Traffic Safety: Improved Reporting Could Clarify States' Achievement of Fatality and Injury Targets

GAO-20-53 Published: Oct 22, 2019. Publicly Released: Oct 22, 2019.
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Fast Facts

Over 37,000 people were killed in traffic accidents on U.S. highways in 2017. The U.S. Department of Transportation provides about $3 billion a year to states to improve traffic safety. To determine whether the federal money is being spent effectively, states are supposed to set safety targets and report on whether their projects helped achieve them.

States did not achieve most of their fatality reduction targets from 2014-2017. Nearly half did not provide their most recent required assessments of fatality targets.

We recommended that Transportation clarify state reporting requirements and report to Congress whether states are meeting targets.

Traffic accident

Traffic accident

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What GAO Found

From 2014 through 2017, states did not achieve most of the fatality-related targets they set under the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) performance management framework (see table), and the number of serious injury targets states achieved during this period is unclear. GAO did not assess whether states achieved targets they set under the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) framework because the data were not yet available. State officials we interviewed said that achieving fatality targets may depend on factors outside their control, such as demographic, economic, and legislative changes. GAO's analysis of states' reports showed that nearly half of states did not provide the required assessment of progress to NHTSA on their most recent set of fatality targets. While NHTSA has taken steps to improve its review of these reports, officials acknowledged states are not clear on which target years to assess. Further, NHTSA lacks a mechanism to report whether states eventually achieve these targets. As a result, NHTSA and other stakeholders have limited insight into the results states have achieved from their use of federal safety funds. The extent to which states achieved serious injury targets is unclear because states have changed their definitions of serious injury over time. To ensure the consistency of these data, NHTSA and FHWA established a standard definition for reporting serious injuries, which states are in the process of adopting.

Selected Traffic Fatality Performance Measure Targets Achieved by States, 2014–2017


Number of states achieving target

Traffic fatality performance measure





Motorcycle fatalities





Pedestrian fatalities





Speed-related fatalities





Source: GAO analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. | GAO-20-53

Note: States include the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

In a survey that GAO administered, officials from a majority of states said that performance measures informed how they selected projects under NHTSA's framework. GAO found, however, that in the 2019 plans submitted by states to NHTSA, less than a third of states reported how performance targets and funded projects were linked. Since the submission of those plans, NHTSA has provided training and guidance to its staff to ensure future plans will more clearly identify these links. Under FHWA's framework, about one-third of states reported in GAO's survey that performance measures influenced their project selection; the remaining two-thirds reported using an alternative data-driven approach, such as cost-benefit analysis. FHWA officials said they are developing guidance to help states integrate performance measures and targets into methods that states are currently using to select highway safety projects.

Why GAO Did This Study

Over 37,000 people were killed in traffic crashes on the nation's highways in 2017. Within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), two agencies—NHTSA for behavioral factors and FHWA for highway infrastructure—provide about $3 billion annually to states for programs to improve traffic safety. To ensure that states are held accountable for these funds, NHTSA and FHWA developed performance management frameworks that require states to use performance measures and targets in tracking traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

GAO was asked to review NHTSA's and FHWA's traffic safety performance management frameworks. This report examines the extent to which: (1) states have met fatality and serious injury targets, and NHTSA's and FHWA's approaches to assessing states' achievements, and (2) states have used performance measures and targets to make traffic safety funding decisions. GAO analyzed state-reported targets and NHTSA data from 2014 through 2017—the most recent data available—for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico; surveyed these states on the use of performance measures and targets; reviewed requirements in NHTSA's and FHWA's frameworks; and interviewed officials from NHTSA, FHWA, and 10 states, selected to obtain a mix of population sizes, geographic locations, and other factors.

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GAO recommends that NHTSA (1) provide additional direction and clarification to ensure states assess and report progress in meeting fatality targets, and (2) report on states' final achievement of targets. DOT concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration The NHTSA Administrator should provide direction and clarification to states to ensure compliance with requirements to assess and report progress made in achieving fatality targets. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides grants to state highway safety offices to address behavioral factors that affect safety (such as impaired or distracted driving). In response to the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, which established the requirements for a performance-based approach to traffic safety in 2012, NHTSA established a performance management framework for traffic safety. Under this framework, states use performance measures to track traffic fatalities and other metrics, and establish targets annually for those performance measures to evaluate progress. However, in 2019, GAO reported that many states did not provide assessments of their progress achieving the prior year fatality performance measure targets because states were not clear on which target years to assess. NHTSA requires states to assess and report progress in achieving fatality targets in the following year's Highway Safety Plan and the NHTSA Annual Reports each year. NHTSA officials stated that they work closely with states to review the contents of the Highway Safety Plans and Annual Reports. As a result, they expect most states to comply with the requirements to assess progress in future because states will be more familiar with the reporting requirements. However, without additional clarification from NHTSA to states on which target years to assess, NHTSA and other stakeholders lack a timely understanding of the progress states have made in achieving their fatality targets. Therefore, GAO recommended that NHTSA provide direction and clarification to states to ensure compliance with requirements to assess and report progress made in achieving fatality targets. In 2020, GAO confirmed that NHTSA had provided direction and clarification to the states on assessment and reporting requirements. Specifically, NHTSA emailed all states to clarify NHTSA Annual Reports assessment and reporting requirements for fatality performance measure targets. In addition, NHTSA's guidance for submitting Highway Safety Plans directs states to provide a report on the State's progress towards meeting State performance targets from the previous fiscal year's Highway Safety Plan. Furthermore, NHTSA conducted a webinar with states to provide direction and clarification on its performance management requirements. By clarifying reporting requirements for states, NHTSA will be better able to hold states accountable for their use of federal funds. Moreover, improved reporting of states' achievements under NHTSA's framework could help provide insight into the effectiveness of the overall federal traffic safety program.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration The NHTSA Administrator should develop and implement a mechanism that communicates to Congress and other stakeholders whether states achieve their fatality and serious injury targets. (Recommendation 2)
. In June 2022, GAO staff contacted DOT for an update and learned that the Department plans to provide update information in July 2022. Once this information is received, GAO will update the status of this recommendation accordingly.

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