Supporting NHTSA in Reducing Highway Injuries and Deaths

Amy Benedick

In 2022, Westat was awarded a number of vital research contracts from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that support the agency’s mission to reduce injuries and deaths on the highways resulting from vehicle crashes. “The data from these surveys are essential to informing policymakers about keeping people safe on the roads,” notes Westat Senior Study Director Amy Benedick. “This includes our most vulnerable population—children—and continued work to reduce driver distraction.”

Updating the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) and National Survey of the Use of Booster Seats (NSUBS). The data provided by NHTSA’s surveys must be representative of the current U.S. population, vehicles, and roadways. So, periodically, Westat re-examines these survey designs on behalf of NHTSA to ensure the estimates produced remain representative of the populations of interest. Additionally, updating the sampling designs will allow our experts to explore oversampling of areas to increase the representation of minorities.​

  • NOPUS is an annual, nationally representative observational survey that provides estimates of adult and child occupant restraint use, motorcyclists' helmet use, and cellular telephone and electronic device use by drivers to produce representative estimates for occupants of passenger vehicles. Westat will work collaboratively with NHTSA to update the sample design to account for changes in population and roadways. 
  • NSUBS is the only probability-based nationwide survey that observes child restraint use and interviews an adult occupant to collect age, height, and weight of the child passengers as well as race, ethnicity, and other data. Documenting the height and weight of the child enables traffic safety advocates to determine if the child is using the appropriate restraint system for their physical dimensions. Westat will work with NHTSA to examine shifts in the distribution of the population of children 0-7 years and account for changes in the distribution of the target population in the redesign.

Using Novel Ways to Assess Driver Distraction on the Roadway. Distracted driving substantially increases the likelihood of being involved in traffic crashes, but its prevalence and risk have been difficult to estimate, and it is often underreported as a cause for crashes. Westat has conducted a literature review and practice review focused on current observational methods used to estimate distraction prevalence. NHTSA has recently modified this contract to conduct a field study comparing a novel distraction detection approach using a camera-based system and artificial intelligence (AI) against human observation in detecting instances of driver distraction. The goal of the effort is to design an observational survey to help better understand advancements as well as limitations with respect to the use of technology to detect distraction behaviors and also to provide a better understanding of distraction prevalence on our roadways.

Examining Distraction and Driver Monitoring Systems to Improve Driver Safety. NHTSA requires a thorough review and synthesis of driver distraction research to inform its recommendations and policy decisions. Westat is examining and summarizing existing research in the domain of driver distraction to provide a succinct update to NHTSA’s Guidelines on Driver Distraction. Our traffic safety experts are also overseeing research conducted by the University of Iowa that empirically examines the ability of driver monitoring systems to monitor driver states (e.g., drowsiness and distraction detection) and subsequently alert them to inattentive behavior and support safe re-engagement in the driving task.

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