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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 68 · No. 2 > Traffic Safety Information Systems

Sept/Oct 2004
Vol. 68 · No. 2

Traffic Safety Information Systems

by Michael S. Griffith and Barbara Hilger DeLucia

An international scan aimed to find strategies for improving safety data.

Assessments of State traffic records, promoted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and a recent evaluation of new States for possible inclusion in FHWA's Highway Safety Information System reveal a disturbing trend. The quality of many States' safety databases is eroding, especially in terms of completeness.

Bridge in the harbor of Sydney, Australia

This bridge in the harbor of Sydney, Australia, is a signature structure in the heart of New South Wales, one of the sites visited during the October 2003 international scan tour on traffic safety information systems.

With reductions in staff and other resources, a smaller proportion of motor vehicle crashes is reported to State databases than ever before. Also, due to entry backlogs, the information is dated by the time the database is available for use. Although States are increasing their use of geographical information systems (GIS), they are not maintaining adequate records of the roadway characteristics associated with specific locations. Core data elements such as number of lanes, lane widths, shoulder widths, median types, and median widths are missing in many systems, and items such as horizontal curves, vertical grades, intersection features, and interchange features are virtually nonexistent.

"Without accurate crash data for our traffic safety information systems, it is much more difficult to address safety issues," says Susan G. Martinovich, deputy director, Nevada Department of Transportation (DOT). "Our challenge is to find new ideas and ways of doing business and to gather the data we need so we can make better decisions and keep our roads safe."

International Scan Tour

In October 2003, a panel cosponsored by FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) conducted an international scanning tour on traffic safety information systems. The objective was to seek innovative ways to build these information systems by learning from countries that have achieved some level of success in designing, developing, and using these systems.

The panel conducted meetings with representatives of government agencies, academia, and private sector organizations in Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. The discussions focused primarily on:

  • General issues of policy, systems, and linkages
  • Crash data collection and accessibility of routine and special traffic crash data
  • Roadway data collection and the accessibility of data describing roadways, roadside appurtenances, traffic control devices, structures, and traffic volumes
  • Other traffic safety issues concerning driver information systems, enforcement, medical data, and adjudication

In addition, the panel held a meeting with the European Commission in Brussels. The commission discussed the European Union's (EU's) efforts to combine minimal data from all of the EU countries into the Community Road Accident Database (CARE) for analysis and reporting of national statistics on injury and fatal crashes.

FHWA and AASHTO selected the scanning team members to represent the diversity of knowledge required to evaluate traffic safety information systems. The 11-member panel represented the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), National Association of County Engineers (NACE), International Association of Chiefs of Police, FHWA, AASHTO, NHTSA, and academia. Technical expertise included engineering, enforcement, driver and motor vehicles, administration and policy, systems and technology, and highway safety research.

Amplifying Questions

The scanning team developed a series of questions to help focus the discussions with the international safety experts and to define the topics and issues of particular interest to the team. The questions referred to general and policy issues as well as detailed issues about crash and roadway data.

The general section included questions related to policy, systems, and data linkages. The crash section contained questions about routine data collection and special crash investigation teams. The roadway section included questions on all types of roadway-related data collection, including inventories, roadside appurtenances, traffic control devices and volumes, and structures.

Due to the time required to cover these critical areas of interest, it was not possible to include questions about many of the other components of a traffic safety information system. During the course of the interviews and presentations, however, the team received supplemental information about driver and vehicle systems that has been included in the final report, Traffic Safety Information Systems in Europe and Australia (FHWA-PL-03-020), which is slated to be available by the end of September 2004.

Key Scan Findings

While discussing safety data with representatives of other countries, the scan team did not, for the most part, identify better systems and technologies than those available throughout the United States. The team did, however, discover several themes that drive a strategic approach for the collection, management, and use of safety data in each of the countries.

The themes fell into three areas: strategy, efficiency, and utility. Under strategic issues, the themes included consideration of safety as a core business function of government and the emphasis that the countries place on making resources available for using safety data for decisionmaking. Under efficiency, the focus was on ensuring that the right safety data are collected simply, accurately, and at a reasonable cost. Under utility issues, the themes related to the ability to use the data for research and analysis and the use of analytical tools. The scan team's objectives are to advance these themes in the United States aggressively.

As in the United States, each of the visited countries faces a drop in the documentation of crashes because their police agencies are unable to devote the necessary resources to this task. Each country is looking for new and innovative programs to reduce the fatality rates while working with fewer resources and crash data than ever before.

The most significant similarity among the countries visited and the United States is the fact that fatalities have dropped significantly since 1980. But in more recent years, the numbers have remained essentially constant in the United States and in the visited countries.

Map of the European Union, and Victoria and New South Wales, shown on this map of Australia (left)

The international scan tour visited transportation organizations in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, shown on this map of the European Union, and Victoria and New South Wales, shown on this map of Australia (left).

Safety As a Core Business Function

Where the similarity ends between the United States and the visited countries is in the emphasis placed on safety as a core business function. The U.S. goal for reducing fatalities is not quite as ambitious as those of the other countries. The European Action Plan that serves as the guiding plan for Germany and the Netherlands, for example, contains the goal of reducing the number of injuries and fatalities by 50 percent from the year 2000 to 2010. The State of New South Wales in Australia has set a goal of about 40 percent by 2010, and the State of Victoria in Australia aims to reduce fatal and serious injury crashes by at least 20 percent by 2007. The U.S. goal for reducing the number of fatal crashes is slightly over 21 percent by 2008.

The scan team included (from left to right): Michael L. Halladay, Office of Safety, FHWA; James W. Ellison, Pierce County Public Works and Utilities and NACE; Herbert Eissman, translator in Germany; Mike Crow, Kansas DOT; Susan Martinovich, Nevada DOT; David L. Harkey, University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center; J. Kevin Lacy, North Carolina DOT; Donald J. McNarnara, Region 5, NHTSA; Barbara Hilger DeLucia, Data Nexus, Inc.; Michael S. Griffith, FHWA; Betty L. Serian, Pennsylvania DOT and AAMVA; and Scott MacGregor, California Highway Patrol. Inset photo: Jake Almborg, report facilitator.

The scan team included (from left to right): Michael L. Halladay, Office of Safety, FHWA; James W. Ellison, Pierce County Public Works and Utilities and NACE; Herbert Eissman, translator in Germany; Mike Crow, Kansas DOT; Susan Martinovich, Nevada DOT; David L. Harkey, University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center; J. Kevin Lacy, North Carolina DOT; Donald J. McNarnara, Region 5, NHTSA; Barbara Hilger DeLucia, Data Nexus, Inc.; Michael S. Griffith, FHWA; Betty L. Serian, Pennsylvania DOT and AAMVA; and Scott MacGregor, California Highway Patrol. Inset photo: Jake Almborg, report facilitator.

A strategic safety focus requires top leadership involvement, participation, and monitoring. In each country visited, roadway safety is a core business function and is supported at the highest levels, such as the Minister of Transport. Clear measures to improve roadway safety are set from a national level and communicated consistently-to the States in the case of Australia and the countries in the case of the European Union. Each State or country then develops supporting goals to accomplish the national objectives.

Data Estimates

As in the United States, competing demands have eroded the resources these countries have available to devote to roadway safety. In particular, fewer police-reported crash data are available to identify safety problems and evaluate program successes. Although the visited countries are in the process of developing more advanced data systems, many of their road safety accomplishments have been made without the benefit of robust and linkable data systems. Creative methods for data estimation and linkage strategies are used to limit the amount of information collection required and to help eliminate data inconsistencies.

To obtain sufficient crash data in the Netherlands, for example, estimates are made of the missing and under reported crash data, and safety goals are established based on the estimated data. Numerous methods are used to obtain the estimates. Biannual public surveys are conducted to obtain personal estimates for motor vehicle-, pedestrian-, and bicyclist-involved crashes. These surveys contain numerous questions about safety issues, and a return rate of about 70 percent is achieved through the use of incentives.

Another method is to aggregate insurance data to assist in determining material damage-only crashes and to verify estimates of injury-related or injurious and fatal crashes. Thirdly, hospital data, particularly from emergency room treatments, are factored into the estimates of crashes and injuries.

The Netherlands is seriously considering reducing the number of data elements that are collected by police officers from an already low number of 80 variables to 40 critical data elements. The European Union aggregate database, CARE, requires only 43 data elements. All countries use in depth crash investigation studies to supplement their use of police-reported crash data to study specific safety issues and research.

In addition to using estimates of crash data, the Netherlands instituted an official data-for-data partnership with other agencies to share information. Under a formal agreement between agencies, for example, an entire GIS roadway network file and capabilities for crash data analyses are provided to a local agency in return for that agency's agreement to provide location coding for additions to the existing roadway network in its jurisdiction.

Communication of Safety Programs and Data

Of paramount importance in most of the visited countries is the communication of safety issues, programs, and data to their partners and customers, including the public. Some examples of the strategies used by the agencies include:

  • Web-based applications allowing access to statistical crash and roadway data
  • Publications, billboards, and other public relations and marketing components to encourage crash prevention and to train motorists to avoid crashes
  • A service center staffed to provide a call-in help desk for local jurisdictions and others to obtain statistical crash data and technical assistance
  • Marketing efforts to convince drivers to accept personal responsibility for staying safe

All of the visited countries use sanctions on a driver's record as a means of improving motorist behavior and roadway safety. In spite of strong privacy laws in Germany and the Netherlands, information on drivers' histories is shared with law enforcement agencies. In Germany, the overall philosophy is that sanctions lead to rehabilitation, and sanctions are removed from a driver's record at the end of the sanction period. German transportation officials believe that sanctions should not be punitive, but rather that, after a driver makes a mistake, he or she should be able to start again with a clean record. Australia uses a national motorist database so that driver sanctions and history are shared across the States to promote the concept of "one driver, one record, and one license."

The insurance industry serves as a partner in promoting safety in all of the visited countries. In Germany, a consortium of insurance companies supporting highway safety programs provides extensive training for police officers and free software for collecting crash data.

New and Old Technologies

The scan team found numerous examples of the use of new technologies to collect roadway data and the use of existing technologies in new ways. The Australian company ARRB Transport Research's Global Inertial Positioning System Integration Tracking Route Alignment and Crossfall (Gipsi-Trac) is a vehicle-mounted data acquisition system, which uses GPS and sensors to record continuous three-dimensional highway maps and road geometry information. The system can provide latitude, longitude, and height at 10- meter (33-foot) intervals.

In a similar effort, FHWA currently is testing a Digital Highway Measurements vehicle, which has state-of-the-art sensors to capture highway geometrics at levels of accuracy and repeatability not provided by the state of the practice. An example in Australia of using existing technology in new ways is the use of the digital photographs collected during continuous roadway surveys. The digital photos are available online and are used to support the entry of crash data by helping to identify exact locations and roadway features surrounding a crash.

Another method for obtaining the most benefit from existing technologies is to contract with private firms for the maintenance of equipment such as traffic loops. The contract can require specific levels of service resulting in no payment for times that the equipment is not in operation.

The States visited in Australia provided numerous examples of using technologies to maintain traffic flow and improve the safety of roadway conditions. Uses of The States visited in Australia provided numerous examples of using technologies to maintain traffic flow and improve the safety of roadway conditions. Uses of technologies included variable speed limit signs during peak congestion periods and adverse weather conditions, traffic loop data to capture tailgating information, cameras for monitoring heavy vehicles, and cameras for ticketing drivers for speeding or running red light signals.

Implementation Strategies

"The true success of an international scanning trip is the ideas brought back to the United States and the implementation of actions to put improved systems and technologies in place," says Michael L. Halladay, director of FHWA's Office of Safety Integration and Delivery. "We have a great set of champions among the team members to define and lead this effort."

AASHTO's Strategic Safety Plan provides a framework for aggressively advancing six major strategic areas: drivers, special users, vehicles, highways, emergency medical services, and management. Under management, the plan includes Goal 21 (improving information and decision support systems) and Goal 22 (creating more effective processes and safety management systems). The scan team believes that these goals are a start for improving traffic safety information systems in the United States.

Also, the team members believe there are seven key themes, which the States may want to consider as they begin the challenging process of improving their information systems. The themes fall under the three areas mentioned earlier (strategy, efficiency, and utility):

Strategy

  • Top-level State and national officials need to demonstrate support for safety information systems. A national set of expectations should be created and followed with clear communication to the States. The State leadership, in turn, should work to develop goals and ways to assess the completion of those goals.
  • Top-level meetings of stakeholder agencies in the public sector should have a clear focus on safety. Safety should be clearly defined as a core business, and performance measures should be established for assessing safety improvement.

Efficiency

  • Data collection should be streamlined and simplified, especially for the officer in the field. This streamlining requires a review of the data requirements with an eye towards quality and collection of only the information needed.
  • Current technology can be used more efficiently to simplify data collection and improve overall data quality.
  • New technology can be used to collect critical data not already collected, increase efficiency, and improve data quality.

Utility

  • Since usage of safety data is a fundamental precursor to improving data quality, marketing traffic safety information is a crucial activity. Through marketing, increased awareness of the issues and the uses of data will in turn support data improvements.
  • Analytical tools can help users get the most from the data and support activities such as identifying the optimal locations to make safety improvements, selecting countermeasures to improve locations, and conducting evaluations.

The team will advance these themes in a four-step process through an umbrella strategic project, with the long-range goal of developing a more comprehensive approach toward working on Goal 21 (improving information and decision support systems). The four steps are: (1) preparing a white paper that states the specific actions and framework that are necessary to achieve more comprehensive safety information systems in the United States; (2) conducting a focus group to validate the white paper, develop additional details as necessary, and start to develop a framework for conducting a national safety data forum with appropriate feedback from various highway safety organizations; (3) conducting a national safety data forum; and (4) preparing final implementation documents. After the forum, the scan team will work with the participants to summarize final recommendations and update Goal 21, and to obtain AASHTO acceptance of the implementation strategies to carry the process to conclusion.

Two female bicyclists in the streets of Amsterdam

Public surveys are used in the Netherlands to obtain estimates of the number of crashes among bicyclists like these in Amsterdam.

A number of other implementation strategies are being explored in support of the umbrella strategic project. These strategies are:

  • Conduct a scan within the United States to determine best practices for collecting, processing, storing, and sharing data.
  • Develop a marketing plan for traffic safety information that will increase awareness among the public and political entities of the importance of safety data.
  • Enhance and simplify data collection by law enforcement officers by increasing the automation of data, through the use of electronic collection and laptops, and by ensuring that all data collected are necessary and cannot be obtained by any means other than by the officers in the field.
  • Expand the use of existing technology to improve and expand databases and support electronic data collection of all types-crash data, roadway features, traffic data, imagery, and driver and medical information. Provide technologies and methodologies to reduce the costs of developing and maintaining systems, and to share costs.
  • Develop an implementation approach for the widespread application of safety analysis tools.
  • Seek and evaluate new technologies to improve and expand the collection and management of data.
  • Conduct a comprehensive review of the need for safety-related data elements, including the benefits and costs of each element collected and stored, and seek methods to remove redundancies and inefficiencies.

These implementation recommendations, along with supplemental recommendations and strategies, are presented in more detail in an internal document, Scan Technology Implementation Plan.

In Australia, members of the scan team inspect a vehicle-mounted data acquisition system that uses GPS and sensors to record continuous three-dimensional highway maps and road geometry information.

In Australia, members of the scan team inspect a vehicle-mounted data acquisition system that uses GPS and sensors to record continuous three-dimensional highway maps and road geometry information.

Better Data Ahead

FHWA and other organizations are optimistic that improved data lie ahead. Initiatives such as the Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria and the “National Model” effort being led by Iowa are moving the highway community in a more safety-focused direction. Data-driven decisionmaking is needed to optimize investments for safety. The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA) proposes an incentive grant program, State Traffic Safety Information System Improvements, to aid States in improving their traffic safety information systems. The program also would encourage States to improve their safety data based upon an assessment of their existing systems and development of a strategic plan for improvements of safety information systems. The potential impact of this program for achieving a future with improved data is considerable.


Michael S. Griffith is the technical director of FHWA's Office of Safety Research and Development. His leadership responsibilities include making sure that the office is conducting research in the most productive areas and is working closely with FHWA's partners and customers. He manages the Safety Analyst project and a study evaluating the safety effectiveness of red light running cameras. Griffith is also active in a number of national initiatives such as the Research and Technology National Partnership Initiative and the Highway Safety Manual.

Barbara Hilger DeLucia is president and CEO of Data Nexus, Inc., and has more than 23 years of experience in transportation and highway safety. DeLucia participated in the national effort to revise the NHTSA traffic records advisory. She served on the Transportation Research Board's special task force to define comprehensive computerized safety record keeping systems, as vice-chair of the National Research Council Steering Committee for the Study of State Traffic Records Systems, and on the National Safety Council's CADRE task force to define essential data needs for NHTSA and FHWA. She was selected by FHWA and AASHTO to serve as the report facilitator for the International Scan on Safety Databases.

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