Snafu blocks information on Seattle traffic accidents : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Local News

Friday, April 28, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Snafu blocks information on traffic accidents

by Andrew Garber Seattle Times staff reporter One hundred fifty thousand vehicles hit something each year in Washington. Bikes, pedestrians, tree stumps. Each other.

It used to be fairly easy to figure out what was being hit and devise a fix. A computer spit out information, and road crews would put up a stop sign or dig up a stump.

That all changed three years ago when the State Patrol installed a new computer system, one that didn't work. Information on what cars were hitting, and why, stopped going into the computer.

Cities and counties that depended on the data to help make roads safer were suddenly almost blind. Many were forced to create their own systems to track collisions. King County is spending $100,000 this year on the task.

The state Department of Transportation and the Department of Labor have spent $2 million trying to get detailed accident information by other means.

After spending three years and more than $1 million working on its computers, the State Patrol still provides less information about accidents now than it did in 1996.

Answers once available at the touch of a button are now buried in thousands of paper accident reports. How many trucks crashed last year? How many people were injured in alcohol-related accidents? How many bicyclists were hit by cars?

The state can't tell you.

Traffic analysts know where accidents are happening. They don't know why, unless they go through piles of paper.

The lack of computerized data can hamper efforts to prevent accidents. "We're doing some guesswork because we don't know what they are hitting," said Pat Foley, an accident-analysis engineer with the state Department of Transportation. "If we only have money to move two items (on a road), which two do we move?"

The State Patrol blames the companies it hired over the years to get the new computer system running.

It has terminated contracts with two vendors, Unisys Corp. and IKON Office Solutions, saying both did not live up to their contracts. Neither company was paid, said Capt. Eric Robertson, a spokesman for the State Patrol. However, the Patrol is still negotiating with IKON, he said.

Unisys officials declined comment. IKON officials also would not discuss the matter because of ongoing negotiations with the State Patrol.

"The fault has fallen with vendors for not performing," Robertson said. "We're holding our contractors accountable for performance and product."

Rep. Ruth Fisher, D-Tacoma, House co-chairwoman of the Transportation Committee, said the Legislature hasn't blamed the State Patrol. Problems can crop up when switching to new systems, she said. "This isn't the first time it's happened."

The State Patrol had hoped to get a computer system that was faster and cheaper to run than its old one. Before 1997, the agency had a staff that typed accident reports into a computer. It was reliable - almost 100 percent of accidents were recorded - but slow. It could take seven months to get the data out.

The agency installed new computers and turned to Optical Character Recognition software for help. The OCR software was supposed to scan handwritten police reports and automatically put the information into a computer database.

The process would be fast because it was automatic and cheap because the agency didn't need people to type in reports.

It's not clear who came up with the idea. Robertson said the Legislature required the State Patrol to pursue the new technology. Fisher isn't so sure. "We rarely do technical stuff like this on our own. I would assume it was the State Patrol that brought this up," she said.

Early testing of the new system found problems, Robertson said. The State Patrol decided to forge ahead anyway, because the old computer was not Y2K compliant.

"The decision was that it would be more costly to retain the old system and make it Y2K compliant," he said. Plus, the State Patrol was assured by consultants that the new system could be made to work, Robertson said.

So the old computer system was scrapped. The State Patrol and the Department of Licensing, which expected to use the new system, laid off 14 employees.

But the new computers couldn't be made to work. The OCR software wasn't sophisticated enough to take handwritten reports and accurately put the information into a database. So the State Patrol had to limit the information recorded while it tried to fix the problems.

The old database could tell researchers if a car spun out of control on ice, if the driver was intoxicated, if the vehicle went over a hill and hit a tree stump.

Now, the DOT only gets the basics, such as the date, location and number of fatalities.

"We have a whole program that deals with utility poles," said David McCormick, a DOT traffic engineer. "Without data to tell us what people hit, we are kind of stuck in working with utility companies, because we don't know who hit utility poles. That is an example of where that information is incredibly important to us."

In addition to limiting information about accidents, the State Patrol also was unable to record all the accident reports from 1997 to 1999.

The new system is unable to handle reports filed by drivers. Such reports account for about 20 percent of all accidents, according to DOT. Drivers fill out reports for certain accidents when police officers are unable to respond.

Some police reports also are missing. Overall, about 30 percent of the reports for the past three years are missing. And officials aren't sure which ones.

As a result, emerging accident hot spots might not come to the attention of traffic engineers because the record is missing or incomplete, DOT officials said.

That happened last year with an intersection in Skagit County, said Foley, the DOT accident analyst.

"We had complaints that we had a lot of accidents, but we had no records that we had any accidents," she said.

A state trooper helped her get the dates of the accidents. The State Patrol then pulled the paper records. Analysts sorted through them to find out what was happening, Foley said.

In this case, there were too many collisions. The intersection is now on a state list to get a traffic signal.

The problem was resolved, but it took months to figure out what was going on. The DOT can't make that same type of effort for every complaint that comes in, McCormick said. The agency has to be selective.

DOT has already spent about $1.5 million since 1997 trying to work around the lack of information, paying employees to sort through accident reports by hand.

"I've been going out holding my hand out for money because it is not in my budget," said Jan Myhr, who manages traffic data for the agency.

DOT's not alone. The Department of Licensing spent about $500,000 to hire staff to type reports into its own database, which is now largely up to date.

The State Patrol, so far, has spent $750,000 on its computer system and another $350,000 on staff to help reduce the backlog of accident reports.

It's not known how much money counties and cities are spending to create their own databases. But local governments say they have little choice.

Cyndy Knighton, traffic engineer for the city of Bothell, said she used to be able to turn out traffic accident reports within a few minutes. Now, "there are some people waiting months for me to find the time to do this," she said. Bothell is creating its own accident database, but for now Knighton has to resort to paper reports.

Knighton said she gets plenty of requests from developers who want to know if a project could affect traffic patterns and accident rates.

"I have about a five-foot section of my desk covered with accident reports. Stacks that are anywhere from two inches to six inches tall, and that's for the past three years.

"It's a fair number when you have to go through and understand what's happening," she said. "I have to actually read the description of what's happening."

State Patrol officials say they have finally fixed the computer system, except for a couple of problems.

The agency is entering all the information from police reports for 2000, but still is not recording information from accident reports filed by drivers.

The State Patrol also is still working on a way to get its accident information electronically to DOT, the Department of Licensing and other agencies, such as Seattle's transportation department.

The State Patrol is trying to "fix what's wrong," said Trooper Tom Foster, a spokesman for the agency. "They have a contractor rewriting the program, and as soon as that is done, they will be able to give (outside agencies) the full records."

That is supposed to happen "in the next few months, if all goes well," he said.

Phil Thordarson, manager of traffic operations for the Seattle transportation department, said he has no choice but to wait.

The city of Seattle, which has 18,000 traffic accidents annually, can't afford to duplicate the State Patrol system, he said. "We were supposed to start getting information for 2000 in February," he said. "I still haven't heard anything.

"We're to that worn-out point. We've pushed and pushed as hard as we can."

-- Martin Thompson (, April 28, 2000

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