Feds seek help in analyzing traffic death spike


Annual US traffic deaths. Data and graph from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's National Center for Statistics and Analysis.

Credit: http://www.nhtsa.gov/Data/About+NCSA+&+Contact+Info

If you've got data skills, the US government hopes you'll pitch in to help investigate why more people were killed in traffic accidents last year than in any of the prior six.

More than 35,000 people were killed on U.S. roadways in 2015, up 7.2% from the prior year and the highest total since 2008.

"We are calling on data scientists, public health experts, students and researchers—even if you have never thought about road safety before—to dive into these data," according to a "call to action" issued by DJ Patil, chief data scientist in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Mark Rosekind, administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Whether you’re a non-profit, a tech company, or just a curious citizen wanting to contribute to the conversation in your local community, we want you to jump in and help us understand what the data are telling us. . . . Data Science is a team sport."

Some of increase may simply be due to more people driving, thanks to an improved economy and relatively inexpensive gasoline. However, government officials still hope to identify patterns in the data that might lead to reducing deadly crashes.

For example, data science skills aren't needed to know that drunk driving contributes to road deaths. But what if patterns in the data show unexpectedly low rates of such accidents in some areas? That could mean checking to see if some programs, road designs or other factors were particularly effective in curbing fatalities.

The data are available in CSV, DBF or SAS format. I downloaded one of the main data files, FARS2015NationalCSV/ACC_AUX.CSV, which has 32,166 observations (rows) with 38 variables (columns). Accident information includes location, type of road, whether young (under 25) or older (65+) drivers were involved, and factors such as distracted or drunk drivers.

According to the data, distracted drivers killed 3,477 people last year -- including 446 pedestrians. There's no additional information on what the distractions were, although my guess would be many of them involve cell phones. Reminder: Don't do anything while driving that you wouldn't want a surgeon doing while performing life-saving surgery on you or a loved one.

You can download the 2015 US traffic fatality data here as well as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's overview of 2015 motor vehicle crashes.

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