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Wyoming accident data

Crews investigate an accident in the intersection of Poplar Street and First Street recently in Casper, Wyo. Wyoming law enforcement officers are changing how they collect information on wrecks that they respond to, in hopes of better understanding how and why wrecks occur.

CASPER, Wyo. — A change in how officers collect crash data is providing Wyoming traffic experts with unprecedented detail on the thousands of car wrecks that occur each year.

Officials hope to use the data to better understand the circumstances surrounding traffic crashes in Wyoming. The information, they say, will eventually help decision makers adopt new measures to improve road safety.

“We can use the statistics and the data ... so folks who are working on safety issues can make better decisions,” said Wyoming State Highway Safety Engineer Matt Carlson.

The first statewide crash report to incorporate the new data was released earlier this month by the Wyoming Department of Transportation. It provides detail on crashes that in the past was either difficult to access or unavailable altogether.

In the past, the department, for example, only tracked whether driver distraction contributed to a crash. Now, officers submit the type of distraction, such as cell phones or pets, said Tom Carpenter, a senior analyst at WYDOT.

Similarly, the state now details injuries that occur in crashes, rather than focusing only on their severity.

“There is just a lot more information,” he said.

In the past, officers reported distractions and injuries in the narratives of their reports, but that information was difficult to sort and analyze.

Wyoming changed its crash reports in 2008 to comply with new federal guidelines. Past forms included 150 elements. They now include 300.

On a given year, WYDOT will receive between 15,000 and 20,000 reports from law enforcement officers all over the state, Carpenter said. They are filled out by police officers, sheriff's deputies and state troopers on any wreck involving more than $1,000 worth of damage.

The revised forms allow officers to list multiple factors that may have contributed to a crash, said WYDOT grants manager Stephanie Lucero, who worked on the latest statewide report. Instead of choosing between alcohol, speeding and a distracting cell phone, the officer can submit all three factors to the state.

“It gives the engineers, and anyone analyzing this data, a clearer picture of the crashes going on in the state,” Lucero said.

Although officers have been using the new forms since 2008, it will take at least three to five years to gather enough information to effectively use the data, Carlson said.

“One year to the next doesn't give you enough information to see a trend or figure out an issue or a problem,” he said.

At some point, however, the comprehensive data should give state and local officials direction on where to focus safety efforts. It could be used to craft smarter legislation, build better roads or increase awareness about safety issues. “All of those guys out there who are doing things to improve highway safety,” Carlson said. “We want to get them good, quality information so they can make decisions on their slice of the pie.”

Contact Joshua Wolfson at josh.wolfson@trib.com or 307-266-0582.

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