If the primary reason to collect crash data is to save lives on the road, evaluating that data more than two years later is counterproductive. But because of outdated technology, those charged with safeguarding Texas roadways have been forced to operate that way for years.
Texas law enforcement, transportation officials and highway engineers will unwrap a big gift from the state Legislature this Christmas that could well solve the problem and save lives -- a built-from-the-ground-up Crash Records Information System (CRIS) to capture, manage and deliver timely and accurate crash data so law enforcement can target areas to patrol, transportation officials can determine the state's most dangerous roadways and engineers can fix them.
Two Years in the Basement
Two years worth of written crash data currently sits in a basement at the Texas Department of Public Safety. The backlog built up because department staff must sift through the paper documents by hand.
"In many cases, the data didn't exist electronically at all. If it did, it was in disparate databases, not one common location where it could be accessed and analyzed," said Amy Thomas-Gerling, an associate partner at IBM Business Consulting Services. "Timely and accurate information is needed to address a lot of the issues Texas and other states are looking at, such as where to put their money for highway improvement projects."
The new system, scheduled to go live in December, will feature electronic data collection, GIS mapping of accidents and a new Web portal to make the information available to officials and citizens immediately. The system will also use a "microstrategy tool" to make sense of all the data, and help officials and engineers develop strategies to make roadways safer.
CRIS should be a vast improvement from the way the data is currently handled. Now, an officer at an accident scene creates a handwritten report that includes time of day, type of vehicle and number of occupants, among other details, and mails it to the Department of Public Safety headquarters -- along with the other 850,000 reports the department receives annually.
One of 96 employees in charge of handling incoming reports processes the report manually and sends it to another group of employees who key the data into the system. The current system is a flat file system, which lacks the hierarchical organization used by most operating systems today, so for instance, there is no "folder" for 2003 crash data. All the crash data that has built up for decades is stored in one repository without categorization.
"You walk in and it's like something from the 1960s," said Catherine Cioffi, CRIS project manager for the Texas Department of Public Safety. "It's really a result of aging technology, the increase in population in Texas, the changes in the roads over the years and the changes in technology that finally got us to the point where we had to upgrade."
Other states have similar problems with crash data and have implemented some of the functions that will be included in this system.
"The crash data is used for a variety of things," Cioffi said. "In the Department of Public Safety, it's used for defining target areas for enhanced law enforcement and the Department of Transportation uses the crash data for prioritization and identification of road projects."
CRIS will be unique in that it will be a complete, enterprisewide system built largely with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products, according to IBM's Thomas-Gerling.
"We looked at everything from when you received a crash report from the officer, to when it was needed for federal reports to determine areas that needed specific attention," she said. "We looked at the entire process from the onset and the best way to configure COTS products to address those needs.
"Many states have the GIS mapping component, or they may have the data warehouse or the ability to capture crash records electronically," she added. "But if you looked across all states, very few will have a solution from beginning to end, which is what we're providing."
The Texas Legislature appropriated the money for the IBM contract, which is worth nearly $10 million.
That beginning-to-end solution will provide a smooth transition from one process to another, not to mention overhauling some badly outdated individual processes.
Mapping is an example. Engineers currently have access to paper maps only, and the most up-to-date maps come from 1992. The new system will give engineers online maps showing where all crashes have occurred.
"They'll be looking at a screen and seeing all this visually, and be able to have the most recent road information and the tools at hand to do something in seconds that currently takes a manual process that can be very lengthy," Thomas-Gerling said.
All crash data dating back 10 years will be converted for use in the new system -- not to mention the last two-plus years' worth of reports still in paper form down in the basement.
"The system is a major overhaul, but the COTS products allow flexibility as well," Cioffi said. "We want to eliminate all this paper, but we want to be flexible enough so smaller cities that have a couple accidents a month can submit paper if they want and it will be scanned into the system. What we wanted to do with CRIS was to enable the large cities to submit the data to us electronically -- which they can't do today -- or to go onto the Web and enter that data electronically."
The result should provide officials with timely, accurate information that could save lives.
"You're looking at two-year-old data [now]," Cioffi said. "It's difficult to be proactive. If you need to straighten out a curve, you don't know for two years that you need to straighten that curve."
The primary objective of the system is to improve safety on Texas roadways, but it may give the state a leg up on more federal funding. States receive funds based on the crash data they submit, and it won't hurt to have more accurate, up-to-date data, Cioffi said.
"This is something I'm very cautious about because it's one of those unknowns and is unknowable. We can't really put a number on it if there have been losses in construction money, but with the new data, there is the potential for increase."