Crash data from the Illinois Department of Transportation is important for the work we do here at Streetsblog Chicago. For example, we recently looked up statistics from IDOT’s Illinois Safety Data Mart crash database in order to investigate the Chicago Department of Transportation’s claim that they intend to close a street in Jefferson Park due to safety concerns. Although the database website has been offline for a while, Streetsblog’s Steven Vance requests the data from the state each year and uses it to update his website the Chicago Crash Browser.
The crash data is also crucial for transportation professionals in the private sector, since it’s a core component in analyzing any transportation network. For example, it’s next-to-impossible to create a quality pedestrian or bike plan without being able to identify crash hotspots. It’s also important for citizens to be able to find out circumstances around crashes in their communities, or find out how safe their streets are.
However, a source tells us that the state is no longer fulfilling crash data requests from nongovernmental entities – including planning firms and advocacy organizations – or the general public, and the state doesn’t plan to bring the Safety Data Mart website back online. “The thing is, in the past, we’ve gotten really good customer service from IDOT, with a fast turnaround,” the source said. “And the Data Mart was really useful – you could type in the location and types of crashes you were looking for and it would populate a map for you, or you could ask them to send you a spreadsheet with the data.”
According to the source, when a transportation professional recently contacted the state’s Division of Traffic Safety to ask for crash data, they were referred to IDOT’s law department. Via email, a representative from the Office of the Chief Council cited a clause in the Freedom of Information Act law as a justification for not providing the data:
Pursuant to FOIA Section 7(1)(a), traffic crash reports, as well as data extrapolated from those reports, such as the location of crashes [emphasis added], in the possession of the Department are exempt from inspection and copying pursuant to Illinois Vehicle Code, 625 ILCS 5/11-408 and 625 ILCS 5/11-412. Therefore, the Department is precluded by law from furnishing copies of crash reports (or any attachments or personal information contained therein). Under these provisions of the Vehicle Code, accident/vehicle crash reports are for the confidential use of the Department and State and federal agencies conducting safety studies.
“So IDOT is saying they’re precluded by law from providing copies of crash reports due to privacy concerns,” said the source. “But, prior to this, they’ve just sent us the data scrubbed of information that would identify the people in the crashes. It doesn’t make any sense – there don’t seem to be any political reasons or protectionist, non-transparency reasons for this.” The source added that IDOT provided no prior notification about this policy change
The source put out feelers with various transportation officials to try to figure out the state’s motive for the change. “The Data Mart website recently crashed, and the assumption is that the state doesn’t have the money to repair it,” said the source. “But this seems kind of silly. If they’re still fulfilling data requests from government agencies, they should be able to provide the info to non-governmental organizations.”
Governor Bruce Rauner refused to sign off on a 2016 budget proposal passed by the Illinois General Assembly before the state began its new fiscal year on July 1, so Illinois is currently operating without a budget. “Our state financial system is imploding,” said the source. “If money is the issue, it’s completely understandable that [providing crash data] should take a back seat to support for critical needs like human services or child care. So why not come out and communicate that?”
“This is just another indication of our state’s financial deterioration,” the source concluded. “It’s a disturbing development. It’s going to be a major setback for anyone who’s looking for information on where street safety needs to be improved.”
IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said he is not aware of a change in policy, but he should be able to provide a more definitive response on Monday. We’ll keep you updated on the issue.