Collaboration Can Better Highway Safety

Safety officials seek funds to upgrade systems for data collection and sharing systems.

Data on traffic-related deaths and accidents are two to three years out of date in some states, making it difficult to devise new safety regulations, rebuild unsafe roads, develop safer automobiles, and improve emergency services. Systems used by federal, state, and local agencies to collect and share data need to be overhauled, and the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in late July said it would ask Congress for $300 million over the next six years to upgrade them.

The goal is to eliminate antiquated paper-based reporting systems and implement a nationwide initiative to automate and synchronize the collection and sharing of data. The data will include information about vehicle-related injuries and health-care costs, safety stops, driver licenses, vehicle registration, and adjudicated violations.

Safer Driving

Federal highway-safety officials want $300 million to finance:  
Wireless communications equipment to facilitate electronic data collection and transmission during traffic-safety stops  
Real-time data transfer and editing processes to update driver's license or vehicle registration data from traffic stops or crash sites  
Centralized access to query all traffic-record databases  
Standardized search capabilities on common queries and data transmission using XML formats  
Data: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration  
Few states have the capability to capture and transmit traffic record and crash data electronically, and those that do are limited," says Joseph Carra, director of the National Center for Statistics and Analysis at the highway safety agency. "Today, the information is written and stored in files. It's a paper process. The files are sent to the state office, whose clerks input the information into proprietary computer systems. And there it sits."

Better data will save lives and money, says the federal highway-safety administration. Around 43,220 people were killed on the nation's highways in 2003, and another 2.9 million suffered serious injuries. Traffic accidents in 2000, the latest year for which data is available, cost the U.S. economy about $230 billion, the agency says.

The wide-ranging proposal calls for standardized XML data formats to improve information sharing among various government agencies and private groups, more-sophisticated sensors in cars and along highways to gather detailed information on crashes, and wireless handheld devices to let police officers check for outstanding warrants on drivers, among other ideas.

Federal funding will encourage states to adopt federal standards. Many states, suffering from a slow economy and declining tax revenues, haven't been able to fund upgrades themselves. Some, however, have projects under way. Texas is about halfway done with an IT project to build a crash-records information system, a joint initiative between its Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Transportation. When completed in January, police officers will be able to file accident reports via the Web, and other state agencies will be able to electronically link their systems with it and share data via XML.

Texas has been working on the crash-records system for several years. Last year, it signed a $9.9 million contract with IBM to build a data warehouse using a DB2 Universal Database, WebSphere Application Server, Tivoli Storage Manager, and MQ-Series, its message-queuing product. IBM says Florida, Arizona, and New Mexico are considering similar systems.

The Texas system is replacing a decades-old one that is "archaic and in need of many changes," says Carol Rawson, deputy division director for the traffic operations division with the state Transportation Department. The old system requires time-consuming manual entry of around 850,000 accident forms a year, as well as manual cross-checking and validation to ensure the data is correct. Because the process took so long, Texas' accident data is backlogged some 30 months. "This is all about safety," Rawson says. "The way you tell if a road is safe is you look at accident data. So that data is critical."

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