Highway Safety:

Foresight Issues Challenge DOT's Efforts to Assess and Respond to New Technology-Based Trends

GAO-09-56: Published: Oct 3, 2008. Publicly Released: Oct 3, 2008.

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Fatalities on U.S. roads now total over 40,000 each year. Future reductions may require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to address new trends such as evolving crash-avoidance technologies and rapidly changing electronic devices that may distract drivers who use them on the road. (See figure.) GAO was asked to examine how DOT is addressing fast-moving trends such as these. This report examines how DOT is (1) deciding on responses to the crash avoidance and electronic distractions trends--given available evidence and uncertainties; (2) developing new evidence on these trends' safety impacts; and (3) communicating with the Congress about these and other trends and related issues. To conduct this study, GAO analyzed DOT reports, peer-reviewed literature, and other documents; interviewed DOT officials and staff; and interviewed over 30 experts.

New fast-moving technology-based trends are characterized by uncertainties, and the main criteria that DOT's National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) officials use in deciding how to respond--quantitative evidence that a sizable problem exists and knowledge of a promising countermeasure--do not address uncertainty. One technology-based trend presents potential opportunities to improve future safety: evolving crash avoidance technologies. With somewhat limited data on actual safety benefits, NHTSA is pursuing such opportunities by, for example, providing consumer information about new car technologies designed to help avoid some crashes. A different trend represents a new threat to safety: rapidly changing and proliferating electronic driver distractions. Although NHTSA is conducting studies to understand this trend's nature and scope, it is not self-initiating actions or research designed specifically to counter new distractions, citing a lack of evidence that these are as significant a problem as, for example, failure to use seatbelts. Literature and experts suggest alternative approaches to decision-making, such as anticipatory risk management and expansion of networks, which might help with decisions about investments to shape or counter fast-moving trends. DOT also faces challenges in developing additional, higher quality or more timely evidence on the changing sizes of the safety impacts of such trends--despite attempting to obtain appropriate data through both long-standing and new methods. For example, analyses of existing crash datasets produce valid comparisons of crashes in cars with and without new technologies, but such analyses require years of accumulated results and thus cannot keep pace with a fast-moving trend. Developing more timely, high-quality evidence would (1) improve evaluations of new safety technologies' benefits and (2) identify the level of threat presented by evolving driver distractions--thus reducing uncertainty and supporting decisions. Innovative approaches, such as data collection that uses emerging technologies for wireless transfer of crash data or new analysis techniques, might help provide more timely, high-quality evidence on the impacts of trends and how these change over time. DOT currently communicates some relevant information to the Congress on emerging trends but these communications are not designed to provide a long-term view of highway safety, including trends such as evolving crash avoidance technologies and rapidly changing electronic driver distractions--and their implications for the years ahead--together with timely updates. DOT has not synthesized the results of its work for the Congress to look at how overall trends will impact highway safety in 2020 and beyond. Some of DOT's own practices and other models from the United States and abroad might provide improved strategies for communication.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In GAO-09-56, GAO recommended the Secretary of Transportation consider and evaluate practices and principles for making conditions under uncertainty and for using data in light of issues encountered in developing evidence on high-clockspeed trends affecting highway safety that are characterized by uncertainty. GAO had studied driver distraction involving electronic devices, in particular cell phones with texting capability and identified these evolving electronic devices as a high clockspeed trend. DOT reports several actions on distracted driving, specifically: (1) an Executive Order to federal employees not to engage in text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles; when using electronic equipment supplied by the government while driving; or while driving privately owned vehicles when they are on official business; (2) the Secretary called on state and local governments to (a) make distracted driving part of their state highway plans, (b) pass state and local laws against distracted driving in all types of vehicles, (c) back up public awareness campaigns with high-visibility enforcement actions; (3) the Secretary directed the Department to establish an on-line clearinghouse on the risks of distracted driving and also (4) pledged to continue the Department's research on how to best combat distracted driving. DOT also notes that the Department's www.distraction.gov website provides information on the latest data on distracted driving and that 34 states have passed laws against texting and driving since the 2009 announcement by the Secretary of DOT.

    Recommendation: In order to develop an approach to decision making and the development of evidence on high-clockspeed trends affecting highway safety that are characterized by uncertainty, the Secretary of Transportation should consider and evaluate practices and principles for making decisions under conditions of uncertainty and for using data in such decision making and, on that basis, develop an approach to guide decision making on high-clockspeed trends that, although somewhat uncertain, may affect highway safety.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: DOT has not responded to this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should evaluate whether or not new approaches to data collection are needed to better track new trends related to highway safety.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: DOT has not responded to this recommendation, but DOT announced a distracted driving summit September 30-October 1, 2009, with a limited number of invitees, and invited the GAO Assistant Director on this report to participate. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stated that the purpose of the summit is to "to address the dangers of text-messaging and other distractions behind the wheel." The summit will include "senior transportation officials, elected officials, safety advocates, law enforcement representatives and academics" who will convene in Washington, DC "to discuss ideas about how to combat distracted driving."

    Recommendation: In order to improve the information available to the Congress for reauthorization, the Secretary of Transportation should analyze and report on trends currently anticipated to affect highway safety through 2020 and beyond in a systematic fashion--including information on high-clockspeed trends, discussion of evidence about these and other individual trends, their implications and potential interactions, and DOT responses.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: DOT has not responded to this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the information available to the Congress for reauthorization, the Secretary of Transportation should determine, in consultation with relevant congressional committees, schedules for periodic reporting that will be sufficiently frequent to update the Congress on fast-changing trends.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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