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: Open

    Comments: In October 2015, DOT informed GAO that the 2012 MAP-21 amended the requirements for State eligibility for the new 405(c) traffic safety data improvement grants, including requirements for TRCCs and performance measures to demonstrate improvement in State traffic safety data systems. Given the additional emphasis on TRCCs in MAP-21, NHTSA and GAO representatives agreed that a broader study of State TRCC effectiveness would be of greater utility than one solely focused on the impact of executive-level committees in particular. The DOT|TRCC commissioned a State Traffic Records Coordinating Committee Noteworthy Practices research project. The resulting "State Traffic Records Coordinating Committee Noteworthy Practices" report (FHWA-SA-15-083) was issued in August 2015. The report found that State TRCCs can be very effective in the absence of formal executive committees so long as the TRCC possessed the buy-in and engagement of executives from member agencies, who may participate as a separate executive committee, as part of a single committee, or as part of an ad hoc sub-committee. NHTSA therefore recommends that any update to the legislative requirements elaborate the functional, rather than structural, requirements of State TRCCs to ensure that the many effective TRCC organizational structures remain acceptable.

    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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