Website sheds new light on traffic fatalities

This past week, Carnegie Mellon researchers unveiled an interactive website, Traffic STATS, that shows how the number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. varies across different categories, including age and time of day.

The website resulted from a collaboration between the researchers and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The researchers intend to provide people with different perspectives on U.S. traffic fatalities by improving risk information available to policymakers and the public.

The website was unveiled at the 86th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, which took place January 21–25 in Washington, D.C. The website had originally started as an Information Systems senior class project.

“The idea of the website was to create an internet tool that people could use to access the various factors that go into traffic fatalities,” Randy Weinberg said. Weinberg is the program director of Information Systems at Carnegie Mellon.

Student researchers used two nationwide databases to determine the information provided on Traffic STATS: Fatality Reporting Analysis System (FARS) and the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS). FARS annually records every vehicle-related fatality that occurs in the U.S. It also includes various conditions, such as the type of road and number of passengers involved in the collision. NHTS, on the other hand, is a sample survey that asks people about their driving habits, such as mode of transportation and traveling distance.

Carnegie Mellon researchers combined these two databases by weighting the number of traffic fatalities recorded in FARS by the categories found in NHTS, such as traveling distance.

“Generally, people measure safety only by the number of fatalities, but a much better way is to think in terms of risk, for example, fatalities per mile,” said Paul Fischbeck, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for the Study and Improvement of Regulation (CSIR) in a press release.

“You get a much more realistic picture of the risk of traveling,” said Weinberg. He said that elderly and young drivers have the highest fatality risk per mile traveling, whereas mid-age drivers, 30–50 years of age, have the lowest risk.

The study turned up many more findings. For instance, motorcycles cause fewer fatalities than automobiles because they are driven less, but per mile traveled, motorcylces are riskier than automobiles.

According to the January 12 press release on Traffic STATS, SUV fatality risks are 20 percent less than that of a car. Furthermore, the driving risks of an 18-year-old male and an 80-year-old female are approximately the same.

David Gerard, executive director of CSIR, said that the website sheds positive light on Carnegie Mellon’s ability to research policy issues. “This also positions us a little better... to influence public policy,” he said.

Fischbeck said that the website’s interactive interface would not have been possible without today’s web technology. “You have millions of comparisons that we want to do on the fly,” he said. Ten years ago, Fischbeck said, the website would not have been as fast or interactive without such technology.

Fischbeck said that the website is interactive because each person is interested in accessing different information. The website allows the user to choose different risk comparisons, such as age, day of week, and gender. The site then asks the user to specify other variables, such as region and transportation mode. It then calculates the number of estimated fatalities per 100 million according to the risk comparisons.

“We feel people learn a lot better in an interactive environment,” Fischbeck said.