Traffic Safety:

NHTSA's Improved Oversight Could Identify Opportunities to Strengthen Management and Safety in Some States

GAO-08-788: Published: Jul 14, 2008. Publicly Released: Jul 14, 2008.

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Traffic crashes kill thousands of Americans every year--in 2005, it was the leading cause of death among young Americans. To try to improve highway safety, Congress authorized a grant program overseen by the Department of Transportation's (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In 2003, GAO recommended that NHTSA improve the consistency of its management reviews, a key aspect of NHTSA's oversight. In response to a legislative mandate, GAO assessed (1) how states have used grant funding to address safety goals, (2) NHTSA's progress in improving consistency in its management reviews, (3) the usefulness of its management review recommendations, and (4) approaches to further improve safety. In performing this work, GAO reviewed traffic safety data, analyzed state spending patterns, conducted site visits with eight states, and interviewed agency officials.

From fiscal year 1999 through 2007, states directed about 54 percent of NHTSA's State and Community Highway Safety formula grant funding toward programs, including traffic enforcement, that address the leading causes of traffic fatalities--alcohol-impaired driving and driving without a safety belt, both of which are national safety goals. States directed the rest of this grant funding to a variety of safety programs, many of which address national goals but some of which target state-specific safety challenges such as driving safely in winter weather. To address safety goals, state highway safety offices disperse federal funding to "subgrantees," such as local law enforcement or nonprofit agencies that carry out the safety programs. NHTSA implemented both Congress' requirement that it conduct management reviews of states and territories on a 3-year schedule as well as GAO's prior recommendation to improve the consistency with which it uses these reviews. GAO analyzed NHTSA's management reviews and identified some variation in how information was documented. However, in 2007 NHTSA took several steps, such as instituting a team to review the quality of management review reports, which should further improve the consistency of information contained in these reports--information NHTSA could use to assess the impact of its recommendations on state safety programs. GAO found NHTSA's management review recommendations useful because they are designed to address fundamental management principles such as improving program planning and ensuring states' compliance with statutes governing safety grants. Also, state officials said NHTSA's recommendations serve as a useful management tool. However, NHTSA does not analyze the recommendations on a national level to target its technical assistance to common state challenges. GAO conducted such an analysis and found that the recommendations revealed common state challenges such as the need to improve monitoring of subgrantee activities and expenditures, which helps ensure that funds are used for the intended purpose. NHTSA also frequently recommended that states spend grant funding more quickly, which NHTSA officials believed would expand safety programs and, in turn, improve safety. From 1997 through 2006, the national traffic fatality rate--the number of traffic fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled--declined 14 percent, but traffic fatalities remained at about 43,000 per year as factors such as increases in the number of miles driven offset the decrease in the rate. NHTSA uses several approaches to help states reduce fatalities, including requiring program reviews in states that are not making adequate progress in reducing alcohol-impaired driving and increasing safety belt use. Yet some states with low or average fatality rates but a high number of fatalities may not be eligible for a required review under NHTSA's current criteria. States with high total numbers of fatalities offer an opportunity to save the greatest number of lives, but for these states to receive an in-depth program review, the states must request and pay for such safety expertise.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of NHTSA to develop a working group with GHSA and state highway traffic safety offices as appropriate to identify the reasons for low annual rates of grant expenditures and solutions that could help address these challenges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our July 2008 report on NHTSA's oversight of state management of State and Community Highway Safety formula grant funding, we found that, as part of its oversight reviews, NHTSA consistently recommended that states increase the amount of spending of the federal grants states received each year. NHTSA officials believed that increasing spending rates might contribute to improving safety outcomes by expanding the number or scope of safety programs states implement each year. We made a recommendation for NTHSA develop a mechanism to identify the reasons for low annual rates of grant expenditures and solutions that could help address these challenges. In response, NHTSA provided technical assistance in the form of a policy proposal to Congress to consider in developing their reauthorization proposal. As part of its proposal, NTHSA provided language that officials believed would make it easier for states to spend grant funds, including simplifying the requirements, allowing states to combine funds for multi-state activities, and allowing high performance states more flexibility in spending grant funds

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of NHTSA to identify options, such as new guidance or training for states, to strengthen state monitoring of subgrantee performance, activities, and expenditures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, we analyzed NHTSA's management reviews and found that states consistently had problems monitoring subgrantee activities and expenditures, which can prevent and detect misuse of federal funds. We recommended that NHTSA identify options, such as new guidance or training for states, to strengthen state monitoring of subgrantee performance, activities, and expenditures. In response, NHTSA improved state monitoring of subgrantees by taking steps such as conducting four monitoring activities per state each federal fiscal year, including at least one on-site observation of state staff while these staff were monitoring a subgrantee. It also added monitoring, oversight, audit and internal management controls to three of its training courses. NHTSA recently reported that, as a result of these efforts, state personnel were more proactive in developing programs, policies, and procedures to improve the timely and effective use of Federal highway safety funds and in preventing and detecting fraud, waste, and abuse. As a result, NHTSA may better ensure that funds are used for their intended purpose and for programs that will help the state meet safety goals.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of NHTSA to periodically assess the extent to which states have implemented NHTSA's recommendations, and, when states have not, identify the barriers that prevent states from doing so and alter the type or focus of future recommendations as needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our July 2008 report, "Traffic Safety: NHTSA's Improved Oversight Could Identify Opportunities to Strengthen Management and Safety in Some States," we recommended that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as part of its oversight, periodically assess the extent to which states have implemented NHTSA recommendations and, in cases when states have not, identify the barriers and fine tune future recommendations as needed. In response, NHTSA reviewed the forms it uses to track recommendations and state responses to ensure they adequately document the progress states are making. In addition, officials have used this information to develop webinars in conjunction with the Governors Highway Safety Association to help States address common issues that prevent the states from implementing NHTSA's recommendations.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of NHTSA to periodically analyze, on a national level, all recommendations made to states to identify common challenges and areas in which NHTSA may need to focus its oversight or states may need additional help, such as training or technical assistance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Our July 2008 report, "Traffic Safety: NHTSA's Improved Oversight Could Identify Opportunities to Strengthen Management and Safety in Some States," found that states experienced several common problems in managing highway traffic safety grants. We recommended that NHTSA, as part of its oversight process, periodically analyze on a national level all recommendations it made to states to identify common challenges to focus its oversight and provide states with more targeted help, such as training or technical assistance. In 2009, NHTSA implemented an electronic tracking system that retains documentation on the recommendations NHTSA made to states during its reviews. NHTSA officials indicated that this new system facilitates an analysis of broad trends in oversight findings and recommendations, and NHTSA has used this information to target its training. Specifically, as of October 2009, NHTSA, in partnership with the Governors Highway Safety Association, has offered training on common challenges, including planning and administration, equipment and indirect costs, and performance measures.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of NHTSA to identify options to target safety expertise and technical assistance to states with a high number of fatalities that would not qualify for a special management review.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our July 2008 report on NHTSA's oversight of state management of State and Community Highway Safety formula grant funding, we found that NHTSA directed corrective reviews to states with the consistently high alcohol-related fatality rates or low safety belt use and lower-than-average improvement in these measures over time. However, states with a high number of fatalities but average or low rate of fatalities would not receive the type of in-depth programmatic review that could identify opportunities to reduce fatalities. We made a recommendation for NHTSA to identify options to target additional safety expertise and technical assistance to states with a high number of fatalities that would not qualify for additional formal reviews. In response, NHTSA refined its processes for directing expertise by providing several states with demonstration projects on alcohol-impaired driving as well as additional technical expertise focused on using ignition interlocks as a strategy to reduce alcohol-impaired driving. NHTSA recently reported that the success of these demonstration projects has resulted in expanded use of these resources to states beyond those initially participating in the demonstration projects. For example, two states participated in the original Ignition Interlock Institute, and as of August of 2011 about 30 states participated.

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