CDC, states team up on violent-death database

Federal and state health officials are studying a national vehicular accident reporting system to develop ways to reduce the rate of violent deaths.

Each year, about 51,000 people in the United States die from homicide, suicide or other violent means, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For more than 30 years, the Transportation Department's Fatality Analysis Reporting System has been compiling data about each fatal crash reported. Of the more than 100 coded data elements that characterize a vehicle crash, 88 can be queried online.

Policy-makers have used Transportation's FARS data to mandate seat belts, air bags, safer car designs and speed limits. As a result, the rate of traffic deaths per million miles traveled in the United States has dropped by about half since FARS' inception.

CDC and health departments in Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina and Virginia are about to follow suit by pooling their information on violent deaths.

If all goes as planned, the 50 states and the District of Columbia will participate in the National Violent Death Reporting System, said Dr. Len Paulozzi, an epidemiologist with the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Paulozzi defined a violent death as one in which 'there is an intent to threaten, frighten or hurt someone, including oneself.' That includes homicide, suicide or death caused by a law enforcement officer'even a small category of unintentional firearm deaths. Although the causes are investigated, the information usually ends up in desk drawers or standalone computers.

CDC's initiative follows on the heels of a similar pilot directed by the Harvard School of Public Health. Begun in 1999, the Harvard program culled data from 13 law enforcement and public health sites in nine states.

Lenora Olson, associate director of the Intermountain Injury Control Research Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, worked on Harvard's National Violent Injury Statistics System. Olson said she and her team 'de-identified' their data'meaning they stripped out information such as names and addresses'before sending it to Harvard.

'We've always had death certificates and some information from the police,' Paulozzi said, 'but there is a lot of information about violent death in separate sources. We want it in a more timely way than something like death certificates would allow.'

NVDRS will collect information about victims, suspected perpetrators, geographic locations, circumstances and detailed weapon descriptions. Eventually the data would go into a Microsoft SQL Server database behind the firewall of each state's health department.

Before data went on to CDC, personal identifiers such as names and addresses would be stripped out by a contractor, InDyne Inc. of McLean, Va. States would send their data to InDyne secured by 128-bit Secure Sockets Layer browser encryption. Indyne would then transmit the files to CDC's national database.

CDC is funding the program with $1.5 million approved by Congress in December 2001.

For more, go to www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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