he National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has made improving traffic safety data one of the agency's highest priorities. Effective decision making is directly dependent on data availability and quality. Under proposed initiatives and recommendations, NHTSA encourages states to move from paper-laden, labor-intensive traffic records processes to electronic capture and processing, including but not limited to the following:1
- Implementing electronic field data capture of motor vehicle crash, traffic citation, and other information
- Improving the quality and completeness of crash and other data
- Providing training for electronic roadside data capture
- Promoting standards and guidelines, such as MMUCC and XML for electronic roadside data capture2
In looking at the broad range of duties that officers are required to perform, law enforcement agencies are looking to increase officer effectiveness while improving officer safety. To that end, their goals include the following:
- Increasing the information that is available to the officers in the field
- Increasing the communication between patrol vehicles as well as other emergency responders
- Increasing the functionality of the patrol vehicle by integrating the operation of all of the equipment within the vehicle
- Improving the ability of the officer to collect, interpret, and exchange data between mobile patrol units on the road and between different agencies
Priorities for Officers in the Field
On a typical day, police officers communicate with dispatchers in order to get information on driver's licenses or vehicle license plates. They operate vehicle components such as light bars and radar detectors. They report motor vehicle crashes, conduct vehicle inspections, issue citations, and process drunk drivers, sometimes using a video camera.
Many police departments already have mobile computing environments, including computer-aided dispatch, query capabilities, and records management functions. Newer or refined technologies are being sought, such as voice activation and response systems, that enable the integration of vehicle functions, allowing the officer to issue simple voice commands instead of having to type into a computer or press buttons that are not easily accessible, especially if an officer is driving at high speeds or in other potentially dangerous situations.
Improving a department's data capture capability may not be a top priority, especially when an already existing records management function does exist, even if its capability is limited. But according to NHTSA's Integrated Project Team (IPT) Data Report, where collaboration is lacking, efforts by local and state jurisdictions to convert to electronic data collection and transfer are often pursued separately, duplicating efforts.
Need to Combine Efforts
From computer-aided dispatch to queries for outstanding warrants, an officer's need for electronic data capture extends beyond the need for traffic safety alone. So-called stovepipe planning, which means providing resources for independent data management development for transportation safety, homeland security, and criminal justice must be discouraged at the highest levels.
As the NHTSA report points out, the implementation of electronic data capture, file merging, transfer, and downloading will enable traffic safety data to be more timely, accurate, complete, uniform, integrated, and accessible. Benefits for law enforcement and national security will include improved criminal interdiction and local counterterrorism efforts as their data management capabilities become more integrated. States are making progress in the area of electronic data capture for highway traffic safety. One example includes 18 states that have formed a user group to share technology and resolve problems. The software system for electronic data capture they are using is called TraCS, which is also referred to as a national model.3
Unfortunately, stakeholders from traffic safety, public safety, criminal justice, homeland security, and other functions still tend to focus on their own priorities. Each expends great effort to encourage law enforcement to make changes in the way officers obtain, use, and share information, but most of them still do so from their own perspectives. Stovepipe planning has not gone away.
If local, state, and federal leaders emphasize the need for stronger collaboration (NHTSA's IPT Data Report emphasizes that strong leadership fosters collaboration and minimizes unnecessary expenses resulting from inefficient approaches), and lawmakers endorse a more unified, coordinated effort as evidenced by the recent passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, a combined approach to improving electronic data capture for traffic safety and criminal justice can be realized.4
State traffic records coordinating committees (TRCC), which represent many of the stakeholders mentioned, are becoming more active in many states. They have an opportunity to reach out and promote an agenda of collaboration. If they are successful and lawmakers ultimately become more engaged, a combined approach to improve officer safety and effectiveness through integrated data management and communication can lead to safer and more efficient highways and better transportation safety, public safety, and quality of life. ■