To Prevent More Traffic Deaths, Chicago Needs Better Crash Data

On Monday the Chicago Sun-Times noted the large uptick in pedestrian fatalities in 2012 compared to the three years prior. Last year, 48 pedestrians were killed by drivers in Chicago, compared to 35 in 2009, 30 in 2010, and 31 in 2011. Understanding the underlying causes is difficult: Right now, there is troublingly little information from the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois Department of Transportation about why pedestrian deaths rose last year.

1700 S Halsted
##http://www.marthagonzalezmemorial.com##Martha Gonzalez## was killed in a hit-and-run crash while crossing Halsted Street in Pilsen in 2009. The driver was never apprehended. Photo by Adrián Flores.

Potential culprits include cheaper gas, higher driving rates nationwide, and a milder local winter. But these are only guesses. And while it’s easy to track fatal crashes (they’re reported by news media), data on injuries – a better overall gauge of street safety – won’t come out until August 2013. If Mayor Emanuel and Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein want to eliminate traffic deaths by 2022, the methods of collecting and distributing data on traffic crashes and causes of injuries need to be improved.

Publication of the crash data in a more timely manner and with greater detail would improve understanding of underlying causes. The way things stand, information about traffic injuries and deaths is not easily accessible to public officials (including aldermen), street safety advocates, or the public at large. The Illinois Department of Transportation’s Safety Data Mart is open to the public, but it’s slow, has a tedious interface, and omits crash locations (except for dooring incidents, but that feature has been broken for over a month). Simple things like picking a date range to search are far from intuitive. And the Safety Data Mart provides aggregated data about drivers, passengers, and pedestrians, but not bicyclists.

Another problem is that the system for gathering information on traffic crashes has a car-centric structure that puts street safety advocates at a disadvantage when trying to understand causes. Amanda Woodall, a policy expert on crash reporting at the Active Transportation Alliance, explained where there are gaps in the process. “If the idea behind collecting crash data is to understand why they are caused and how to prevent them, we need to understand as much as possible,” she said. “There are two things that prevent us from doing that.”

First, she said, the IDOT crash report form doesn’t allow the responding police officer to assign descriptive collision types (“angle,” “sideswipe”) to pedestrian or bicycle crashes (view an example). Only car-on-car crashes get that level of detail.

Instead, when responding officers tick off the box on a crash report form that a bicyclist or pedestrian was involved, they’re required to describe the scenario leading up to the crash on the back of the form. But relying on the narrative can get in the way of understanding what happened. “Was the bicyclist going the wrong way, or the right way?” said Woodall. “Were they hit from the side because someone pulled out of a driveway? You shouldn’t have to read the narrative to be able to categorize.”

Second, IDOT has thresholds that must be met before they will include a given crash in their dataset. In 2009, IDOT only put crashes resulting in injury or at least $1,500 in property damage in its dataset.

“There are many bicycle crashes that occur where no one is injured and there isn’t $1,500 in property damage,” Woodall said. She argued that all crashes should be reported, regardless of the level of destruction caused. “We don’t report things because they cost money, we report things because they endanger safety.”

Illinois Safety Data Mart map browser
A screenshot of the Illinois Safety Data Mart map tool has a clunky interface that requires a plugin. Bicycle or pedestrian crashes cannot be filtered from crashes not involving bicyclists or pedestrians.
  • Better data would be nice but we have good enough data to take action now.   We know what the big problems are: distracted driving, high speeds and impairment.  In particular, cities that bring speeds down, dramatically reduce ped injury and death.  Even much better data collection is going to miss most distracted driving and driving just a little too fast.  There’s a lot of driving impairment which is also missed by crash investigation, particularly drowsiness and drugs other than alcohol.  It is also much more helpful to look at all injury crashes which number in the thousands in Chicago and tell more about whether real progress is being made. 

  • Erik Griswold

    Agreed!  Anytime a motor vehicle comes in to contact with either a bicycle or especially a human body, it needs to be tallied!

    Is there any chance that some of the newer “smart” traffic control cameras could be used to identify these crashes?

  • I agree with you. I think that the existing good data would be much more helpful in pressuring our alderman to build what CDOT wants to build if the public knew more. I feel that I’m the only one talking about crash data, though. I have access to it through a custom-built application and database using the raw data from IDOT. I have been unable to publish this custom-built application because it requires resources I’m still training myself to have and it’s hard to find the help I need (but I’m working on it and I’ve made some leads). 

    The application would be open to the public (no login required) and be easy to use (way beyond IDOT’s Safety Data Mart). 

  • I don’t know what a smart traffic control camera is. What crashes are you asking if it could identify?

  • Cars already have data recorders.  We just need to change the software and laws so they can be used for crash investigation.

  • You do a good job Steve.  One easy short term improvement would be to focus on the serious injury plus fatal numbers.  At least you’ve got big enough numbers to see some trends.  The fatal numbers are too small to do any meaningful analysis. It may have gotten safer for pedestrians last year.

  • Martin

    I could not get anything useful from data mart so i have a request on with HSIS data for what i need

  • What is HSIS data? (btw, you can @reply me – type @stevevance:disqus in a comment on a different hierarchy – this only allows two levels of comments). 

  • I’m skeptical of the injury gradation in the IDOT data. They have 4 levels of injury:
    C. possible injury
    B. non-incapacitating injury
    A. incapacitating injury (this is what’s labeled on my crash report)
    F. Fatal. 

    Does the police officer write this down? Do they consult with responding medical personnel? What training do they have and is the way police officers respond to this ranking consistent across the force?

  • Anonymous

    @stevenvance:disqus, HSIS is from FHWA, and covers five states including Illinios: http://www.hsisinfo.org/

  • Erik Griswold

    There are cameras now that identify objects in front of them and can follow their movements (the cameras are fixed) to look for patterns.  Actually, this is software looking at the image provided by the cameras.  Increasingly this technology is used in place of in-road detection sensors for the triggering of traffic signals.

    It is also used for security to identify things that haven’t moved in a while like a left-behind backpack.

    These can ID vehicles, bicycles (usually) and pedestrians, and therefore could, with the right programming be used to tally conflicts/crashes between motor vehicles and active transport users.

  • There was just a paper at TRB which analyzed cycling safety problems using footage from traffic cameras and computer vision analysis. 

    The Metropolitan Police Department here says that its cameras can issue tickets for things like drivers not yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks, so evidently these conflicts are pre-programmed into at least some cameras.

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