unknown in approximately 21 percent of all fatal crashes and in 7 percent of nonfatal crashes. In the case of fatal crashes, law enforcement simply may not have the information to indicate driver distraction, and, given the negative connotations of distracted driving, even if the driver is able to give a statement to the officer, he or she may not self-report the distraction.15

Effective implementation of TIM principles enhances coordination among first responders and allows agencies to better leverage scarce resources. Performance measures help agencies evaluate the overall effectiveness of their TIM practices, assess variations over time, and make additional adjustments as needed. Moreover, as agencies continue to struggle with tight budgets and increases in traffic volume, performance measures also can function to document business benefits realization and calculate returns on investments.

Traffic incidents will continue to occur, but by employing a coordinated and comprehensive TIM approach, law enforcement can reduce the likelihood of secondary crashes and decrease congestion while enhancing the safety of officers and motorists alike. ♦


Manage to Survive: Traffic Incident Management for First Responders—18-minute roll-call video produced by the IACP’s Highway Safety Committee’s TIM subcommittee that summarizes TIM principles. Access the video at
For more information about TIM, please visit

1Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Karl Benz,” accessed June 25, 2014,
2“World’s First Automobile Accident,” Ohio History Central, (accessed June 25, 2014).
3Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Highway Statistics 2012, table 7.3.1, (accessed July 9, 2014).
4“2010 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview,” Traffic Safety Facts Research Note, DOT HS 811 552, revised February 2012, (accessed June 26, 2014); NHTSA, The Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010, 2014, (accessed June 26, 2014). Economic costs refer to the lifetime economic costs of fatalities, injuries, and property damage and include both police-reported and unreported crashes. For example, the estimated lifetime cost for each of the 32,999 fatalities in 2010 is $1.4 million and includes lost workplace and household productivity and legal costs. Societal costs include the estimated economic impact of lost quality-of-life for victims compared to what they reasonably could have expected over their lifespan had they not been injured or killed.
5NHTSA, The Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010, 227.
6For more information, please see Richard J. Ashton, “10 TIM Concepts for Reducing Crash Frequency and Seriousness,” The Police Chief 79 (July 2012): 48–52, (accessed June 26, 2014).
7“Traffic Incident Management,” Office of Operations, FHWA, USDOT, (accessed June 24, 2014).
8Ashton, “10 TIM Concepts for Reducing Crash Frequency and Seriousness.”
9The three program-level TIM objectives and associated performance measures were established by a consensus of TIM leaders in law enforcement and transportation organizations from 11 states. See “Traffic Incident Management.”
10FHWA., U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), “Traffic Incident Management Performance Measurement—The Focus States Initiative: On the Road to Success” (presentation, Focus States Initiative workshop, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 2007), (accessed June 25, 2014).
11Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA), 2012, table 61, Law Enforcement Officers Accidentally Killed: Circumstance at Scene of Incident, 2003–2012, (accessed June 23, 2014).
12Nicholas Owens et al., Traffic Incident Management Handbook, FHWA-HOP-10-013 (Washington DC: Federal Highway Administration, January 2010), 2, (accessed July 8, 2014).
13Nicholas D. Owens et al., Training of Traffic Incident Responders (Washington DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2012), (accessed June 25, 2014).
14Angelia H. Parham et al., “Facilitating Incident Management Strategies on Freeways,” 3, (accessed June 26, 2014).
15NHTSA, The Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 6.

Please cite as:

Meghann M. Casanova, “Increasing Responder and Motorist Safety through Effective Traffic Incident Management,” Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 81 (August 2014): 98–99.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 8, August 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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