NHTSA can't get on the road again

Shutterstock image (by fotomak): abstract, urban road.

(Image: Fotomak / Shutterstock)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is looking to change the way it collects data on U.S. car crashes, but constraints on travel spending could sideswipe the effort.

NHTSA's National Automotive Sampling System Crashworthiness Data System program collects data using a sample of police-reported motor-vehicle crashes. Between 1988 and 2013, NHTSA said NASS-CDS has reviewed data collected from almost 5,000 car crashes per year gathered from representative geographic areas, gleaned from local police reports.

NASS-CDS, one of four NHTSA programs that collect U.S. crash data, has had declining or flat budgets since 2010, but has seen costs for the system including labor, IT, leases and travel expenses for researchers increase at the same time, according to a March 6 GAO report. As a result, NHTSA said it reviewed data from only 3,400 car crashes in 2013.

NHTSA is moving to replace NASS-CDS with the Crash Investigation Sampling System, a nationally representative sample of police-reported motor-vehicle traffic crashes that would use some NASS-CDS data elements and similar statistical methodology to sample data from around the country.

NHTSA said it expects the new sample generated under CISS would have greater statistical precision for key crash-type and injury-severity estimates than that of NASS-CDS using a similarly sized sample.

One way NHTSA said CISS would be able to generate more precise estimates was by selecting new geographic data collection sites, known as "primary sampling units" or PSUs, which better represent the current population and distribution of crashes. NHTSA said it also expects CISS to sample more crashes involving serious injuries and newer vehicles than NASS-CDS allows.

The problem for NHTSA is that data collection for the system is localized, requiring travel to the regional PSUs, such as Washtenaw and Genessee counties in Michigan, and Gila, Graham and Greenlee counties in Arizona, among other locations. A government-wide cap on travel spending, which mandates that agencies spend -- through 2016 -- at least 30 percent less on travel than in fiscal 2010, has put the agency in a bind.

According to NHTSA, the travel expense restrictions could delay its plans because implementing the new PSUs require NHTSA staff to travel to train crash technicians as well as to gain the cooperation of local police in gathering data.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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