BACKGROUND: Ohio State University scientists have created software that can identify traffic accident hot spots on state roadways. Right now, it is being used by the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP) to help position its cruisers during major holidays, but the software is publicly available and can be adapted for use by any state.
HOW IT WORKS: The software relies on reports of injuries and fatalities from the highway patrol and incorporates statistics about what makes accidents happen. It makes general forecasts because, while common accident causes such as speeding or drinking are easy to predict using computers, others, such as drivers distracted while talking on cell phones, are next to impossible. But the software can identify those pieces of roadway that are riskier at a particular time, even though it can't reveal why a given area is prone to a particular type of accident.
GETTING GOOD DATA: The key is the quality of the accident data gathered for a particular state. In the case of the OSHP, data was collected from nearly all of the state's 88 counties, and included the location of crashes. The software has now been combined with Google Earth, which offers an interactive map of the entire globe including major roadways. The OSU software color-codes the roadways in Ohio, so users can zoom in to see the general likelihood of accidents in any region of the state. The resulting 900-megabyte database details every traffic accident that occurred on Ohio highways between 2001 and 2005, and generates 50 gigabytes of output data. It took two weeks at the Ohio Supercomputer Center to process the equations to connect all the data.
WHAT THEY FOUND: The software indicates that most speeding accidents in Ohio happen during weekday rush hours, while most drunk driving accidents occur on weekends between 2 and 3 AM, after the bars close. However, there were some surprises. Most Ohio residents live in and around Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, so the researchers expected that most fatal accidents would happen near those cities. Instead, they found that most occurred on the interstates near Columbus and Cincinnati, while near Cleveland more fatalities occur on the U.S. routes and state routes near the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania.