Crash analytics: How data can help eliminate highway deaths

The leading cause of death for Americans between 5 and 34 isn’t what most would expect. It’s not disease or acute illness.  It is traffic crashes. 

The good news is that the number of highway deaths has steadily decreased the last few years, but crashes still cause more than 30,000 fatalities and send 2 million people to the emergency room each year. 

Not only are the deaths and injuries resulting from these crashes devastating to those involved, the societal and economic costs can be expensive. AAA estimates that crashes cost society $299.5 billion annually and believes that an investment in data collection and analytics is imperative to ensure that resources are spent in a way that yields the greatest possible results. A study conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute shows that, in Michigan alone, the total societal costs associated with motor vehicle crashes reached $9.1 billion in 2009 — outpacing societal costs for all types of crime combined.

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In an effort to combat these high costs, deaths and injuries, state departments of transportation work closely with law enforcement agencies, state traffic safety offices and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to plan and implement policies that can help reduce the number of motor vehicle crashes. One approach is through the Four Es of traffic safety: Enforcement, Engineering, Education and Emergency Medical Services.

Over the past few years, the Four Es approach has contributed to a steady decline in both fatality and injury rates, but the groups involved in highway safety are not resting on their laurels.

Their ultimate goal is ambitious but, they believe, achievable: Toward Zero Deaths. TZD is a data-driven highway safety strategy that focuses on changing the driving culture, with the ultimate goal of no deaths on the nation’s highways. Statistically, that means getting the fatality rate per vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to zero.  Today, the rate is 1.14 fatalities per 1 million VMT. The TZD initiative relies on data from crashes and police stops, in concert with the four Es, to determine priority areas and make changes to policies and programs.

The Four Es play an important part in road safety. Each component is essential and, when taken together as a unified approach, has had great success helping to achieve the lowest crash rate in decades. By addressing the four components in a holistic way, NHTSA, state DOTs, law enforcement and state traffic safety offices hope that they can prevent crashes from happening in the first place. Those groups are exploring how technology can improve and transform the way traffic safety advocates, traffic safety engineers and other key stakeholders use the Four Es.

Data from the Four Eís can include:

  • Vehicle speed.
  • Traffic volume at the time of the crash.
  • Law enforcement crash investigation information.
  • Emergency medical response information.
  • Road sensor and design data.
  • Effectiveness of public education campaigns.

This data can be analyzed holistically to help decision-makers create strategies for comprehensive traffic safety improvement plans. Unfortunately, the data often resides indifferent agencies, in various databases, formats, and types of hardware. Integrating the data and creating a holistic view of traffic safety would allow for a coordinated approach to preventing crashes.

Furthermore, analytics gives road designers, law enforcement officers, emergency medical responders and those designing public education campaigns the ability to identify trends and develop highways safety plans and interventions that will have the best return on investment in terms of reducing the crash rate.


In 2009, there were 5.5 million police-reported traffic crashes. Law enforcement officers work diligently to prevent crashes by enforcing traffic safety laws pertaining to, among other things, seat belt use, child passenger protection, speeding, driving while impaired and distracted driving. Studies have shown that increased enforcement and educational campaigns can yield big results in terms of changing driver behavior.  One example, “Click it Or Ticket,” has helped achieve a nationwide seatbelt use of 85 percent, saving an estimated 72,000 lives between 2005 and 2009 alone.

Law enforcement officers are usually the first to arrive at a crash scene of a crash, and are responsible for capturing important data, including:

  • Weather and pavement conditions at time of crash.
  • When the crash happened.
  • Violations committed.
  • Fatality and injury information.
  • Complete information about all vehicles involved in the crash.
  • Driver information, including driver’s license information, license status and conviction history
  • Other crash scene information, including whether it happened at an intersection and what the traffic volume was like at the time of the crash.
  • Information about any commercial vehicles involved, the driver and their load.

The data typically is housed in the state crash database and used to report state-specific crash information to the federal government, help make resource allocation decisions and prioritize traffic safety programs. By applying analytics to that data, state DOTs, public safety agencies and traffic safety offices can make proactive resource and funding decisions about education and enforcement campaigns that will yield the greatest return on investment.

Additionally, the data can help traffic safety agencies make decisions on how to best use each of the four Es. For example, if an analysis of the data shows an increase in alcohol-related crashes at a particular intersection, police can optimize resources by stepping up DUI enforcement in that area. Another challenge facing law enforcement is identifying repeat offenders and unlicensed drivers. Applying analytics to traffic citations, driver history and motor vehicle title and registration data would provide law enforcement officers with the ability to identify high-risk drivers and target their enforcement efforts.


Safety, reliability and accessibility are all key components in road design. Traffic engineers use lighting, improved signage, adjusted curves, better left-hand turn lanes and traffic calming techniques like roundabouts and speed bumps.  They tap into crash data to identify high-risk areas like intersections or steep grades and make decisions on how to implement engineering changes to reduce the crash rate.

Vehicle safety engineers are also hard at work making crash avoidance improvements inside the car. New technology alerts drivers to potential unsafe conditions ahead. For instance, if the car is approaching a vehicle or stationary obstacle at a speed which will make it difficult to stop in time, it will alert the driver. If the driver fails to take corrective action by either applying the brakes or making a steering change, the car will take over and make the necessary adjustments to speed, direction or both.  This technology has great promise, since 85 percent of all crashes involve road-departures, rear-end collisions and/or intersections.

For road engineers, looking at crash data through an analytics lens could identify an intersection with a high rate of left-hand turn crashes. Based on this analysis, engineers would be able to make adjustments such as shifting the left turn lane to shorten the turn distance. 

Inside the car, crash data analytics might show an increase in road departure crashes, for example. Based on that analysis, vehicle safety engineers can make adjustments to instruments in the car as well as alerts that can help control driver errors and keep the vehicle safely on the road.

Emergency response

A quick emergency response can make all the difference in saving the lives of crash victims.  Many vehicles can now communicate directly with emergency responders immediately after a crash. The vehicle gives responders important information about the crash to help EMS crews tailor their response. For example, responders will know how fast the car was going, if the driver and passengers were wearing seat belts, if the air bags deployed and if the vehicle rolled over. This information can help emergency technicians prepare on the way to the crash to intervene with life-saving help as soon as possible.

Another area gaining attention is the need for an enhanced 911 system that can pinpoint the exact location of emergency calls coming from cell phones. Next-generation 911 systems will not only be able to do that, but also handle non-voice communication such as video and other data streams.

Ultimately, the goal is to connect the vehicle with 911, law enforcement officers, emergency responders, hospitals and trauma centers. Even if a driver physically can’t make a phone call, an automatic crash notification (ACN) system such as On-Star can put the driver in touch with someone immediately. If the driver can’t communicate, the ACN operator is able to retrieve data from the car and communicate essential crash information to police, emergency responders and trauma centers. Advanced ACN are in development which could give medical history of the driver and passengers to emergency responders, as well.

Additionally, the crash information provided to EMS can be useful to law enforcement when conducting the crash investigation. Electronically collected information can reduce the amount of time law enforcement agencies take to enter crash data into the database.  The in-vehicle CAN contains data including speed, change in speed, direction, airbag deployment, seat-belt use and brake use. All of this information can be used in the overall crash investigation.  And integrating data from the crash scene with state traffic management centers can help map a route for EMS so they can get to the scene as fast as possible.

Data collected at the scene of crashes also can help EMS learn from their responses. EMS response data includes things like response times, what kind of medical assistance was administered at the scene and whether or not the crash victims were transported to the hospital or trauma center. Applying analytics to that, and other crash scene, data enables responders to adjust procedures and put policies in place to improve efficiencies and save lives.


Nationwide traffic safety education efforts start with NHTSA and trickle down to the states. Data from crash databases help form these public education campaigns. For example, based on data, NHTSA established “Click It or Ticket” to increase seat-belt use and “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” to discourage drunk driving. NHTSA and other traffic safety groups allocate valuable education resources on issues that will yield the greatest result in terms of reduced crashes, fatalities and injuries. 

Analytics can help government agencies like NHTSA, state DOTs and law enforcement make decisions about which public education campaigns will yield the greatest impact.  For example, data collected immediately following a campaign like “Click It or Ticket” can help decision-makers create future campaign plans to ensure the best use of resources and optimize return on investment.

SAFETEA-LU, last federal act authorizing transportation programs, required states to implement a highway safety improvement program (HSIP).  Reduction in the number of crashes was the measure for judging effectiveness of a state’s program. It is difficult to determine the effectiveness of a HSIP without quality traffic safety and crash data. Sophisticated analysis of crash data can help identify areas where improvements must be made.  Equipped with the right information, decision makers can take a forward-looking view and create traffic safety programs that make the best use of the Four Es.

Traffic safety concerns may be addressed by several possible countermeasures based on the Four Es. For example, road engineering can be used to remove a hazard like a sharp turn or narrow shoulder. If drunk driving crashes are on the rise, agencies can make adjustments to the way they are enforcing current laws. Another option might be to launch public education campaigns about a growing safety problem like distracted driving. Or, based on data, increase training for emergency responders on specific types of crashes.

This continuous collection, consolidation and analysis of crash and response data can provide critical information to state DOTs, law enforcement agencies, state highway safety offices, emergency responders, and hospitals and trauma centers. Data analytics enables government agencies to make critical decisions about possible changes to policies and procedures that will optimize each of the important Four Es of traffic safety.



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