According to research published by the VTP Institute, U.S. urban residents are 10-times more likely to suffer a fatality in their own automobile than if taking public transportation. In fact, as transit travel increases, per capita, traffic fatality rates tend to decline. The study shows that cities, where residents average more than 50 annual transit trips, have about half the average traffic fatality rates as cities where residents average fewer than 20 annual transit trips. Crime risks on public transit versus private automobile travel also show the safer path is the public path, with less crime occurring in areas where employees and passengers are engaged in passive surveillance and transit police are conducting active surveillance.

The FTA would like to make sure that public transit remains the safest bet in both urban centers and small towns alike. Therefore, what was once a recommendation has now become a mandate for certification to be eligible for FTA funding.  

FTA ruling
The new rule requires that states with rail transit agencies (RTAs) must have an FTA-approved and FTA-certified State Safety Oversight (SSO) Program in effect by April 15, 2019. If a state fails to meet the certification deadline, the FTA must withhold all FTA funds from all recipients of FTA funding with the entire state. This means no new FTA grants can be awarded in the state, whether for urbanized areas, rural areas, or specialized transit. The FTA’s new Safety Management Systems mandate is a natural outcome of MAP-21, which was signed into law by President Obama in 2012.  

The ruling transforms how the Federal government and states work together to keep rail transit agencies safe. Specifically, it strengthens a State Safety Oversight Agency’s (SSOA) authority to conduct inspections and investigate accidents, approves corrective action plans, and oversees an RTA’s implementation of its safety plan. The rule also gives the FTA the authority to take enforcement actions against those states with non-existent or non-compliant safety oversight programs. The basic requirements for compliance, according to the FTA website include that every eligible state must establish an SSO program with an SSOA that:

•    Is financially and legally independent from an RTA it oversees.
•    Does not directly provide public transportation services in an area with an RTA that the SSOA oversees.
•    Does not employ any individual responsible for administering an RTA.
•    Has authority to review, approve, oversee, and enforce a safety plan for an RTA.
•    Has investigative and enforcement authority with respect to the safety of the RTA.
•    Audits every RTA’s compliance with safety plan requirements at least once every three years.
•    Reports the status of RTA safety to the Governor, the FTA, and the RTA board of directors or equivalent entity at least once a year.
Support available
While this rule may be intimidating to states and their accompanying RTAs, Congress has authorized grant funds for states to use to develop, implement, and operate an SSO Program. In addition, various educational opportunities are available for states and their agencies to resource as they work to achieve compliance. The FTA’s Certification Toolkit provides guidance to states in managing the SSO certification process. The toolkit guides states through each section of the certification application.

Notably, the new Safety Management Systems (SMS) Rule claims its roots in the aviation industry’s SMS, which is certainly not identical to the transit industry. For instance, a transit authority is not only responsible for its trains, trolley cars, and buses; it’s also responsible for the tracks that carry the trains and the train stations where passengers wait to board. On the other hand, aviation transport companies share liability with airports, air traffic control centers, and the TSA.

In spite of the differences, it’s a step in the right direction for SMS in transit to recognize that people, as well as policy and processes, ensure system safety. In keeping with aviation’s SMS, the new mandate focuses on the human component and organizational culture of a public authority. Safety Policy, Safety Assurance, Risk Management, and Safety Promotion work in unison to sustain a secure and reliable industry with people not only equipment as a resource. For example, enhancing safety promotion tools and education will build a stronger safety culture that creates a heightened awareness of issues, such as operator burnout and passenger suicide.   

Tackling the issue
If the new ruling continues to cause confusion, the most valuable resources an organization or state may access when applying for certification are the safety leaders in the transit industry. Safety managers responsible for safety culture should identify leaders with decades of experience and knowledge who’ve literally written the manuals on safety management systems for their individual organizations.

Scott Sauer, assistant GM at Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), is a leader who qualifies. With 27 years of transit experience and a master’s degree in environmental protection and safety management, Sauer is also a member of the FTA’s Transit Advisory Committee for Safety, which provides guidance to the FTA on new MAP-21 safety regulations for the transit industry.

According to Sauer, in addition to attention to details regarding policy and risk management, a spirit of creativity and collaboration are necessary to ensure a strong safety culture.

“Building strong culture is about relationship, and if you as a safety manager don’t have a strong relationship with the union and the membership, it will make it a lot tougher. Trust and consistency are necessary. Communicating that you have the safety of the employee as a priority is essential for good working relationships,” Sauer said.

SEPTA’s collision record is an example of how effective relationship building and creative problem solving are to the safety of an authority. Sauer noted that SEPTA reduced operator collisions with pedestrians by 50% from 2012 to 2017 by incorporating the following practices:

•    Started a safety training program geared specifically to pedestrian awareness.
•    Revisited operators’ quality of the turn, using coaching exercises rather than discipline to establish the safest turning speed.
•    Focused on ride quality and attentiveness to duty in awareness programs.
•    Modified the sideview mirror to increase operator visibility when turning.

These practices exemplify how combining safety assurance, safety promotion, safety policy, and risk management work to enhance safety culture.
While the new mandate is a lot to swallow, particularly for smaller agencies with fewer resources, it’s important to underscore the added value the industry has in its readiness to share interstate and interagency knowledge amongst one another. Tapping into these resources will make the road to certification by the 2019 deadline achievable.

Charlotte DiBartolomeo, M.A.C.T., is CEO and founder of Red Kite Project, a resiliency building firm working with the transit industry (