As Cyclist and Pedestrian Fatalities Rise, Watchdog Flags Shortcomings With Traffic Safety Data

A Los Angeles fire department firefighter responding to a car crash in the city during 2016.

A Los Angeles fire department firefighter responding to a car crash in the city during 2016. AP Photo/Richard Vogel

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A federal oversight agency is offering recommendations for improving the consistency and availability of fatality and injury statistics reported by states.

The federal government and states direct billions of dollars each year toward programs that are intended to make the nation’s roads safer and to cut down on the thousands of serious and fatal crashes that occur annually on U.S. highways.

But they have some work to do when it comes to assembling and reporting the data that helps to guide how this money is spent and that provides insight into the results that the spending is achieving, a government watchdog suggests in a new report.

The findings come as the U.S. Department of Transportation released statistics last week showing that 36,560 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes on the nation’s roadways in 2018—a 2.4% decrease from the 37,473 people killed during 2017. 

Pedestrian fatalities, however, were up between the two years by 208 to 6,283. Cyclist deaths also increased, by 51, to 857.

The number of people killed in crashes while on foot was the highest it’s been since 1990, when the figure was 6,482 fatalities. The same was true for cyclist deaths, which stood at 859 in 1990.

Advocacy groups and others have previously raised concerns about the rising number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths.

The Government Accountability Office says that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provided over $600 million to states during fiscal 2018 under what’s known as the Highway Safety Grants Program. The Federal Highway Administration doled out about $2.6 billion to state transportation departments during that time period through the Highway Safety Improvement Program.

These two agencies, which are both part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, have made “great strides” over the past decade moving to a “performance-based approach for traffic safety funding,” according to GAO. But the watchdog agency adds that the results “states have achieved under these frameworks are not always clear.”

GAO offers some recommendations for improving the availability and consistency of data under these frameworks, and notes that the federal government is taking steps to address some of the issues it flags.

The agency’s report focuses on targets the federal government requires states to set annually for limiting deaths and serious injuries from traffic crashes. These include metrics like alcohol-impaired deaths and speed-related fatalities. 

Between 2014 and 2017, states did not achieve about two-thirds of their fatality-related targets.

The number of states that met the goals they’d set for limiting all traffic fatalities under NHTSA’s framework was nine in 2017, down from 26 in 2014. U.S. DOT officials noted that traffic fatalities increased nationwide during this time as the number of vehicle miles travelled also climbed.

It’s important to recognize that the federal government encourages states to set data-driven targets that are realistic and achievable, rather than aspirational, and states are free to move the number of fatalities they expect in a given category higher, rather than lower.

So, in other words, a state might achieve its fatality-related targets even if the number of traffic deaths goes up, or fail to meet it even if the figure goes down.

Officials from 10 states that GAO contacted said that whether or not their state meets the goals can depend on factors outside their control, like economic shifts and demographic changes.

One of the watchdog’s critiques of the target-setting program is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has established requirements for states to provide assessments of their progress on meeting prior year goals in certain plans and reports.

But GAO found that many states don’t do this, resulting in a situation where those interested in the progress states are making lack timely access to that information. NHTSA officials indicated that some states were not clear on which years they have to provide data for.

Another issue GAO flagged is that beyond the plans and reports where the prior-year target data is supposed to be presented, NHTSA is not communicating to Congress and the public on a regular basis about whether states are achieving the traffic safety goals they set.

Meanwhile, changes over time in how states have defined “serious injuries” resulting from highway crashes made it impossible for GAO to determine the extent to which states had achieved their targets for limiting these injuries.

In more recent years, U.S. DOT has taken steps to set more consistent standards for how states define and report this injury data. But GAO notes that it will take time for states to fully adopt these standards and to record enough data to analyze.

For states, this transition also involves costs from updating software and paper forms and from training workers to collect the injury statistics according to the new guidelines.

GAO made two main recommendations in their report and DOT officials concurred with both.

One is that NHTSA should provide more direction and clarification to ensure that states comply with requirements to report their progress toward achieving targets for limiting traffic fatalities.

The other is that the agency should come up with a system for informing Congress and others whether states are meeting their benchmarks for limiting fatalities and serious injuries.

A full copy of the GAO report can be found here.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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