Authorities seek collaboration, more in-depth data collection
When transportation authorities want to improve traffic safety, they study crash data. But crash data does not always tell the full story of why accidents happen.
These authorities believe that they could discover more useful trends through better collaboration and data collection.
Several local and state agencies are participating in the City of Austin’s first Regional Transportation Safety Summit on Oct. 5.
“In this region, one of the biggest challenges is there isn’t a partnership that can combine agencies’ crash data in a common format that lends itself to objective analysis,” said Gary Schatz, Austin Transportation Department assistant director.
The summit is the first step in an ongoing process to improve safety for all forms of transportation, said Maureen McCoy, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization director.
Southwest Austin crash data
Transportation authorities study all aspects of crashes to devise ways to improve safety. They examine the location and frequency of crashes, the severity of injuries and how human error factored into each incident.
That is not enough to see useful trends in the data; authorities should combine those statistics with per capita information, narratives and historic data, McCoy said.
“You have to look further into what were the causes of these injuries and fatalities, whether it was distracted driving or someone was texting, and that’s what these numbers don’t show,” McCoy said.
Community Impact Newspaper filed an open records request with the Austin Police Department seeking the past two years of available crash data for Southwest Austin—a region Community Impact defined as south of Hwy. 71, west of I-35, north of FM 1626 and east of FM 1826.
According to the records, between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012, there were:
- 2,197 auto accidents in Southwest Austin;
- 13 deaths, 11 serious injuries and 1,134 minor injuries;
- 71 accidents involving pedestrians;
- 387 accidents along I-35 and its service roads;
- 257 accidents along Ben White Boulevard; and
- 237 accidents along West Slaughter Lane.
Crash data analysis
Without better collaboration, transportation authorities can only analyze lists of numbers without narrative or comb through individual crash reports to find anecdotal trends, McCoy said.
Austin Police Lt. Troy Officer said the total volume of cars, roadway safety features and driver error are all factors in crashes.
Schatz noted that I-35, an interstate highway, and Slaughter Lane, a major east-west corridor, are both heavily traveled. More cars add up to increased risk.
“There are sections of Slaughter where you can get up to some pretty good speeds,” Officer said. “Whenever you have high-speed driving where you’re going to have pedestrians … trying to cross the roadway [and] people making turns not only in and out of businesses and strip centers but neighborhoods, it’s just a recipe for crashes.”
Roads without safety features such as road striping can present challenges to drivers, Officer said.
South First Street and Dittmar Road have no sidewalks, and some roads south of Stassney Lane and William Cannon Drive can be winding, he said.
Officer said that Austin is considering red-light cameras at some intersections including the junction of West Slaughter Lane and South Congress Avenue.
He said though some people believe the cameras are made to generate revenue, data shows that crashes drop by an average of 44 percent where cameras are installed.
“They do work. But if you’re having crashes at an intersection that’s an engineering issue as opposed to drivers not stopping, it does no good to put a red-light camera there.”
Most crashes occur because of human error, Schatz said, pointing to distracted driving, speeding and texting as examples.
“The frightening thing is in unseparated traffic areas where there’s no wall between traffic, it’s real easy to just drift off,” Texas Department of Transportation spokesman John Hurt said. “And you can be doing everything right, and if the person who’s coming toward you is texting, suddenly you’re in a head-on collision.”
Hurt said TxDOT works with The University of Texas and Texas A&M University to research and develop ways to improve highway safety.
TxDOT uploads its crash data to a database and continually adds technology such as guard rail extruder terminals, containing guard rails that peel back when struck by a vehicle, which are designed to absorb the impact of a crash and minimize injury.
The crash data form standardized by the state captures the time and type of crash as well as a description of events written by the investigating officer, Schatz said.
“Unfortunately at this time, the various software packages that are out there cannot analyze narrative, so you have to have trained people who can read that report, interpret it and put it into a data format that does lend itself to analysis,” he said.
Before the upcoming safety summit, a survey asked attendees to explain how data are currently collected, determine what additional information would be helpful, identify any barriers that prevent comprehensive analysis of data and explain infrastructure plans.
“We’re really taking safety and looking at it as a public health issue,” CAMPO planner Alex Kone said. “These crashes are preventable. These are lives at stake.”