Unsafe roads and cars

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You know all those people who say that you’re more likely to be killed on the highway than in an airplane crash? Well, they’re right. One out of four people who die from an injury in this country get it on the road. This adds up to 43,664 people who died in traffic related accidents in 2006, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Over at another government agency, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), you can get raw data on traffic fatalities–where and when they occur, how many people died, their ages, whether they were wearing a seat belt–although you need to really know where to look.  On the home page, at the top, there’s a link to something called the NCSA, which I only knew to click on because an agency spokesperson, Rae Tyson, told me to do so. Turns out NCSA stands for “National Center for Statistics and Analysis”–how ridiculous I didn’t know that–and here I found lists of data sets galore. (The rumored gathering of government databases in one place at Data.gov cannot come soon enough.)

One that appears to get a lot of use is the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which purports to provide yearly data on car crash fatalities. You can download the data going back to 1975 or do a rather clunky search on the website itself. Academics use this information as the basis of tons of analyses (Click here to see some). And here is a great Google maps mashup, where you can look up the fatalities in your own neighborhood–this one shows mine.  (Click here). These sorts of analyses are crucial for planning how to prevent accidents in the future.

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NHTSA also provides this database, searchable online and also downloadable, which gives consumers information about ongoing investigations into potential auto defects. This is similar to the new database that the Consumer Product Safety Commission is supposed to provide on reported problems with toys and other products, which I blogged about here.

As wonderful as all these data are, auto safety traffic watchdog Clarence Ditlow cautions that they do not include all the information they should. For example, the fatality data gathered in the FARS database does not include much information about traffic related deaths that occur on local roads. Indeed, a recent analysis of 25 states by the U.S. General Accounting Office showed that many lacked systems for locating crashes on local roads: “Without the [data], states cannot conduct some of the safety analysis…or report…on their most hazardous locations on all public roads, determine appropriate remedies, and estimate costs.”

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