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Public Roads - May/June 2015

May/June 2015
Issue No:
Vol. 78 No. 6
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

A Pivotal Job for Police

by Jeffrey A. King

Law enforcement officials play a crucial role in collecting performance measurement data for traffic incident management. In many ways, the future of TIM is in their hands.

Not all traffic incidents mean a crash with traffic cones, response vehicles, and damaged cars. Traffic incidents also include routine traffic stops, motorist assists, and other unexpected incidents that occur along roadways. Law enforcement personnel are on the frontlines of collecting data on all types of traffic incidents, from routine stops like this one to more complex crash scenarios.

Imagine a traffic incident. Chances are you’re picturing traffic cones, damaged cars, and response vehicles--the typical scene at a crash. To the average motorist, each traffic incident probably looks pretty much like any other. But in reality, each crash requires a complex, coordinated response from a multidisciplinary team of responders who have varying roles.

Further, the history of traffic incident management (TIM) reveals several different interpretations of strategies and priorities among the many disciplines involved: law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services (EMS), transportation and public works departments, safety/service patrols, towing companies, and others. In recent years, the differing TIM roles among the various disciplines have begun to merge as responders increasingly work as a unified team to clear incidents, making the Nation’s roadways safer while reducing related congestion.

One area of TIM that is essential to continuing to improve the practice is the collection, reporting, and assessment of performance data related to secondary crashes and clearance times.  Traditional practices were typically limited to responder agencies’ analyses of major incidents that resulted in tragic outcomes, but many agencies now realize the benefits associated with collecting performance data on routine traffic incidents. TIM programs at all levels are beginning to recognize the need to use performance measurements to assess the strengths of their responses and to identify opportunities for improvement. Although all disciplines dispatched to the scene may collect some performance data, most often the responsibility lies with law enforcement.

But data collection is complicated by the varying degrees and frequencies of involvement among the various disciplines. Some incidents may only require a response from specific disciplines. For example, a property damage only crash may only involve law enforcement and towing or just law enforcement. In other cases, when multiple disciplines respond, some may only be on scene for a limited time while they complete their specific duties.

In addition, defining secondary crashes, a key factor in TIM performance measurement, continues to be a challenge. That is why the Federal Highway Administration is working to develop clear guidance and current practices to aid agencies, specifically law enforcement, in measuring the performance of TIM efforts at the scene.

Traffic cones are deployed here to close the right lane on this highway while responders work to clear the incident from the roadway. Efforts to increase the collection of data and thus the speed of response and incident clearance could help improve safety for responders.
Collecting data on traffic incident management can provide valuable insights to help responders improve onsite performance and minimize the duration of traffic backups.

Secondary Crashes

The merging of TIM strategies and priorities among the involved disciplines has been in the works for a long time. One of the earliest formal coalitions to address the issues of traffic incident management began following a 1990 report published by the American Trucking Associations Foundation. But in many cases, greater coordination among disciplines occurs only subsequent to high-profile incidents that result in major traffic issues or secondary crashes--those resulting from or caused by a primary incident--including crashes involving injuries or fatalities among emergency responders.

All disciplines have experienced line-of-duty deaths at traffic incidents, making safety, especially the reduction of secondary crashes, a driving force behind improving TIM programs. For more information, see “Living in the Line of Duty” in the July/August 2014 issue of Public Roads.

Although many agency officials can recount from memory the number of responders they have lost in the line of duty, only a few may be able to tell you how many of their employees were lost due to automobile crashes in the line of duty. And even fewer can tell you, without further research, how many of those were involved in secondary crashes.

Why is it important to collect data on secondary crashes? Many videos captured by cameras on vehicle dashboards have shown that the difference between a fatal responder strike and a property damage strike involving the responder’s vehicle is mere inches or fractions of a second. Minor property damage crashes and near misses involving responders happen every day, but without collecting the related performance measures, these incidents do not make it onto the radar of decisionmakers. Through the collection of performance measures on all incidents, agencies are able to see trends and identify strategies that will work for them--without waiting for tragedy to strike.

Collecting performance measures on secondary incidents can provide valuable information. For example, when the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) began collecting data on all secondary crashes, the results played a key role in the evolution of its TIM program. According to department officials, 29 officers lost their lives in the line of duty from 1958 to 2013--17 related to automobile crashes, 11 of which were a result of a secondary crash. Of those 11 fatalities due to secondary crashes, only 5 of the officers were attending to primary incidents that were crashes. The other 6 fatalities from secondary crashes occurred as the officers were attending to other types of primary incidents, such as traffic stops and motorist assists. Collecting performance measures on all traffic incidents, large and small, has prompted the Arizona DPS to shift its focus from a few major crashes occurring a few times per month to all incidents that occur hundreds of times per day.

The Arizona DPS investigates an average of 30,000 vehicle crashes a year within its jurisdiction, which includes approximately 6,000 miles (9,656 kilometers) of State and Federal highways. “On average, 250 to 300 [of the crashes investigated by Arizona DPS on the State highway system annually] are fatal crashes, 4,000 to 5,000 are injury crashes, and [another] 24,000 to 25,000 crashes are property damage only,” says Lieutenant Colonel James McGuffin with the Highway Patrol Division of the Arizona DPS. “In addition to these calls for service, officers initiate 500,000 traffic stops and assist approximately 70,000 motorists each year. Considering the total number of traffic incidents responded to by the Arizona DPS, [the] focus on traffic incident management had to broaden from 30,000 primary incidents to 600,000 primary incidents.”

A study, ITS Impacts on Safety and Traffic Management: An Investigation of Secondary Crash Causes, published in the ITS Journal in 1999 found that the average secondary crash rate was 35 percent of all crashes in the study area. Analyzing the duration of the primary incidents in this same area showed that for every minute a primary incident remained on the roadway, the odds of a secondary collision increased by 2.8 percent. Given these findings, reducing the overall duration of incidents should mean reducing the risk--and therefore the number--of secondary crashes that occur on highways.

“Traffic incident management should not be considered just a good idea,” says McGuffin. “It is a public and officer safety strategy that should be part of every. . . responder agency’s standard operating procedures.”

FHWA and Performance Measurement

FHWA leadership recognizes the crucial role of performance measurement for TIM and the challenges it presents. To provide clear guidance and develop current practices for responder agencies, FHWA initiated the TIM Performance Measurement Focus States Initiative in 2005. The initiative identified 11 States (California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin) as leaders and convened TIM program managers from transportation and law enforcement in those States for a series of workshops that concluded in 2007.

Workshop participants developed three basic measures to assist TIM practitioners in evaluating their performance during incidents: roadway clearance time, incident clearance time, and number of secondary crashes. Roadway clearance time refers to the time between the first recordable awareness of an incident by a responsible agency and the first confirmation that all lanes are once again available for traffic flow. Incident clearance time refers to the time between the first recordable awareness of an incident by a responsible agency and the time at which the last responder has left the scene. Lastly, secondary crashes are the number of additional crashes that occur as a result of the original incident between the time of the detection and clearance of the primary incident. Secondary crashes may occur within the primary incident scene or within the traffic queue, including within traffic traveling in the opposite direction.

However, since FHWA convened the performance measurement initiative, stakeholders have debated the definition of a secondary crash. The original definition identifies all secondary crashes where the original incident was a crash or any other type of primary incident (such as enforcement activities or motorist assists). However, many TIM practitioners have voiced concerns over the challenges related to collecting secondary crash data when the original incident is not a crash, given the difficulties of defining what constitutes a primary incident.

Despite efforts to better define performance measures, the 2013 annual TIM Self Assessment, a formal process for State and local transportation, public safety, and private sector partners to collaboratively assess their TIM programs and identify opportunities for improvement, indicated that, nationally, the collection, reporting, and assessment of performance data was the one area that had lost ground. All other areas--such as use of technology and involvement of traffic operation centers to aid in quick clearance of incidents--had improved over the previous years.

To expand collection of TIM performance data, individual stakeholders and the TIM subcommittee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police have engaged in indepth discussions in recent years. Discussion has focused on identifying hurdles, such as the definition of a secondary crash, and working to overcome them. The current recommendation of these stakeholders and FHWA is to begin collecting data when the primary incident is a crash. After that is established, an agency may then find it easier to begin collecting data for other types of primary incidents as well.

In addition, FHWA officials recommend that agencies not limit themselves to only the three basic performance measures (roadway clearance time, incident clearance time, and secondary crashes). As agencies become more comfortable with collecting data, they can add measures specific to secondary crashes involving responders, and secondary crashes resulting from enforcement actions, motorist assists, or other primary incidents that are easily defined within their disciplines. For example, a law enforcement agency could choose to replace a simple “yes” or “no” selection from the secondary crash field with more specific choices, such as “none,” “motorist,” and a list of responder disciplines (law enforcement, fire, EMS, transportation, towing, and other responders).

“We know most agencies today understand the need and importance of collecting performance data,” says Paul Jodoin, TIM program manager in FHWA’s Office of Operations. “And we hope that by providing these recommendations, they can build their systems to more reliably track data, particularly on secondary crashes, and ultimately create a safer, more efficient TIM program.”

The Role of Law Enforcement

Collecting data on the three basic performance measures may be easier for some TIM disciplines than others. So while a few disciplines involved in TIM collect performance measures to improve their programs, and ultimately, safety and mobility on the transportation system, FHWA looks to law enforcement professionals and their partners to assist with improving data collection.

From FHWA’s perspective, law enforcement is best equipped to document the most complete set of TIM performance data because in most jurisdictions secondary crashes are documented like any other crash using the standard crash report--a report usually completed by law enforcement. Law enforcement officers also attend the largest number and greatest diversity of traffic incident types.

Although law enforcement officers complete crash reports, usually their agencies do not set the minimum required data on those reports. In fact, to be eligible for many of the Federal grant programs, States are required to form traffic records coordinating committees to assist in determining what information to collect on crash reports. These committees typically are housed under the agency within the State that gathers and stores crash data. Committee membership usually represents many of the TIM disciplines. In many cases, the traffic records coordinating committee plays a critical role in adding TIM performance measures to the statewide crash database. However, many agencies have supplemental forms for gathering specific crash data for agency use only. Often agencies can use these supplemental forms to gather TIM performance data while they seek approval to add TIM performance measures to crash report forms.

Responder training like this lesson from the TIM training program underscores the important role that traffic incident management can play in reducing collisions involving “D” drivers.

By participating in the collection of TIM performance measures, law enforcement agencies might find the measures useful in developing strategies to improve overall highway safety. Nearly every traffic safety program administered by law enforcement has two primary principles at its core: reduce crashes and improve the transportation system and its mobility. These goals are accomplished through programs and strategies related to education and enforcement of traffic laws, but also include collaboration with engineering departments and emergency medical services.

Performance Measurement As a Strategy

Responders are overrepresented in secondary collisions because they spend a lot of time in harm’s way at traffic incidents. Based on multiple studies, FHWA estimates that approximately 20 percent of all crashes are secondary in nature and 18 percent of all fatal crashes are secondary crashes. That means if an agency investigates 30,000 crashes a year and its secondary crash rate is 20 percent, it experiences 6,000 secondary crashes. Likewise, if an agency experiences 300 fatal crashes a year, 54 of those would be related to secondary crashes.

Arizona DPS began collecting the basic TIM performance measures in late 2010. In addition, via a division order in 2012, the State’s Highway Patrol Division added active TIM as one of its six priorities. By making TIM a priority, Arizona DPS committed to concentrating efforts on addressing it in the department’s day-to-day operations and ensuring that its personnel are appropriately trained and equipped.

What has been the result? The numbers speak for themselves. In 2014, the agency investigated 29,725 total crashes, of which 1,895 were secondary (a secondary crash rate of 6.4 percent). Compared to the national average 20-percent crash rate, that is 4,050 fewer secondary crashes. Using the national average as a baseline, the data show that Arizona DPS spent an average of 84 minutes per crash investigation, resulting in a calculated savings of nearly 5,600 man-hours.

“Consider what your agency could do with an additional [5,600] hours of proactive enforcement time,” says Arizona DPS’s McGuffin. “And with the current costs of overtime, think about how much additional funding you would need to provide that much proactive enforcement dedicated to key problem areas. The potential is staggering.”

Although TIM does not remove impaired or distracted drivers from the road, its strategies can reduce secondary crashes involving those and other driver errors. Most secondary crashes involve what is referred to in TIM training as the “D” driver, which represents “drunk, drugged, drowsy, distracted, or just plain dumb.” Enforcement programs targeting these problem areas can be time consuming and costly. So, though TIM is not a replacement for such enforcement programs, it can reduce collisions involving these factors, which frees up reactive hours spent on crash investigations for proactive enforcement of those programs.

“Like getting a flu shot or putting on your ballistic vest, TIM is an added layer of protection to assist in your overall traffic safety program,” says Captain Michael Prochko with Arizona DPS. “Over time, details can be expensive and manpower-intensive. Unlike enforcement programs, TIM programs involve changing the culture and procedures rather than adding workload.”

Tracking Data

Although data can be collected in hardcopy format, more and more law enforcement agencies are using mobile reporting software, such as the Traffic and Criminal Software (TraCS) system used by Arizona DPS, invehicle and hand-held computer systems, and video capture hardware. Agencies that use these systems have found them to improve not only data collection but also data quality. Some technology even enables realtime situation updates. For example, some systems such as the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN), which is located in the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Transportation Technology and was part of a demonstration under the Response, Emergency Staging and Communications, Uniform Management, and Evacuation (R.E.S.C.U.M.E.) project in November 2014, can provide live video feeds. Live video feeds from the scene provide firsthand images to traffic operations centers and others to use in decisionmaking related to additional response and traffic operations.

As shown in this screen capture from the CapWIN software, live video feeds can help other responders and traffic operations centers make more informed decisions, such as about which resources to send to the incident scene.

The use of technology at incident scenes can have a direct impact on incident clearance time. For example, technology that scans barcodes on driver’s licenses and registration documents, such as that included in TraCS, can reduce data entry time by automatically entering duplicate data on multiple forms (crash reports, towing authorization forms, and citations). When using paper documents, much of the same data has to be repeated on multiple forms, but with the electronic software, these data fields can auto-populate from one form to the next, eliminating duplicate entries by the officer in the field. The growing use of such technology among law enforcement agencies creates an ideal improvement for collecting the basic TIM performance measures.

FHWA is seeking agreement with law enforcement to support and adopt the collection of key scene-specific data on crash reports. The agency will continue to engage other TIM responders in collecting basic and additional measures for all incidents, not just crashes, using other methods available to those responder groups. As more data become available, trends will become clear, enabling FHWA and its TIM partners to develop and apply corrective actions and continue to improve TIM programs and the safety of responders.

Successful TIM practices require collaboration and coordination among a diverse group of responders in a highly stressful and fluid environment. These responders must be able to communicate and work closely together under extreme time pressures toward a common set of goals, while reporting to different agencies with different priorities. Deploying a successful TIM program--and gathering performance measures on that program--hold the promise of enhancing on-scene activities and ultimately increasing safety for responders and motorists alike.

Jeffrey A. King is the public safety liaison for the FHWA Traffic Incident and Event Management Team within the Office of Highway Operations and alternate emergency coordinator for FHWA in Washington, DC. He is a retired captain from the Arizona DPS, where he served for 28 years. King has a B.S. in life science from Arizona State University (ASU), and he is also a graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Police Staff and Command, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy, the Operations Academy™, and the Certified Public Manager® Program at ASU. In 2013, he received the J. Stannard Baker Award for Highway Safety for outstanding lifetime contributions to highway safety.

For more information, see or contact Jeffrey King at 202–366–5280 or