NashCAR, March 1997
Heather Newman, Detroit Free Press
If you cover transportation and want to get into computer-assisted reporting, you're in luck. There's a ton of national and local databases for transportation writers to sink their teeth into, and the best part is that many are free or very easy to get. Because nearly every one of your paper's readers or your broadcast's viewers has to drive every day, transportation stories generate intense audience interest. I've gotten more feedback from the transportation stories I've done over the years than almost any other kind.
My copanelist Penny Loeb of U.S. News and World Report is handling trains and subways, and another panel (featuring Beth Marchak of the Cleveland Plain Dealer) will give you what you need to know about planes. So let's take our C.A.R. onto the open road!
Before you begin, there are two CAR bibles you should get your hands on.
Access to Electronic Records, published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, gives you a blow-by-blow account of how public records laws handle electronic information in each state. This booklet gives you the cites you need to persuade that suspicious official to turn over tapes or disks rather than printouts. It's $5, plus $1 shipping, and you can order on the Committee's Web site ( http://www.rcfp.org/rcfp) or by calling 703-807-2100. Added bonus: The Web site has a great collection of FOIA-type information, including a description of how the new federal E-FOIA law affects electronic records access.
Directory of Transportation Data Sources, published by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. BTS is the Mecca of free transportation data, and this huge book (which is also free) is the best collection of database descriptions anywhere. It includes a comprehensive listing of the data collected by dozens of federal agencies, including who to call for information. It also gives you that crucial what-is-this-darn-database-called edge when filing your FOIAs. Free by calling BTS at 202-366-DATA or by ordering from the Web site - which you should visit anyhow - at http://www.bts.gov.
Keep in mind that nearly everything that's collected federally comes from a local agency first. That means that updated, or more complete, information might be just around the corner instead of in the nation's capitol. Cultivate your state police department for accident data, your city police department for parking tickets, your county transportation department for road condition and traffic information, your state Department of Natural Resources for boating accidents. If they're reluctant, you can always FOIA the Feds; but you mind get more by asking locally.
The Fatal Accident Reporting System is a database that theoretically contains detailed information about every fatal accident on the nation's roads. Because it relies upon local police department reporting, FARS is actually not THAT complete; but it's the best national picture of what's killing us on the highways. Get 1975-1994 data from BTS for free on a CD by calling them at the number above or visiting their Web site. Or call NICAR at 573-882-7711 to order their CD, which has clean copies of 1988-1995 databases.
Idea: The Detroit Free Press used 20 years of FARS data combined with state police accident reports this winter to show that while the overall numbers of accidents soared during winter months, the number of fatal accidents was actually highest in the summer. The hypothesis: drivers slow down because of the ice, which results in more fender-benders but fewer major crashes.
Idea: The Buffalo News used this database to show that winter, while a crummy time for fatal accidents in general, is a great time to folks to kill pedestrians.
Most state recreation offices in areas where there are water track accidents of watercraft. The national data is collected by the U.S. Coast Guard and called the Boating Accident Report. You can get it by calling 202-267-0949.
Idea: The boating columnist for The Buffalo News uses this database to track accidents by type of boat, conditions, etc.
The General Estimates System contains a sampling of the huge collection of normal accidents that occur every year. Available from BTS.
Crashworthiness Data System, Special Crash Investigations
These are in-depth crash investigations conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The CDS includes several thousand records a year; the SCI, which is more closely focused on specific types of accidents, only handles 50-75. Both have many more bits of information than FARS or GES. For more information, check out NHTSA's Web site at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov and click on the link for "Crash Info."
Crash Outcome Data Evaluation System
A relatively obscure NHTSA database, about to become more prominent. This data tracks the outcome of accidents: medical bills, etc. This information is usually extremely hard to get because it's only collected by insurance companies, which are not public entities. On Feb. 28, the CODES program was greatly expanded. For more info, check out NHTSA's Web site.
Complaints, Recalls, TSBs, Investigations
NHTSA's collection of databases available for downloading on line is extensive. All complaints received by the agencies about cars from consumers, all recalls, all Technical Service Bulletins (minor fix-it-for-free notices by car companies) and some information on investigations is there for the taking under the "CARS" link. NICAR also sells a version of this data.
Idea: One student used the complaints/recalls data to determine how many reports of trouble different makers got, using sales data to attempt to control for how many of the cars were on the road. Be careful with this one - Just because a lot of cars were sold eight years ago doesn't mean more of them are on the road today than a less-hot-selling model.
Not a database, but impossible to overlook. The Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has done more studies on more types of transportation problems than you can shake a stick at. Looks like Congressmen drive to work, too. Search the GAO archives for reports on your story topics at http://www.gao.gov.
The granddaddy of all transportation database collections. Get information on waterways, rail, roads, accidents, travel stats, you name it --and EVERYTHING is FREE. Visit their Web site and fill out their free order form at http://www.bts.gov or call them at the number above. There's also a number of databases available for download at the Web site - give yourself time to browse.
The Highway Performance Monitoring System, maintained by the Federal Highway Administration, is a comprehensive look at major roads in tons of communities nationwide. It tells you the cars that travel over each section of road each day, what the pavement looks like, how many lanes there are... You name it. Expect to spend about $85 for two years of data for your state on 9-track tape; more on PC diskettes. To order, fax a FOIA to Don Kestyn, 202-366-7742; or call him at 202-366-5035 with questions.
Idea: The Tennessean used this database and a couple of great traffic congestion reports built on it - Call the Texas Transportation Institute for copies of the Roadway Congestion Reports at 409-845-1713 or check out their Web site at http://tti.tamu.edu under What's Hot! - to show that while traffic congestion was worse on surface streets, Nashville's road money went into expanding freeways. It also showed that traffic in the city was getting worse in general.
Idea: The Detroit News used this database's pavement condition field to show that roads were bad in Michigan and getting worse, while road money was spent on highway expansion. The field measures pavement status from 5 to 1, ranging from new pavement to "lunar surface."
The DOT Index
Check out http://www.dot.gov/help/webmap.html for a complete list of DOT departments and their sub-departments that have areas on the Web. A good place to go fishing when you're hunting for something in particular.
This bulletin board system, run by Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, tracks nuclear materials transportation and accidents. Data is available to query or download. For information, call Rick Orzel at Sandia: 505-845-8094. He'll ask you to fax a request letter to 505-844-0244 after which he'll send you information on getting on the BBS, which is free.
The Hazardous Materials Incidents Reporting system attempts to keep track of every accident on the road or in the air involving hazardous materials, including at what stage of the delivery it happened. NICAR sells this data for 1971-1995.
Idea: The Tennessean analyzed this data per capita and discovered that the accident rate in Tennessee was not only rising more quickly than in the rest of the country, but that the state also led the nation in accidents compared to population (mostly because Federal Express has its HQ there).
I just love this site, though it's not full of databases. Check out http://www.edmunds.com for everything you ever wanted to know about auto prices, including what specials and rebates dealers are offering at any given moment on different models. There's used-car prices, dealer invoice prices, reviews, you name it. This is the site you MUST visit before buying a car and SHOULD visit before doing any kind of market-related auto story.
Transportation's Greatest Hits
This helpful handout from the last NICAR national conference in Cleveland has a great collection of transportation information and databases, compiled by folks like Rose Ciotta of The Buffalo News and Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times. Check out http://www.nicar.org/cleveland/handouts/hand10.html. Also see Wendell Cochran's nifty piece on transportation reporting on line that he prepared for the Miller Fellowship Program of The Freedom Forum, at http://www.freedomforum.org/FreedomForum/resources/journalism/newsrooms/paulmiller.html#trans.
This annual database is a favorite among CAR reporters. Tell your readers which bridges in their areas are in danger of falling down, and for an added twist, go observe bridges that have load limits because of their condition. You might just see fire trucks, cement mixers, school buses and other heavy vehicles trundling across the delicate spans. NICAR sells this one in fairly clean format.
Here's what some other transportation writers have done:
The Philadelphia Daily News chronicled the dramatic drop in traffic tickets issued and enforced in Philadelphia, paired with an analysis of what tickets were given for and which cops gave the most. They also looked at drivers who ignored tickets and which drivers contributed to the most accidents. They used accident records from the PA DOT and ticket disposition records from the Philadelphia Traffic Court, along with some limited queries of disposition data from the state court system and the FARS database.
The Sun Herald in Biloxi did a project on dangerous railroad crossings, based on FRA data (see Penny's handout), as did Gannett News Service last year. GNS found that the Feds actually keep a separate database of crossings they consider hazardous, and that in many cases states have not yet fixed those problems.
The Ventura County (Calif.) Star analyzed National Transportation Safety Board "mini-briefs" on aviation accidents at California airports and factored in traffic using the Terminal Area Forecasts ( http://api.hq.faa.gov/apo_home.htm, under APO Publications, under Terminal Area Forecast). They found that their local airport was the sixth-worst in about 150 California airports.
Mark Barrett of the Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times did a story showing that state DOT board members were heavy contributors to the governors who appointed them, and that road projects often had political underpinnings.
The Raleigh News and Observer did a story showing that billboards that companies claimed were worth tons of money during road widenings in many cases did not even show up on property tax records.
The Press of Atlantic City did an investigation into charter buses, based on the federal Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program inspections database. Inspections are conducted by states and uploaded to the Federal Highway Administration. The investigation found that of the 1,000 charter buses a day that go into Atlantic City, about 10% should not be on the road.
Greensboro News & Record analyzed motor vehicle inspection records and came to the conclusion that pass and fail rates varied widely between inspection stations. A followup investigation revealed that the state has little oversight of the $50 million inspection program and no way to permanently bar inspection stations that repeatedly break the rules.
Roanoke (VA) Times & World News analyzed parking tickets and discovered that ticket prices are so low that they barely cover the expense of writing them. The data they got would also have showed the officer who wrote the most tickets, what types of cars were most likely to get ticketed, etc.
Contra Costa (CA) Times looked at state accident records to judge the safety of the state's roads and what the state was doing about problem stretches.
The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY) analyzed contract records to show that blacktop companies had essentially divided the state into territories, with most contracts awarded after only a single bid - for an expensive price. They also looked at the link between contracts and political donations.
Dan Browning of the St. Paul Pioneer Press analyzed crime records to show the worst bus routes and times of day in transit crime.
David Dietz of the San Francisco Chronicle obtained the California Highway Patrol database of tickets given (minus the data that identified the ticketee, as is often the case), which he turned into a package on where tickets were written, by which officers, for what violations and at what time.
The News-Gazette (Champaign, IL) analyzed state transportation department accident data to see which roads, days, times, months and weather conditions were the worst for accidents in the area. It turns out that one of the big factors was the existence of left-turn lanes.
Rick Linsk of the Asbury (NJ) Park Press used FARS plus the National Personal Transportation Survey (available from BTS) to show that elderly drivers have more accidents in his area for vehicle miles traveled than other age groups. He also used drivers' license totals by age group gleaned off the Web. In an earlier project, he analyzed state data on bus ridership.
Bob Imrie at the Wausau, WI, AP bureau coordinated state snowmobile accident data to generate a series of stories on the accidents.
Pat Stith and Joe Neff at the Raleigh News and Observer and Shawn Donnan of AP both did stories on traffic stops, showing that cops were stopping blacks at higher rates despite a court order that they not use race as a basis for the stops.
The Miami Herald did a story on puddle-related accidents on a relatively new highway in Broward County, showing that it was the most dangerous road of its type, using the Florida Traffic Crash Database, which tracks serious accidents.
WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC, did a piece on deaths due to drowsy drivers on I-95, using state accident data. They tracked out-of-state plates where there were no other explanations for the single-car accidents (alcohol, weather, speed, no skid marks, etc.).
The New York Post did a series of Bill Sanderson stories on subway safety, including slip-and-fall accidents. He also studied on-time records to find the route that was always latest, using Transit Authority data. He used "registration" data - the number of people paying fares - in his analysis of accidents.
Investigative Reporters and Editors has copies of a number of good computer-assisted transportation stories in its morgue. Synopses of these stories (and their order numbers) follow. Copies are 10 cents a page, and you must be an IRE member - which you are if you are attending this conference. Call 573-882-3364 to order.