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A Safety Management Systems (SMS) Approach to Strengthening Transit Safety in the United States

Frequently Asked Questions

A Safety Management Systems (SMS) Approach to Strengthening
Transit Safety in the United States

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is committed to building a 21st century safety regulatory program with Safety Management Systems (SMS) as its foundation. These Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) provide general information regarding SMS and its applicability to public transportation operations and safety oversight. Additional information on FTA’s safety authority is available at here.


Benefits of SMS:

SMS Approach and Effectiveness in Other Industries:

SMS and MAP-21:

SMS Technical Information:


How safe is public transportation?

Public transportation remains one of the safest ways to travel in the United States. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reports that, in a typical year, a transit passenger is 40 to 70 times less likely to be killed or injured when riding public transportation than driving or riding in a motor vehicle.

Why is additional safety oversight needed, given the industry’s overall safety track record?

While travel by transit is the safest form of travel among all surface transportation modes, the potential for catastrophic events remains. Over the last decade, the public transportation industry has experienced several high-profile accidents that revealed significant gaps in the programs developed by FTA and the States to oversee public safety. Further, over the last decade, rates of fatalities and injury in public transportation have largely remained stagnant, while almost all other surface transportation modes have experienced significant reductions.

How will Safety Management Systems (SMS) help?

To help a safe industry stay safe and become even safer, FTA is adopting Safety Management Systems (SMS) as our new safety regulatory framework. With a focus on organization-wide safety policy, proactive hazard management, strong safety communication between workers and management, targeted safety training, and clear accountabilities and responsibilities for critical safety activities, SMS provides an enhanced structure for addressing expectations specified by Congress in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21). SMS also provides dedicated tools and approaches to help FTA implement outstanding recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) regarding needed improvements in safety and oversight programs in both rail and bus modes.

Is SMS a management approach?

Yes. An SMS is a collaborative approach that will help management and labor work together to control risk better, detect and correct safety problems earlier, share and analyze safety data more effectively, and measure safety performance more clearly. The ultimate goal of an SMS is to ensure that the agency has an inclusive and effective process to direct resources to optimally manage safety. SMS is scalable to organizations of any size and flexible enough to be effective in all transit environments, from the largest urban to the smallest rural transit system.

How does SMS work?

The premise is straightforward: 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. For a small bus operator, that safety management system is going to be simple and straight-forward. For a large transit agency with thousands of employees and multiple modes, that system is going to be more complicated. SMS naturally scales itself to reflect the size and complexity of the operation, but the fundamental accountability remains the same. SMS is flexible in implementation and enables transit operators to determine their own unique safety risks and target their resources on those risks.

How is SMS different from system safety?

For the last three decades the public transportation industry has implemented plans and programs based on the system safety principles outlined in the Military Standard 882 series (Standard Practice for System Safety, This approach focuses on the application of engineering and management principles, criteria, and techniques to achieve an acceptable level of safety throughout all phases of a system lifecycle.

The SMS approach builds on the transit industry’s experience with system safety by bringing management processes and organizational culture more squarely into the system safety engineering and hazard management framework. By tackling these "softer" management and human factors issues, SMS supplements system safety’s more rigorous engineering processes.

System safety provides a strong foundation for understanding and implementing SMS. The main difference between the traditional system safety approach currently implemented in FTA’s safety programs and SMS is that, because of its engineering roots, system safety focuses mostly on the safety implications of technical aspects and components of the system under consideration, somewhat at the expense of the human component.

Most safety research has shown that major accidents are not simply the result of one individual’s behavior or actions. Major accidents typically have organizational antecedents with multiple causes involving people operating across many levels or functions in an organization. It follows that predicting and preventing major accidents requires addressing the root causes based in organizational practices, management systems, and culture.

SMS addresses management concepts such as “organizational drift” into complacency and error-acceptance, the role of latent and precursor conditions in causing accidents, and the idea that organizations are dynamic creations that must be constantly monitored for cultural change and its impact on work performance.

Benefits of SMS

What are the benefits of SMS?

SMS allows an organization to adapt to change, increasing complexity, fluctuations in resources, and changes in employee skills and experience. An effective SMS offers many benefits, including:

  • Accountability for the management of safety at the highest level of the transit agency.
  • Collaboration between management and labor to ensure agreement on safety risk priorities.
  • Structured and strategic decision making for safety resource allocation.
  • Enhanced safety performance through proactive safety risk analyses.
  • Increased confidence in safety risk controls through safety assurance.
  • Partnership and knowledge sharing between public transportation agencies, state agencies, and FTA.
  • A positive safety culture that supports safety communication and reporting.

Does SMS help FTA strengthen oversight programs?

Using an SMS framework, the public transportation industry, the States and FTA can address gaps identified in recent accidents regarding safety accountability, safety communication, hazard management, and resource allocation. For example, SMS provides tools to require accountability for decisions affecting safety and to ensure that executive leadership fully understands and accepts identified risks.

To make sure that the organization is doing what it is required to do in safety plans and procedures, SMS offers safety assurance techniques that complement existing system safety audit and review functions. Other SMS practices promote greater communication, discussion and understanding of safety issues and concerns through training, enhanced work practices, and improved labor-management partnerships.

What are the most common misconceptions about SMS?

There are a few major misconceptions about SMS:

  • SMS is just a new "buzzword" to replace "system safety." To the contrary, SMS applies system safety concepts and adds formal system safety management concepts. Most safety research has shown that major accidents are not simply the result of one individual’s behavior or actions. Major accidents typically have organizational antecedents with multiple causes involving people operating across many levels or functions in an organization. It follows that predicting and preventing major accidents requires addressing the root causes based in organizational practices, management systems, and culture. SMS brings these elements into the system safety approach.
  • SMS requires a separate safety department. While rail transit agencies and larger bus agencies will have specialist safety personnel such as a Director of Safety, safety and quality auditors and analysts, investigators, etc., an SMS is a set of management practices rather than a requirement for an additional organizational "layer" or "stovepipe." SMS focuses on functional expectations by operational departments; therefore resource allocation should be appropriate for the size of the organization.
  • SMS requires Voluntary Employee Reporting to follow specific rules and guidelines. Voluntary employee reporting programs are a major element of SMS, but no specific program is mandated. Each public transportation agency will be able to determine how best to involve employees and obtain voluntary safety reports from employees.
  • SMS is a costly regulation that will hurt the transit agency’s financial performance. To the contrary, SMS can help transit agencies improve their bottom line. The hazards that put our people at risk are the same hazards that disrupt transit operations. Research has shown that improved information sharing regarding potential safety concerns in operations and maintenance will result in the design of more targeted solutions to all sorts of problems saving time and resources. For example, as a result of access to a shared information management system and jointly attended monthly safety committee meetings, vehicle maintainers and track inspectors work together to identify and resolve wheel-rail interface problems enhancing both ride quality and maintenance efficiency.

SMS Approach and Effectiveness in Other Industries

Why does FTA support SMS—and why now?

SMS enables agencies to address any cultural and organizational problems that lead to safety hazards, identifying system-wide trends in safety, and managing emerging hazards before they result in incidents or accidents. SMS will help public transportation agencies, the States, and industry associations better prepare for and manage conditions that cause accidents.

MAP-21 provides the opportunity to incorporate SMS principles into the safety regulatory framework used by FTA for the public transportation industry and the States providing safety oversight for the rail transit industry and rural and small urban community transportation providers.

FTA and the transit industry have been presented with a rare opportunity to implement a modern regulatory framework that will help this vital industry flourish for generations. In the past, the conversation between regulators and industry has revolved around one central notion: compliance. As we stand up the first major safety regulatory system of the 21st century we have to seize this opportunity to change that conversation to address risk as well as compliance. SMS is the language that will allow this new conversation to occur.

Adopting SMS principles will further deepen the industry’s commitment to the safety of its passengers, employees, equipment and facilities and will strengthen its core competencies in accident investigation, hazard management, safety data acquisition and analysis, and internal auditing. Most significantly, SMS offers the promise of a stronger culture for employees and managers to work together to solve safety problems.

How do we know that an SMS framework is effective?

Achieving accountability for safety in the most efficient manner possible requires the adoption of specific safety management processes and tools. SMS provides these tools, based on the results of research conducted by U.S. and British military, aviation, nuclear, and energy agencies and organizations in the 1990s and early 2000s.

This research, which led to the “Swiss Cheese Model” of human behavior and accident prevention, made famous by scholar and psychologist James Reason, shows that about 80 percent of all accidents and incidents can be attributed to human error. In some industries, like public transportation, this number may be closer to 90 percent.

This research also shows that when the 80-90 percent of human error is broken down further, it reveals that the majority of errors associated with accidents stem from latent organizational weaknesses, which include “hidden” deficiencies in management control processes (for example, strategy, policies, work control, supervision, training, and resource allocation) or values (shared beliefs, attitudes, norms, and assumptions) that create conditions that can cause errors and lead to accidents.

SMS has been designed to identify and address these latent conditions by making executive leadership accountable for them; by requiring deference to technical expertise in evaluating and mitigating them; and by fostering a culture of information sharing in the performance of work and the implementation of identified controls and risk management strategies.

SMS demonstrates that the decisions and activities of executives, managers and supervisors determine what is done, how well it is done, and when it is done, either contributing to the strong safety performance of the organization or further weakening its resistance to error and accidents.

Where else has SMS been put into practice?

SMS has worked well in other transportation industries facing challenges similar to our own including aviation, maritime and railroads, around the world, and at large and small agencies alike. SMS is scalable and effective across a broad range of organizations and applications. SMS is also now the safety policy of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and it is endorsed by the Transit Rail Advisory Committee on Safety (TRACS) and major public transportation industry associations.

SMS is now required in the U.S. aviation industry ( It is also used in the maritime industry to address accidents and hazards caused by human factors (, and by the U.S. Coast Guard in their application of International Maritime Organization (IMO) principles, codes and standards to the domestic maritime shipping industry ( andhttp://www.uscg.m...), and by Transport Canada to support safety for passenger and freight railroad operations ( Both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Safety Council (NSC) endorse the principles of SMS. See the NTSB document at and the NSC documents at Policy-PostionStment final - Formatted.pdf.

SMS and MAP-21

How will FTA use SMS concepts to implement MAP-21?

MAP-21 authorizes a comprehensive Public Transportation Safety Program at 49 U.S.C. 5329. Four key components of that program are the National Public Transportation Safety Plan, authorized by Section 5329(b); the Public Transportation Safety Certification Training Program, authorized by Section 5329(c); the Public Transportation Agency Safety Plans, required by Section 5329(d); and the State Safety Oversight Program, authorized by Section 5329(e).

Later this year FTA will initiate rulemakings to carry out all of these plans and programs, under the rulemaking authority codified at 49 U.S.C. 5329(f)(7). In partnership with TRACS, the States, oversight agencies, and public transportation operators and associations, FTA will propose SMS concepts, principles and methodologies to address MAP-21 requirements.

In applying the principles of SMS in rulemakings and other initiatives, FTA will set common-sense standards and goals for the implementation of SMS. Safety performance will be measured not just by reductions in the number of accidents, injuries, and fatalities, but by the implementation of measures to ensure accountability for safety, and to proactively identify, avoid, and mitigate risks to safety.

Does MAP-21 already address key SMS requirements?

MAP-21 already incorporates SMS tools and principles into FTA’s regulatory framework for public transportation safety; including the use of safety performance criteria (49 U.S.C. Section 5329(b)(2)(A)) and safety targets to monitor program implementation and effectiveness (49 U.S.C. Section 5329(d)(1)(E). MAP-21 also requires executives and boards to be accountable to hire qualified safety managers as direct reports and, annually, to certify safety plans (49 U.S.C. Section 5329(d)((1)(A) and 5329(d)(1)(F). In safety plans, public transportation agencies must specifying safety risk management methods and safety assurance strategies to minimize the exposure of the public, personnel, and property to hazards and unsafe conditions (49 U.S.C. 5329(d)(1)(B)&(C); and requiring comprehensive staff training programs for safety (49 U.S.C. Section 5329(d)(1)(G)).

FTA will build on these requirements to integrate SMS principles directly into the National Public Transportation Safety Plan and Public Transportation Agency Safety Plans required in MAP-21. Of course, specific requirements will be developed in concert with the public transportation industry and State oversight agencies through a formal process of rulemaking and notice and comment.

What specific actions will FTA take to incorporate SMS into the Public Transportation Safety Program?

Based on SMS concepts and principles, FTA will develop a roadmap for carrying out the comprehensive Public Transportation Safety Program authorized by 49 U.S.C. 5329. Specific activities include the following:

  • FTA will first focus on establishing an SMS oversight framework through rulemakings, complemented by technical assistance and outreach.
  • As authorized by 49 U.S.C. 5329(e), FTA will award grants to eligible States to help them strengthen their rail transit safety oversight, attain certification for their State Safety Oversight (SSO) programs, and institute strong safety training programs for SSO staff, emphasizing the components of SMS.
  • For bus, FTA will work to ensure that bus operators receive the tools and technical assistance they need to apply SMS principles in ways that are cost-effective and add value for the millions of riders who depend on bus service every day.
  • FTA will enlist the support of the Transit Rail Advisory Committee for Safety (TRACS), established by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation in accordance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, on several of the rulemakings and other safety initiatives under the Public Transportation Safety Program authorized by 49 U.S.C. 5329.
  • FTA will reach out to leaders in SMS, both in transportation and other fields, for support and assistance in bringing SMS to public transportation. The agency and its partners will pursue gap analyses, pilot projects, development of specific SMS programs, plans and guidelines, and training and technical assistance for staff and other designated personnel at SSOAs, public transportation agencies, and FTA.

What is the timeline for implementing a SMS?

The transition to an SMS approach is a phased process that is organized to provide a manageable series of steps to follow, including the allocation of resources and management of the workload.

The experience of Transport Canada, as well as SMS Pilot Project Participants in the United States aviation industry, indicate phased implementation of a robust SMS takes approximately three to five years. One of the benefits of the pilot projects FTA will be undertaking is to determine realistic timelines.

Will FTA ensure that oversight and transit personnel implementing SMS have the appropriate skills and training?

Critical to FTA’s vision for safety is ensuring that individuals responsible for safety management system implementation and oversight have appropriate skills and training. Only through effective outreach and training programs will we be able to implement our safety strategies successfully. FTA will provide training opportunities as well as tools for agencies, such as training gap analyses to help agencies identify areas of training need. We will establish SMS training as part of the national safety training certification program and develop individualized training plans to promote and track training progress.

SMS Technical Information

What are the four components of SMS?

SMS is composed of four functional components:

  • Safety Policy
  • Safety Risk Management
  • Safety Assurance
  • Safety Promotion

Safety Policy is the foundation of the organization's safety management system. It clearly states the organization's safety objectives and sets forth the policies, procedures, and organizational structures necessary to accomplish the safety objectives. The safety policy clearly defines management and employee responsibilities for safety throughout the organization. It also ensures that management is actively engaged in the oversight of the system's safety performance by requiring regular review of the safety policy, budget and program by a designated accountable executive.

The second component, Safety Risk Management, requires development of processes and procedures to provide an understanding of the public transportation system’s operations and maintenance to allow individuals to identify hazards associated with those systems. Once hazards are identified, other procedures must be developed under safety risk management to analyze and assess the risk resulting from these hazards, as well as to institute controls to reduce or eliminate the risks from these hazards.

The third component, Safety Assurance, ensures the performance and effectiveness of safety risk controls established under safety risk management. Safety assurance is also designed to ensure that the organization meets or exceeds its safety objectives through the collection, analysis, and assessment of data regarding the organization's performance. Safety assurance also includes inspection activities to support oversight and performance monitoring.

The fourth component of an SMS is Safety Promotion. Safety promotion requires a combination of training and communication of safety information to employees to enhance the organization's safety performance. How an organization seeks to comply with this component depends on the size and scope of the organization. It may include formal safety training for employees, a formal means of communicating safety information, and a means for employees to raise safety concerns without fear of retribution.

What are lessons learned for SMS implementation?

SMS Pilot Program participants in aviation found that SMS enabled them to integrate safety as a core management value. They also have identified lessons learned from their experiences. Although each organization is different, common themes include:

  • The need for ongoing senior leadership commitment,
  • The need to integrate SMS training across the organization,
  • Data/analytical lessons learned regarding what to capture, how to capture it, and how to distribute it across the organization,
  • The need for oversight agency participation early in the process, and
  • The critical role of communication, awareness and culture.

What is the role of security and emergency management within the SMS framework?

SMS is about risk management and ensuring that resources are allocated appropriately to manage risk commensurate with the size and complexity of the public transportation agency and its operations. The exact source of the risk is not limited by discipline to “safety” versus "security" versus "emergency preparedness." Instead risk in SMS is all-hazards in nature. All considerations that threaten the safety and well-being of passengers, employees, system equipment and infrastructure must be managed as part of the total risk profile of the organization.

Updated: Monday, June 4, 2018
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