Traffic incident management operations

Traffic incident management (TIM) operations includes the process to quickly detect, verify, respond, manage and clear traffic incidents with the appropriate personnel and equipment. This can improve safety for responders as well as reduce the likelihood of secondary collisions and congestion resulting from the incident.  

Key characteristics




WSDOT regions

Strategy description

Effective incident management decreases incident-related delays and reduces the risk of secondary collisions. It can improve the safety of both responders and other road travelers.

Efficient use of TIM improves how well incident responders and transportation agencies execute the following activities:

  • Detect and verify the location and severity of an incident
  • Reduce the response time to the scene
  • Safely manage and control the scene
  • Safely and efficiently clear the incident and reopen lanes

Detecting and verifying incidents

Incident detection involves several methods:

  • Individual calls to 911
  • Traveler inputs in crowd-sharing applications, such as Waze
  • Traffic detector data indicating a major slowdown
  • Traffic monitoring cameras
  • Patrolling law enforcement and transportation crews
  • Automated collision notification systems

Transportation system operators, often monitoring roadways from a traffic management center, then verify the incident using cameras or reports from on-site responders to confirm the location and severity of the incident.

Responding to incidents

Incident response includes dispatching responders and towing companies. Some common strategies for reducing response times include:

  • Emergency computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems to improve communications between transportation and emergency services personnel
  • Instant tow that automatically dispatches tow trucks to the incident scene to clear disabled vehicles
  • Stage towing or incident response vehicles near congested locations that experience frequent incidents

Another component is notifying travelers through applicable traveler information systems such as 511 telephone systems, websites and applications, social media, and media partnerships. Electronic roadside signs, often called variable message signs (VMS), are used to alert motorists that they are approaching a traffic incident.

Managing Incident Scenes

Using traffic control strategies and a clear organization of roles, the key components of scene management include:

  • Establishing an Incident Command Structure (ICS) to provide a standardized approach for decision making
  • Considering Move Over Laws that require drivers to move over a lane or reduce speeds when approaching stationary emergency vehicles displaying flashing lights
  • Planning for and training responders on where to park their vehicles to enhance maneuverability and maintain safe traffic flow around the scene
  • Using high-visibility safety apparel and vehicle markings
  • Providing effective traffic control for the scene
  • Preparing alternate route plans and implementing them during an incident to reduce traveler delay
  • Providing stopped vehicle ahead warning notifications to travelers using electronic roadside message signs and traveler information websites and applications

Clearing Incidents

Incident clearance expedites the removal of disabled vehicles during a traffic incident, so that blocked roadway lanes can be reopened safely. The crucial components for incident clearance are to implement:

  • Service patrols to safely and quickly clear disabled vehicles
  • Authority removal laws to enable responders to push disabled vehicles out of the lane and be protected against liability
  • Common goals between emergency responders and transportation agencies to clear incidents within a specified time.
  • Investigations to quickly clear incidents that involve fatalities
  • Quick clearance incentives and or penalties tied to the performance of towing and recovery companies
  • Traffic incident management training to improve team member familiarity, define roles and responsibilities, and speed incident clearance with experienced responders

When to use this strategy

Traffic incident management (TIM) operations makes sense for any highway location as incidents can occur anywhere. These strategies can reduce the time it takes responders to arrive at a traffic incident to care for injured travelers and clear the scene.

Strategy benefits:

  • Improves safety for responders by reducing the time exposed to traffic
  • Reduces the number of secondary collisions that occur in the congestion caused by the traffic incident
  • Delays the onset and shortens the duration of freeway congestion
  • Reduces environmental impacts and energy use (less air pollution and wasted fuel from idling vehicles
  • Minimizes delay for trucks moving commercial goods

Traffic incident management makes sense for any highway since incidents can occur anywhere and responders need to care for injured travelers and clear the scene. In rural areas, the Department of Transportation (DOT) maintenance teams often get called to manage and clear an incident scene requiring them to stop their current project. Using a dedicated incident responder instead, allows maintenance personnel to stay focused on their project.

WSDOT estimates that the efforts of its incident response teams saves the Washington State economy more than $65 million per year in lost time and fuel (1).

What you need in order to implement

Equipment needs:

  • Vehicle detection and cameras to identify and verify an incident
  • Electronic roadside signs post messages that inform travelers
  • Incident response vehicles
  • Traffic control equipment
  • Scene photo sharing system
  • Traffic Management Center (TMC)/Dispatch Center

Maintenance Needs:

  • Maintain and monitor vehicle detection, cameras, and variable message signs

Agency resources needs:

  • Incident responders
  • Ongoing incident responder training
  • Traffic management center and operators

To view other needs for providing traffic incident management, we recommend Traffic incident management coordination strategy.

Learn more about this strategy

Works Cited:

(1) Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Incident Response Program.

About key characteristics

Location notes:

Traffic incidents can happen on highways anywhere. Transportation agencies detect and respond to incidents in order to rescue injured travelers, manage the scene, and clear disabled vehicles and debris, regardless of where the incident occurred.

Cost notes:

Costs are mid-range, but require ongoing funding to support coordination, personnel, equipment, and maintenance.

Technology notes:

Technology plays a key role in many aspects of incident response including detection and verification, traveler information systems, communication between responders, emergency and incident response routing to the scene, and more.

Collaboration notes:

A lot of collaboration is needed because there are many agencies involved and a coordinated response is required to be effective.