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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2010, we reported that our analysis of traffic records assessments--conducted for states by NHTSA technical teams or contractors at least every 5 years--indicated that the quality of state traffic safety data systems varied across the six data systems maintained by states. Assessments include an evaluation of system quality based on six performance measures. Across all states, we 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. According to NHTSA, assessments should be in-depth reviews of state traffic safety data systems; however, in some cases, incomplete or inconsistent information limited the usefulness of the assessments and made it difficult to ascertain the full extent of data system quality. We recommended that 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. In response, NHTSA developed a comprehensive new approach for assessing the systems and processes that govern the collection, management, and analysis of traffic records data. Core to this approach is the set of questions for conducting assessments published in September 2012 in the Traffic Records Program Assessment Advisory. The Advisory includes standards of evidence to guide state officials in providing the information necessary to answer each assessment question. The assessment now asks a comprehensive, uniform set of questions about all data quality performance measures across all state traffic safety data systems. NHTSA kicked off a pilot program to test the new process in Indiana in November 2012. This pilot was successfully completed in February 2013 and NHTSA has implemented the new process for Fiscal Year 2014 assessments. This new approach will improve the quality and consistency of traffic records assessments, enabling states to more accurately identify and effectively target its limited resources to the areas in most need of improvement.

    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

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: 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. In April 2010, GAO reported that, although states were making some progress toward improving the quality of traffic safety data systems, states faced resource and coordination challenges in improving these systems. For example, custodians of data systems were often located in different state agencies, which could make coordination difficult. GAO also reported that some states had used strategies to overcome these challenges, including establishing an executive-level traffic records coordinating committee (TRCC), in addition to the technical-level TRCC committee that states were required to establish to qualify for federal traffic safety grant funding. The advantages of an executive-level TRCC are that its members are key decision makers and it has the authority to overcome disagreements and break resource and coordination impasses. GAO concluded that an executive-level TRCC could help states address challenges by targeting limited resources, overcoming coordination impasses, and facilitating data sharing, and recommended that NHTSA should study and communicate to Congress on the value of requiring an executive-level TRCC for states applying for a federal grant. In September 2015, DOT released a report entitled "State Traffic Records Coordinating Committee Noteworthy Practices." The report concluded that, while the ideal State TRCC would include executive and technical level committees, a TRCC can be very effective in the absence of a formal executive committee as long as the TRCC is able to fulfill both the executive and technical functions. The report also provided a summary of common practices of successful TRCCs and information on how to address issues and barriers. Prior to the report's issuance, Congress emphasized the importance of TRCCs in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in July, 2012. Although the report was issued after MAP-21 was enacted, the report provided a full assessment of the TRCC's value to the states, which was GAO's intent.

    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

 

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