Traffic Safety Data:

State Data System Quality Varies and Limited Resources and Coordination Can Inhibit Further Progress

GAO-10-454: Published: Apr 15, 2010. Publicly Released: Apr 15, 2010.

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Traffic crashes kill or injure millions of people each year. High-quality traffic safety data is vital to allocate resources and target programs as the Department of Transportation's (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and states work to improve traffic safety through data-driven approaches. To qualify for federal funding, states must submit plans which include fatality and crash data analyses to identify areas for improvement. This requested report provides information on (1) the extent to which state traffic safety data systems meet NHTSA performance measures for assessing the quality of data systems, and (2) progress states have made in improving traffic safety data systems, and related challenges. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed state traffic records assessments, visited eight states, and interviewed federal officials and other traffic safety experts.

GAO's analysis of traffic records assessments--conducted for states by NHTSA technical teams or contractors at least every 5 years--indicates that the quality of state traffic safety data systems varies across the six data systems maintained by states. Assessments include an evaluation of system quality based on six performance measures. Across all states, GAO found that vehicle and driver data systems met performance measures 71 percent and 60 percent of the time, respectively, while roadway, crash, citation and adjudication, and injury surveillance data systems met performance measures less than 50 percent of the time. Also, data system quality varies by performance measure. For example, across all data systems, states met the performance measure for consistency 72 percent of the time, but states met the integration performance measure 13 percent of the time. According to NHTSA, assessments should be in-depth reviews of state traffic safety data systems; however, in some cases, incomplete or inconsistent information limits assessment usefulness. Of the 51 assessments we reviewed, 49 had insufficient information to fully determine the quality of at least one data system. Furthermore, an updated assessment format has resulted in more frequent instances of insufficient information. Despite varying state traffic safety data system performance, data collected by NHTSA show that states are making some progress toward improving system quality. All states GAO visited have implemented projects to improve data systems, such as switching to electronic data reporting and adopting forms consistent with national guidelines. However, states face resource and coordination challenges in improving traffic safety data systems. For example, custodians of data systems are often located in different state agencies, which may make coordination difficult. In addition, rural and urban areas may face different challenges in improving data systems, such as limited technology options for rural areas or timely processing of large volumes of data in urban areas. States GAO visited have used strategies to overcome these challenges, including establishing an executive-level traffic records coordinating committee, in addition to the technical-level committee that states are required to establish to qualify for traffic safety grant funding. An executive-level committee could help states address challenges by targeting limited resources and facilitating data sharing.

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 NHTSA Administrator to ensure that traffic records assessments provide an in-depth evaluation that is complete and consistent in addressing all performance measures across all state traffic safety data systems. As part of NHTSA's ongoing initiatives to improve the traffic records assessment process, specific efforts could include revisiting available assessment guidance, the frequency and manner in which assessments are conducted, and NHTSA's assessment review process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2011, NHTSA published "Model Performance Measures for State Traffic Records Systems" (DOT HS 811 441), which is a collection of 61 model measures that are designed to help States monitor and improve the quality of the data in their traffic records systems. The measures, which are voluntary, cover all six traffic records systems--crash, driver, vehicle, roadway, citation/adjudication, and emergency management system/injury surveillance. The report also provides basic definitions for the six critical performance attributes--timeliness, accuracy, completeness, uniformity, integration, and accessibility. NHTSA recently finished a study that examined completed traffic records assessments and identified State concerns with the assessments and deficiencies in the technical aspects of the States traffic records assessment process. NHTSA has begun to update the Traffic Records Assessment procedures to incorporate recommendations from the study of assessments and address all performance measures across all State traffic safety data systems. Specifically, NHTSA will be changing the assessment from a week-long State-funded site visit by a panel of subject matter experts to a federally-funded remote digital peer-review of State records systems. The new assessment process is intended to result in a more robust pool of available assessors and facilitators. NHTSA expects to complete this change by December 31, 2012. GAO plans to follow-up with NHTSA again in spring 2012, when the above described actions are further along into implementation and documentation is available.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the NHTSA Administrator to study and communicate to Congress on the value of requiring states to establish an executive-level traffic records coordinating committee (TRCC) in order to qualify for Section 408 grant funding.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: Since the publication of the GAO report, NHTSA has determined that 46 States have executive-level traffic records coordinating committee's (TRCC). Therefore, NHTSA, in consultation with the GAO, has begun a study to characterize how executive-level TRCCs and technical level TRCCs coordinate traffic records system management in a sample of 10 States. This study will identify critical factors that will help to distinguish and compare different models of executive-level TRCCs and technical-level TRCCs. Specifically, it will examine the relationship between executive-TRCCs and technical TRCCs and their respective roles in creating, implementing, managing, and updating their States' strategic traffic record plans. This study is expected to begin in August 2011 and finish in August 2012.

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