Highway Safety: Federal and State Efforts Related to Accidents That Involve Non-Commercial Vehicles Carrying Unsecured Loads Page: 14 of 38
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Load Crashes Can Be
Difficult, and Data
Improvements Will Take
Some Time to Implement
Law Enforcement Officials
Face Difficulties Determining
Whether a Crash Is a Result of
an Unsecured Load
While NHTSA's changes to the FARS and NASS GES data systems will
allow the agency to better track crashes involving unsecured loads, it still
faces challenges collecting data on these crashes. Two primary factors
affect NHTSA's ability to collect this information: (1) law enforcement
officials face difficulties in determining whether a crash involved an
unsecured load and (2) states do not collect uniform data on unsecured
loads in their police crash reports. Even with the changes that NHTSA is
making in its data collection processes and procedures, the resulting data
will be imprecise because it relies on state reporting of crashes and data
improvements will take time to implement as acknowledged by NHTSA.
NHTSA officials stated that they will make every effort to capture the data
available in the source documents to provide the most accurate
assessment of this safety issue.
Even though NHTSA is improving its data systems, determining whether
a crash is a result of an unsecured load will remain a challenge. Several
law enforcement officials we spoke with indicated that classifying a crash
involving an unsecured load is difficult in some cases, because it is
unclear whether the object on the road was as a result of an unsecured
load or another factor. One law enforcement official explained that if an
object falls from a moving vehicle and immediately hits a vehicle or a
person, the crash is generally classified as an unsecured-load crash.
However, if an object falls from a moving vehicle onto the road and
remains on the road for some time before another vehicle subsequently
strikes the object, then the crash will generally not be classified as an
unsecured-load crash unless there is a witness available to report that the
object originally fell off of another vehicle (see fig. 2). The official
explained that identifying the first incident as an unsecured-load crash is
generally easier because of a higher likelihood of witnesses at the scene
who saw the crash occur and saw the unsecured-load fall from the
vehicle. In the second scenario, where debris remains on the road for
some time, there may be no information to explain how the object on the
road ended up there. According to this official, it is up to the reporting
officer to determine how to classify or describe the crash in the police
report. Under NHTSA's planned data system changes, the agency will be
able to specify in their data systems crashes that involve unsecured loads
if all pertinent information is available to the reporting officer. However, if
the incident is not identified by the reporting officer as an unsecured-load
crash in the first place, it may not be flagged as such in NHTSA's data
systems. NHTSA officials acknowledged that it can be difficult in some
cases to determine if something in the road fell off a vehicle if there is no
GAO-13-24 Unsecured Loads
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United States. Government Accountability Office. Highway Safety: Federal and State Efforts Related to Accidents That Involve Non-Commercial Vehicles Carrying Unsecured Loads, report, November 15, 2012; Washington D.C.. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc300082/m1/14/: accessed April 20, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.