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20 CHAPTER FOUR SUCCESSFUL CRASH RECORDS SYSTEMS AND INITIATIVES Although no comprehensive crash records system was iden- of all three groups and identifies solutions to problems at one tified as a model or "best practice," many examples of one or level that may make things better at other levels of the report- more components of a successful crash records system were ing process. Because it is not possible to identify an existing found. It is often the case that the agency that serves as the system that satisfies this multilevel definition, it is important custodian for the crash records system determines which to examine the successes at each level to see how their appli- component of the system is considered most important in cation might be adapted to meet the needs of all stakeholders. terms of new funding and development initiatives. For exam- ple, if the crash records system is under the purview of a state For purposes of discussing successful crash records sys- law enforcement agency, then often the crash data collec- tems, it is necessary to identify successful practices in the tion component is emphasized. If the crash records system is three major components of such a system: under the control of the state DOT, the emphasis is often on the ability to locate crashes well and to link to other data Crash data collection, sources for analysis. If a regulatory agency such as a depart- Crash processing and management, and ment of revenue manages the crash records system, the agency Data linkages for reporting and analysis. often designs a system that allows easy access to a single crash record for sales. To the extent that these agencies work together, especially through a forum such as a traffic records CRASH DATA COLLECTION coordinating committee, the strengths and weaknesses in a crash records system can be balanced to serve the needs of Law enforcement agencies task sworn officers and other des- all of the stakeholders. ignated report writers to respond to crashes in their jurisdic- tions. In addition to arranging for appropriate emergency ser- With a growing understanding of the needs of diverse vices, securing the scene, gathering evidence, and clearing users of crash data, there is more attention than ever paid to the roadway as soon as practical, investigators must create the timeliness, completeness, accuracy, and accessibility of the basic record of the circumstances involved in the crash. these data. This awareness has led to a deeper appreciation Even when officers fully understand the importance of high- for the costs of achieving excellence in a traffic records sys- quality crash data, their ability to perform this task is chal- tem. To meet the needs of multiple users, the system must be lenged by competing priorities, specific gaps in training or flexible and its quality must be monitored. Cost savings in expertise, and often a simple lack of access to the source of one part of the system can have disastrous consequences for required information. A successful example of addressing other parts of the system. Unfortunately, this is where the this problem is the use of civilian crash investigators for all breakdowns in the system can still occur. Local law enforce- crashes that do not require a sworn officer's presence. There ment agencies, pressed for resources, sometimes conclude are cities in Florida and other states that have successfully that they can no longer afford to respond to property-damage- used trained crash investigators for many years. only crashes. Statewide crash custodians, pressed to cut the cost of data entry or to catch up on a backlog of crash reports, A successful system for crash data collection would incor- skip edit checks or even stop performing procedures such as porate the technologies needed by crash investigators to location coding or text-field data entry. Sometimes new soft- ensure accurate data, ease of completion of the form, as well ware is installed without adequate testing and suddenly a crash as seamless transfer of the data to the supervisor, the local records system that was previously known for having high- crash records system (if desired), and the statewide crash quality data is left with no data at all. It can take an agency records system. In this respect, the choice of software and years to recover from such missteps. hardware tools should meet their needs and be a good fit with the existing and planned information technology initiatives It appears that there still exist some major sources of con- at both the local and state agencies. In that respect, "one size flict in supporting crash records systems. The tensions that fits all" may not be possible, as we have seen when large practitioners most often cite are those among the needs of cities within a state may be unwilling to use software devel- data collectors, data managers, and data users. A successful oped or purchased by the state. A recent example of this phe- approach would be one that addresses the needs and concerns nomenon is the city of Chicago, which does not believe that

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21 the Illinois crash data collection tool meets their needs. To MCRS used in Illinois. These systems allow crash data entry facilitate the receipt of suitable electronic crash records from in the field with validation edits, use of maps to pinpoint Chicago, the state of Illinois has initiated a data-for-data part- locations, and electronic transfer of data to other systems. nership as an incentive, providing Chicago with the state data More importantly, these data collection systems either allow they could not have accessed by themselves in exchange for access through the state telecommunications network for ver- crash data that meets the state criteria. Conversely, some states ifying driver and vehicle data or provide the tools to scan such as Iowa are able to support all of the local agencies with information from the vehicle identification number, registra- the same state-provided crash data collection tool. tion papers, vehicle plate, and driver's license. This ability to communicate with other systems while in the field reduces It is important to recognize that crash records systems are data entry by automatically filling data fields and better not static. No matter how effective a data collection tool may ensures linkage to these data files in the future for analysis be today, these systems must be maintained and upgraded to and reporting. take advantage of newer technologies. A system that works well today may suddenly become untenable when a local At this level of sophistication, examples of tools that should department upgrades its dispatch and records management be included are those that: systems. Software written in one language may be costly to change when the main providers of the development tools Read bar codes or magnetic strips from the driver's no longer support that language. At present, this is the case license and the vehicle identification number and/or vehi- for systems written in Visual Basic, because Microsoft has cle plate, announced it will no longer support the language. Just as Collect coordinates of the crash location using GPS or with legacy applications written in COBOL a generation ago, GIS locator routines, the cost of maintaining Visual Basic programs will gradually Automatically populate data fields whenever possi- increase and the ability to update the software with new func- ble, and tionality will diminish over time. At a minimum, systems need Share information among the various reports that the to be updated when the crash report form changes. To meet officer has to complete. reporting requirements, the electronic report may need to be modified to meet the new standard. Changes may be required As mentioned previously, sometimes even the best of crash to the data entry screens, the underlying database, the report data collection tools are not sufficient to convince a large city image (printed or electronically generated graphic), and other to give up its own local systems. For example, Chicago and features of the software. Planning for these updates is the its surrounding counties generate approximately 50% of the responsibility of the state or local agencies that purchased crashes in Illinois. To obtain these crash records in electronic them. The lead times for many governmental agencies are such form, the Illinois DOT is promoting the data-for-data part- that planning more than one year out is crucial to timely nership. They plan to provide web services that include access implementation of any change. A sign of a successful system is one supported by an agency that has built the cost of main- to data that Chicago cannot get on its own, in exchange for tenance into the annual budget and begun funding updates receiving the city's crash data in the appropriate electronic and improvements right from the start. The Indiana and Illi- format. One web service will serve as an Internet-based con- nois crash records systems were developed in part using duit from the local agency (in this case Chicago) to access more current .Net technology. Systems such as those in Ken- statewide driver and vehicle files to verify data. A second tucky and Iowa are already planning upgrades to the newer web service will serve as the GIS for all localities to use to technology as well. pinpoint the crash location, thus ensuring consistency in loca- tion coding. The Illinois DOT is committed to adding other services as identified and sharing these services with locali- What Are Crash Data Collection Tools? ties in exchange for the electronic submission of their crash records in the required format. There are many examples of automated crash data collection tools. The simplest of these tools are designed to allow com- pletion of a form in a word processing application that allows Why Implement Crash Data Collection Tools? for printing out a completed hard copy crash form to send to the state reporting agency. Except for solving the problem of Implementation of the proper crash data collection tools can illegible handwriting, these low-end systems really do little reduce the overall time spent processing crashes. The savings to improve the crash reporting process. The information on may not always be realized in the field (by the officer com- the form is not captured as data and there are few edit checks pleting the forms), because it may take just as long to collect or other built-in tools to assist the officer in completing the the information as it would with a paper form. For example, it form accurately according to departmental standards. may take just as long to gather witness statements and to com- plete other time-consuming tasks. Overall, agencies that use On the high-end of automated crash data collection tools crash data collection tools will realize significant cost savings are systems such as TraCS, used in Iowa and other states, and by reducing paper handling and duplication of data entry tasks,

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22 while improving the data accuracy. When supervisors review communications capabilities, an investigator may also col- crash reports, for example, if the collection tool incorporates lect much of this information by scanning a driver's license, sufficiently robust error trapping and field validation, the registration papers, vehicle identification number, or vehicle reports are more complete and meet the department's stan- license plate. dards for consistency. The supervisor can thus concentrate on the sufficiency of the information and not spend time check- Meanwhile, the linked GPS unit gathers the geographic ing to see that every required field is completed. Once reports coordinates of the crash location. This assists the officer in are accepted, they can be stored directly in the department's determining the exact location of the crash at a later time. A crash records system, if desired, thus avoiding data entry at record can be created of the county, road name, distance to the local agency. In addition, if the state crash records sys- and from the nearest point or intersection, and may correct tem is capable of accepting reports electronically, the local the GPS coordinates to snap to the location referencing sys- agency can send data directly to that system without having tem used by the state DOT. The location information is now the data printed and mailed. This saves time and resources at available to be used on any other types of reports as needed. both the local law enforcement agency and the state crash In the Illinois example, roadway and traffic characteristics custodial agency. are automatically attached to the crash at the time the loca- tion is identified to create a single linked record with both That these quality improvements and time savings also crash and roadway variables. accrue to the state crash records operation means that the best solution for local law enforcement can also be the best solu- The officer then completes the form, making a drawing of tion for central data managers as well. Higher quality data are the scene, recording a narrative description of the crash, and available faster and without the need for intervening data entering witness statements as needed. Many of the fields use entry steps. This also helps users who need better data faster. a pop-up pick list from which the officer selects from the pos- In short, the implementation of high-end crash reporting sible responses. The software reminds the officer to fill in the tools in law enforcement agencies is a way to benefit all crash required fields and automatically activates any required sup- records stakeholders. plemental data fields and forms based on the information the officer has entered so far. As the form is completed, addi- How a Crash Data Collection System Works tional edit checks alert the officer to mistakes or inconsis- tencies that may cause the departmental or state crash records There are many ways to implement a successful crash data system to reject the report. collection system. The following is one example that incor- porates currently available technology and yields the desired The officer can then electronically forward the completed benefits in terms of improved quality, timeliness, and reduced report to the supervisor's computer for review. The report data entry and printing later in the process. Other variations can be transferred through the state telecommunications, or can yield similar successful results. by means of a wireless network, by docking a portable com- puter at the end of the shift. The supervisor checks the report The reporting function begins on a portable computer or, at and adds comments for corrections before sending it back to a minimum, a vehicle-based computer, when an officer, or the officer, or forwards it to the official crash database if the civilian crash investigator, arrives at the crash scene. When report is acceptable. At that point, the crash report may be the officer begins to complete the crash report form, the soft- processed through another set of edits and quality control ware provides guidance through the process by highlighting measures. Additional edits may be needed, particularly in a required fields and providing pick lists, common definitions, case where the data collection is not occurring while directly and built-in help files as needed. A swipe of the driver's license connected into the state system. In some cases, the system is initiates a check against state driver records for the individual a local crash system that then forwards the crash data elec- involved in the crash and returns with name, address, and vehi- tronically to the state system and in some instances, the crash cle information, along with any alerts associated with that report is moved directly into the official state crash records person (e.g., outstanding warrants and license status). The system. officer can accept the name and address and the software will automatically populate the form. Entry of a license plate num- ber for the vehicle initiates another check with state motor Ancillary Benefits to a Crash Data User vehicle records and information about that vehicle comes back to populate fields as needed or alert the officer to prob- Because an automated tool can collect crash data with a robust lems (e.g., this is a stolen vehicle or other alerts). The perti- set of edit checking features, the quality of the data can be nent information is also stored in a contact record so that the improved significantly. This also improves the timeliness of system uses it to automatically complete name, address, vehi- data in the crash records system because there is little or no cle, and license information on any of the many types of delay for data entry and forms management at the crash cus- reports completed. For states without the necessary tele- todial agency.