Highway Safety:

Improved Monitoring and Oversight of Traffic Safety Data Program Are Needed

GAO-05-24: Published: Nov 4, 2004. Publicly Released: Nov 4, 2004.

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Auto crashes kill or injure millions of people each year. Information about where and why such crashes occur is important in reducing this toll, both for identifying particular hazards and for planning safety efforts at the state and federal levels. Differences in the quality of state traffic data from state to state, however, affect the usability of data for these purposes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) administers a grant program to help states improve the safety data systems that collect and analyze crash data from police and sheriff's offices and other agencies, and the Congress is considering whether to reauthorize and expand the program. The Senate Appropriations Committee directed GAO to study state systems and the grant program. Accordingly, GAO examined (1) the quality of state crash information, (2) the activities states undertook to improve their traffic records systems and any progress made, and (3) NHTSA's oversight of the grant program.

States vary considerably in the extent to which their traffic safety data systems meet recommended criteria used by NHTSA to assess the quality of crash information. These criteria relate to whether the information is timely, consistent, complete, and accurate, as well as to whether it is available to users and integrated with other relevant information, such as that in the driver history files. GAO reviewed systems in 9 states and found, for example, that some states entered crash information into their systems in a matter of weeks, while others took a year or more. While some systems were better than others, all had opportunities for improvement. States reported carrying out a range of activities to improve their traffic safety data systems with the grants they received from NHTSA. Relatively little is known about the extent to which these activities improved the systems, largely because the documents submitted to NHTSA contained little or no information about what the activities accomplished. The states GAO reviewed used their grant funds for a variety of projects and showed varying degrees of progress. These efforts included completing strategic plans, hiring consultants, and buying equipment to facilitate data collection. NHTSA officials said their oversight of the grant program complied with the statutory requirements, but for two main reasons, it does not provide a useful picture of what states were accomplishing. First, the agency did not provide adequate guidance to ensure that states provided accurate and complete data on what they were accomplishing with their grants. Second, it did not have an effective process for monitoring progress. The agency has begun to take some actions to strengthen oversight of all its grant programs. If the Congress decides to reauthorize the program, however, additional steps are needed to provide effective oversight of this particular program. GAO also noted that in proposing legislation to reauthorize the program, one requirement was omitted that may be helpful in assessing progress--the requirement for states to have an up to date assessment of their traffic data systems.

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

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: In considering the reauthorization of the traffic safety incentive grant program, the Congress may wish to consider including the requirement that states have their traffic safety data system assessed or an update of the assessment conducted at least every 5 years.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2005, Congress passed the "Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005." In section 7221, the Act authorizes the State Traffic Safety Information System Improvements program, otherwise known as the "412 program." The authorization of program includes GAO's recommendation that states be required to have their traffic safety data system assessed or an update of the assessment conducted at least every five years. Specifically, the section states "To be eligible for a first-year grant under this section in a fiscal year, a State shall demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State a completed or updated, within the preceding 5 years, an assessment or an audit of the highway safety data and traffic records system of the State..." In addition, for states applying for subsequent funding, they will be required to "certify that an assessment or audit of the State's highway safety data and traffic records system has been conducted or updated within the preceding 5 years." NHTSA has been actively working with States to encourage them to have new or updated traffic records assessments using NHTSA's criteria. 40 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have all had assessments since 2004 or have them scheduled in the upcoming year.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: If the Congress reauthorizes the traffic safety data incentive grant during the next session, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to establish a formal process for monitoring and overseeing 411-funded state activities. Specifically, the process should provide guidance for submitting consistent and complete annual reporting on progress for as long as funds are being expended. These progress reports should, at a minimum, include the status of allocated funds, documentation indicating how states intend to use the current year grant funds, a list of projects implemented in the past fiscal year, brief descriptions of activities completed, and any problems encountered.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 10, 2005, the President signed the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). Section 2006 of SAFETEA-LU established the State Traffic Safety Information System Improvement grant program under Section 408 of title 23, United States Code, as the successor to the Section 411 traffic safety data incentive grant program. SAFETEA-LU authorized $34.5 million per year for this program from fiscal years 2006-09. NHTSA published implementing guidance for the Section 408 program in the Federal Register on February 2, 2006. To comply with GAO's second recommendation, the implementing guidance specifies that, to qualify for a first year grant, a State must have developed a multiyear highway safety data and traffic records system plan that addresses existing deficiencies in the State's highway safety data and traffic records system; specifies how those deficiencies were identified; prioritizes the needs for improving the system and sets specific goals for meeting the needs; identifies performance-based measures by which progress towards the goals will be determined; and, specifies how the State will use Section 408 and other funds to address its needs and goals The implementing guidance also addresses the requirements a State must satisfy to qualify for a second and subsequent year Section 408 grant. Among other things, a State must specify how Section 408 and any other funds are to be used to address the needs and goals identified in the strategic plan and document measurable progress toward achieving the goals and objectives. The implementing guidance further specifies that, in its Annual Report for every fiscal year until all Section 408 grant funds are expended, the State should account for the status of all funds awarded under Section 408, including a list of projects implemented in the past fiscal year, brief descriptions of activities completed, and any problems encountered. If the Congress reauthorizes the traffic safety data incentive grant program, NHTSA would propose regulations governing the new program, which would include a formal process for reporting progress on State data activities. In the regulatory proposal, NHTSA would specify that data grant funds are to be covered in the State's annual HSP, which requires an annual progress report due December 31 of each year; annual reporting must continue until all grant funds are expended. The HSP plan would document how States intend to use the current year grant funds, a list of projects implemented in the past fiscal year, brief descriptions of activities completed, and any problems encountered. Additionally, consistent with current legislative language, NHTSA would propose requiring States to: (1) provide progress reports to be eligible for second and subsequent-year grants; (2) list established performance measures; (3) describe progress on actual improvements to their traffic records system; and (4) indicate how funds have been and would be used to implement the traffic records strategic plan. NHTSA would also propose to establish a uniform format for progress reports.

    Recommendation: If the Congress reauthorizes the traffic safety data incentive grant during the next session, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to ensure better accountability and better reporting for the grant program by outlining a process for regional offices to manage and archive grant documents.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NHTSA's office of Injury Control Operations and Resources is now instituting a uniform filing system among headquarters and regional offices for State grant and program activity files. Documents will be filed using standard titles and tabs, and include applications, certifications, checklists and approval/award letters, as well as progress reports. The new filing system will provide consistent document maintenances and accessibility in all regional offices. In addition, the Senior Associate Administrator for Traffic Injury Control (TIC) ensured better accountability for the management of the traffic records and data grant program by emphasizing the importance of renewing the focus on data improvement and traffic records system in his January 2005 annual priority letter. In addition, NHTSA issues guidance and oversight for State highway safety programs, including traffic safety data programs. These directives specify that NHTSA will conduct annual program reviews to assess State's progress in achieving goals, as well as other data summaries. Reports and memoranda are kept in permanent records at each NHTSA regional office.

    Recommendation: If the Congress reauthorizes the traffic safety data incentive grant during the next session, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to establish a formal process for ensuring that assessments, strategic plans, and progress reports contain the level of detail needed to adequately assess progress and are appropriately linked to each other.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Section 408 program established in SAFETEA-LU includes a requirement for an assessment or audit as a prerequisite for a second and subsequent year Section 408 grant. To comply with GAO's third recommendation, the implementing guidance that NHTSA published in the Federal Register specifies that the assessment or audit should be an in-depth formal review of the State's highway safety data and traffic records system that addresses the criteria in NHTSA's Traffic Records Highway Safety Program Advisory; generates an impartial report on the status of the highway safety data and traffic records system; and is conducted by an organization or group that is knowledgeable about highway safety data and traffic records systems, but independent from the organizations involved in the administration, collection and use of the State's highway safety data and traffic records system. NHTSA has been actively working with States to encourage them to have new or updated traffic records assessments using NHTSA's criteria. 40 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have all had assessments since 2004 or have them scheduled for the upcoming year. The implementing guidance also addresses the requirements for a strategic plan and its linkage to the assessment of the state's highway safety data and traffic records system. In a footnote, the guidance explicitly reminded states that, to address existing deficiencies in the states' highway safety data and traffic records system, they should identify and discuss the recommendations contained in the most recent traffic records assessment or audit. The guidance also notes that the strategic plan must specify performance-based measures that the State will use to determine progress towards its goals, and that NHTSA's Traffic Records Highway Safety Program Advisory--on which the assessment should be based--contains a chapter detailing performance-based measures applicable to each of the State's information systems. NHTSA held six Strategic Planning Workshops around the country in March and April 2006 to assist states in developing strategic plans that met the requirements of the Section 408 grant program, including addressing deficiencies identified in assessments and selecting appropriate performance measures to determine progress. Also, as noted above in the discussion of the status of GAO's second recommendation, the implementation guidance states that States should annually report their highway safety data and traffic records system improvement efforts until all Section 408 grant funds are expended. The guidance specified that the report should use the performance-based measures to demonstrate measurable progress toward the goals and objectives detailed in the strategic plan, and also should address recommendations contained in the most recent assessment or audit. As part of the regulatory proposal to implement the new grant program, NHTSA would propose a requirement to review the state's traffic records strategic plan to ensure that it addresses the deficiencies identified and recommendations made in the most recent traffic records assessment. The proposed regulations would also require that project progress reports contain specific information on projects being funded and how these program activities would improve the safety data system.

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