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Public Roads - May/June 2017

May/June 2017
Issue No:
Vol. 80 No. 6
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Hot Topic

Solving the Safety Puzzle

by Michael S. Griffith

Performance management is evident in all aspects of society, from grade school report cards to workplace reviews. Performance can be measured in subjective and objective ways—and in combination. For example, judges score a gymnast’s performance according to both execution (subjective) and difficulty (objective). When it comes to highway safety, the performance measures that matter most are objective: the number of lives lost and serious injuries sustained.

For more than 4 decades, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System has collected data on highway fatalities. “When it comes to data on serious injuries resulting from crashes, no national data system currently exists,” says Terry Shelton, the acting executive director of NHTSA. “States collect this information, but not all States define injuries in the same way.”

But that is all starting to change. The Federal Highway Administration recently adopted new requirements that place greater focus on the numbers behind highway safety performance. Safety performance management is part of FHWA’s overall Transportation Performance Management program—a strategic approach that uses system information to make investment and policy decisions to achieve national performance goals. The recent safety performance management final rule established requirements for safety performance measures that support the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) and help assess serious injuries, as well as fatalities, on all public roads. (For more on the recent rules regarding the HSIP and safety performance management, see “What Drives Highway Safety Improvements?” in the November/December 2016 issue of Public Roads.)

"When it comes to data on serious injuries resulting from crashes, no national data system currently exists."
—Terry Shelton, NHTSA Acting Executive Director

Filling the Data Gap

To improve the quality and consistency of data, the U.S. Department of Transportation established a national definition for serious injuries in 2016. FHWA’s National Performance Management Measures regulation (23 CFR Part 490, Subpart B) and NHTSA’s Uniform Procedures for State Highway Safety Grant Programs Interim Final Rule (23 CFR Part 1300) establish a single, national definition for serious injuries, aligned with the definition provided by the fourth edition of the Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria (MMUCC).

In 2015, FHWA determined that only 3 out of the 57 jurisdictions—50 States, the District of Columbia, the Indian Nations, and 5 U.S. territories—surveyed were using the definition in the MMUCC fourth edition. The executive committee of USDOT’s Traffic Records Coordinating Committee created a subcommittee made up of representatives from FHWA, NHTSA, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to assist in implementing the new reporting requirements.

Accurate and consistently reported data on serious injuries is a critical missing piece of the puzzle that transportation professionals need to improve the safety performance of the Nation’s roadways.

States need to report serious injuries using this definition by April 15, 2019, but “the Department encourages States to begin using it on or before January 1, 2019, to produce a consistent and compliant dataset for the entire year,” says Elizabeth Alicandri, associate administrator for safety at FHWA.

USDOT is developing resources to help States obtain and report standard and consistent data on serious injuries. These resources include guidance and technical assistance for stakeholders (primarily State highway safety offices, departments of transportation, and law enforcement agencies), fact sheets, and frequently asked questions to assist States with their compliance efforts.

The Department also is planning outreach timed with the release of the fifth edition of the MMUCC in summer 2017 to highlight the importance of adopting the uniform definition and outline the changes required of States to comply. In addition, USDOT is developing training resources, including a video on classifying suspected serious injuries, to ensure that law enforcement officers have the tools they need to apply the updated definition effectively.

What’s Next?

The uniform definition for reporting serious injuries is an important step toward determining the right countermeasures to support the goal of improving safety on the Nation’s roadways. In a perfect world, being able to link crash data to hospital data, where medical professionals can share their input on injury severity, would help ensure even more accurate and consistent reporting on injuries. Until then, USDOT stands ready to assist States in compiling the data on serious injuries necessary to help solve the safety puzzle.

Michael S. Griffith is director of FHWA’s Office of Safety Technologies and has worked for USDOT for 27 years.