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CRASH RECORDS SYSTEMS SUMMARY The need for improved crash records systems arises in part from a growing knowledge that significant improvements in safety have and will come from state actions to control the crash experiences of their road users. To supplement crash data analyses, even more information is needed about both rural and urban roadways. It may not be possible to sustain the gains in traffic safety that have been made in the past, or to achieve further gains, without improve- ments in the quality and utility of these data. The impetus to improve the quality and utility of state traffic records systems, in particu- lar motor vehicle crash data, is undertaken against a backdrop of diminished resources and increased demands for those scarce resources. The costs of collecting crash data continue to be a substantial burden to all states. The time required to collect crash data and the costs of doing so compete with demands for other law enforcement work, including more recently, the addition of duties related to homeland security. Consequently, during the past two decades, some states have eliminated data from their crash report forms rather than adding to existing information to satisfy emerging needs. Other states have altered reporting criteria to reduce the number of crashes that police investigate or implemented "self report" forms for crashes in which no one is injured. At a time when more and better information is needed, these trends can have a substantially adverse effect on the quality and utility of crash data. On the other hand, these trends are also the genesis for attempts to use advanced information collection capabilities in the form of laptop, note- book, and hand-held computers, global positioning system devices, bar code and magnetic stripe readers, and other technologies that have the potential to improve the process of col- lecting and automating crash and other transportation data. This synthesis provides information on current practices in crash records systems, as applied to highway and traffic safety. To help identify the current state of the practice, sur- veys were distributed to transportation agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. More than half (26) responded to the survey, and follow-up interviews were conducted with selected agencies. The discussions focused on administering, collecting, and maintaining crash data; ensuring data quality; accessibility of crash data and how it is integrated and linked to other databases; and the barriers to each of these activities. The crash records system is of primary concern in this synthesis. However, the utility of crash data to identify safety problems or to evaluate the effect of changes in traffic safety is limited by its ability to be used with other types of data. These other data sources include, at a minimum, driver and vehicle records, traffic and roadway condition inventories, and med- ical outcome data. This synthesis addresses the ability to link crash data with these other traf- fic records system components. Over the years, the U.S. Congress has increasingly viewed traffic crashes as a national problem meriting federal involvement; therefore, the federal goal in this area has been to pro- vide leadership and financial aid to the states as incentives to develop a nationally uniform system. The states, on the other hand, have tried to retain the maximum degree of flexibility and decentralization so that they can respond to their own state needs. Ironically, the states have the same difficulty in maintaining uniform crash records systems statewide, because
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2 their localities also wish to retain the maximum degree of flexibility to meet the needs of their local constituents. Three areas that can define the success of a crash records system are: (1) data collection, (2) data processing and management, and (3) data linkages for reporting and analysis. No sin- gle crash records system was identified that has a "best practice" approach to all three areas simultaneously. There are, however, examples of successful systems that handle one area or another particularly well. Based on these examples, and using the literature and our own experience with traffic records systems, some overall descriptions of systems that are possi- ble with today's technology and could serve the needs of stakeholders at all levels of the traf- fic safety community were developed. These descriptions are summarized here. The most promising approach to crash data collection is an automated field data collection tool that is used to capture information as close to the event as possible. Field data collection hardware can include a portable or in-vehicle computer, global positioning system unit, mag- netic stripe and/or bar code reader, and other technology as desired. The law enforcement offi- cer using this tool would be able to link with state driver and vehicle data to complete sections of the crash report without having to reenter information that already exists electronically. Officers may also scan information directly from a vehicle identification number and/or reg- istration documents, license plate, or driver's license to obtain information for their reports. The crash software tool can include edit checks that closely match those in the statewide crash report system and prompt officers to complete all required fields, including supple- mental reports. A supervisor could then automatically review the resulting crash report. Once accepted, the report can be sent to the agency's local crash records system, if desired, as well as to the statewide crash records system. This paperless process could also support the gen- eration of a graphic image of the form suitable for printing and archival storage. The primary advantage of automated crash data collection software is a reduction in the time spent by offi- cers in records management and in supervisory review. The improvement in quality and time- liness of the crash data benefits all stakeholders in the traffic safety community. In regard to crash data processing and management, a pressing need for crash records sys- tems is the capability to accept data electronically. Adding this capability may result in major updates to the structure and processing of a statewide crash database; however, the system must continue to support manual processing of crash reports from a hard copy (paper) format. Some manual post-processing of crash information, especially for quality control of location coding, is advisable even with automation of the field data collection and electronic data trans- fer. The document management and archival storage of crash reports should accommodate both electronic and paper forms. The savings in reduced data entry, along with improvements in data quality and timeliness, benefits all stakeholders. Crash data alone do not serve as the sole basis on which to make highway and traffic safety decisions. A comprehensive traffic records system is required with linkable components to support reporting and analyses of all types of data. In most states, a comprehensive traffic records system could not exist in a single agency and have it fit well with the core business of that agency. For example, an agency that is responsible for issuing licenses to drivers and titles to vehicles may not have the resources to support other components of a traffic records system that do not assist them in completing their agency's primary mission. A knowledge base, in the form of a traffic records data clearinghouse or resources dedicated specifically for ad hoc data linkages, is a method for a state to achieve the goal of serving the needs of all highway and traffic safety stakeholders. A knowledge base supports all or some components of the traffic records system readily available to the users for analysis and reporting. Data sources are linked directly with the crash data or linked indirectly through probabilistic matching. This type of knowledge base
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3 is one way to increase the utility of crash data for less experienced users and to help build strong advocates for traffic records improvement throughout the state. The Missouri Depart- ment of Transportation is an example of a directly linked data system that primarily supports only that agency's users. The Massachusetts data warehouse is an example of a university- based system, with Internet access for analysis and reporting given to all approved users. Although the number of traffic records data clearinghouses is increasing, most states conduct data linkages on an ad hoc basis, often using university-based staff. The lessons learned from the examples of successful systems are simple, but worth repeat- ing in the context of improved practices for crash data collection, crash data management, and data linkages for reporting and analysis. To further the practice of implementing suc- cessful crash records systems, several actions can be undertaken. · Establish a statewide traffic records coordinating committee--Data collectors, system managers, information technology staff, safety analysts, and program staff from all the stakeholders can learn to work within the much broader context of a comprehensive traffic records system framework. · Develop data-for-data partnerships--Data collected for any of the components of a traf- fic records system are needed by a diverse set of users, agencies, and jurisdictions. The most successful crash records systems provide some form of sharing data, software, and/or hardware resources to local jurisdictions in exchange for improved data collec- tion for their systems. · Develop a knowledge base for traffic records systems--Examples of successful crash records systems have embraced the concept of a knowledge base to serve the highway and traffic safety community. · Simplify crash data collection--The most successful crash records systems have resulted from efforts to simplify field data collection. Coordination, communication, and cooperation are keys to successful development of crash records systems. Successful crash records systems are most often managed within the context of a strategic plan. Agreement from all traffic records system custodial agencies is critical, as is a commitment to sharing data and resources among the collectors and managers of the data. The entire highway and traffic safety community benefits from improvements in data quality and availability.