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Accidents Will Happen

State troopers turned in hundreds of error-riddled crash reports in 2007 and 2008, according to an internal audit by the Department of Public Safety.

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State troopers turned in hundreds of error-riddled accident reports in 2007 and 2008, according to an internal audit report compiled by the Texas Department of Public Safety last year.

In Hillsboro — the region with the most errors — more than two-thirds of the reports that officers filed in the first half of 2007 contained mistakes, according to the audit, which The Texas Tribune obtained through an open records request. Internal DPS auditors reviewed accident reports from troopers in 22 regions across the state. In 17 of those regions, auditors found that at least 30 percent of the accident reports that troopers submitted contained errors.

As official legal documents, there’s a lot riding on the accuracy of accident reports, which are used to help establish who was at fault in a wreck and whose insurance will shell out for damages and medical bills. Data in the reports also guides transportation policymakers’ decisions about how and where to spend millions of traffic safety dollars. “Pretty much everything on that crash report could impact us in some way,” says Debra Vermillion, the director of safety construction programs and data analysis at the Texas Department of Transportation. Each year, for instance, TxDOT spends more than $130 million on safety construction projects and another $100 million on safety programs like the “Click It or Ticket” campaign, and how those funds are allocated depends largely on information from crash reports, Vermillion says.

Major Casey Goetz of the DPS highway patrol division worked on some of the audits and says that many of the errors were simple administrative mistakes. Significant errors that auditors found, he said, were corrected. Since the audit, DPS has improved trooper training, and the number of accident report errors has dropped significantly, he says. “We put some checks and balances in place to ensure that wouldn’t ever happen again,” Goetz says.

Internal DPS auditors reviewed dozens of crash reports in each of the regions they investigated. To determine where mistakes were made, Goetz says, he and other auditors compared the reports to crash report guidelines and also made sure that information in the written description of the wreck matched what was marked on the checkboxes and diagrams in the rest of the report.  “What they were trying to get across to [the troopers] was that they need to check them closer,” Goetz says.

The auditors examined reports in detail, noting errors as seemingly minor as transposing letters and omitting the ZIP code of a salvage yard where vehicles were stored. More troubling were the major errors, which Goetz says accounted for 15 percent to 20 percent of the mistakes they found. In several instances, troopers recorded incorrect contributing factors to the accidents or filed wrong charges against drivers. In the Decatur area in North Texas, auditors found that in the last half of 2007, troopers failed to file charges where substantial violations occurred in at least six accidents.

Goetz suggested a number of reasons for the high error rate. DPS, he says, hired a slew of new troopers who were inundated with new duties, including spending days at a time on border security assignments. And in some areas, he says, there were changes in local leadership that created gaps. “The troop, because of the work volume we all have, was pushing it through and saying, ‘If it’s wrong, my sergeant will catch it,’” he says. “The sergeant was saying, ‘This is a good troop’ and probably just initialing.”

TxDOT started housing and analyzing data from DPS crash reports in 2007. When the agency took over the responsibility from DPS, Vermillion says, a five-year backlog of accident reports had not been entered in the database. That backlog has been eliminated, and the error rate is improving, she says. “Poor reporting definitely could impact our safety programs,” she says.

Because of errors in the crash reports — not only by DPS troopers but also by local police — Vermillion says TxDOT has added its own field of data to record what their analysis shows actually happened in accidents where the police reports are mistaken. The agency, by law, can’t fix any errors in the actual reports; only the investigating officer can do that. But the new field helps the agency make accurate decisions about spending safety funds, Vermillion says. TxDOT has also begun sending back error-riddled accident reports to the agencies that submit them. “I think in the long run we’re going to get much better data than we have been getting,” Vermillion says.

Mistakes on accident reports can also affect national highway safety funding, says Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. For example, states that report a higher number of drunken-driving accidents could get more funding to launch sober-driving campaigns. “It has a lot of policy implications,” he says. But he also says it’s not surprising that there would be errors in accident reports, which are typically complicated with many blanks and check boxes. The officer also has to draw diagrams and describe what happened. All that has to be done at the scene, where the weather may be foul, victims may be injured and traffic conditions may be treacherous. Nevertheless, he says, making sure the information is accurate is critical. “Funding is limited for everything these days,” Adkins says. “We want to make sure that money goes where it can have the most impact.”

Crash reports are also key pieces of evidence for insurance companies trying to sort out liability, says Paul Martin, director of education for the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas. “What good, complete accurate police reports do is improve the efficiency of claims handling and thus the cost [of insurance for consumers]," Martin says. If the police officer reports the wrong person was at fault in the accident, it can take an insurance adjuster weeks to interview witnesses to figure out who was really to blame. “That who, what, when, where and how is all important, because it lets us see the truth about what happened,” Martin says.

Goetz says he and other auditors understand how critical accident reports are, and that’s why they were so meticulous in locating and recording all the errors they found. "[When] you spend some time on the stand and have been drilled by attorneys who pick your report apart and try to discredit the officer, it changes your attitude,” he says. The reports, he says, also reflect on the agency’s professionalism. “We’re all judged by product that we put out.”

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