On Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., off-duty police officers are hired to make rounds on Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg. They have a specific purpose — to spot and arrest people who are driving under the influence of alcohol.

In the past four years, Virginia Tech’s Police Department has ramped up its enforcement of alcohol-related driving offenses, thanks to a state grant to fund their efforts.

Data that pinpoints the exact location of a crash, crunched by a group of coders at Virginia Tech, was key to the police department landing this grant. It also helped officers understand that extra enforcement was needed in the first place.

This data isn’t just for Virginia Tech. It’s for all of Virginia, and it has a purpose — to make the state’s roadways safer.

Each day and at all hours, about 15 people working for Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology access approximately 2,500 accident reports and crash diagrams submitted each week from the Highway Safety Office, within the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The information is reported by all Virginia police jurisdictions. The coders, many of whom are Virginia Tech students and alumni, use geospatial technology to pinpoint the location of each vehicle crash. 

They send the final information to the DMV, which makes it available to each Virginia locality. Law enforcement agencies use this data to determine patterns and answer questions about vehicle crashes, such as why a large number may happen at a particular intersection. 

And if they see ways to correct these issues, localities often use this information to apply for grants to fund changes.

“The more reports we have out there and the better information, the more grants local governments are receiving to fix their issues,” said Peter Sforza, director of the Center for Geospatial Information Technology and a research scientist in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “The economic impact of this is probably enormous.”

This year, Sforza and his team at the center, in partnership with faculty in the Charles Edward Via Jr. Civil & Environmental Engineering Department, received the Governor’s Transportation Safety Award in the Innovation in Highway Safety category. This is the first time that the center has received an award in this category, which recognizes an individual or organization for developing and implementing unique and innovative approaches to improving highway safety.

Joe Newman and Kitty Hancock review maps to pinpoint traffic crash locations.
Joe Newman and Kitty Hancock review maps to pinpoint traffic crash locations.

Since 2016, Virginia Tech police have used this data to apply for the alcohol enforcement grant, which gives the department between $8,000 to $10,000 a year to hire off-duty police and pay for officers to attend a DUI enforcement training.

“If there’s money out there for enforcement and we see alcohol-related crashes, why not put in for it to help deter or reduce crashes?” said Virginia Tech Police Sgt. David Tribble. “Hopefully this will lead to more education and more deterrents, as people see that we are out there.”

Virginia Tech’s work with DMV started in 2011, shortly after Virginia established an electronic crash system called the Traffic Records Electronic Data System. Law enforcement across Virginia are required to submit information about all traffic crashes through this system. But DMV needed help determining the exact location of crashes, along with standardized street information.

Cue the Center for Geospatial Information Technology, which developed an online tool that combines data from multiple sources, including statewide imagery and Enhanced 911 road information, to find exact locations, road names, and more. 

Out of about 130,000 crashes annually, the center’s success rate at identifying accident locations is 99.99 percent.

“We’re very proud of that,” said Kathleen “Kitty” Hancock, associate professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech who works with the center. She is principal investigator for the crash location project, and her research is focused on the human factors side of the traffic data, including enforcement and programming.

Joe Newman, project associate with the center, runs the daily work and manages the coders.

In addition to reports by locality, the center customizes crash data for other groups. For instance, it produces reports for each Virginia General Assembly Session, breaking down legislative districts, so that lawmakers can be better informed about traffic hazards in their respective areas. The center also creates a year-to-date report card for localities that have seen increases in fatal crashes.

“We have an enormous amount of data, well over a million records in Virginia,” Sforza said. “You can slice and dice it and ask a lot of different questions.”

For instance, Fairfax County police are starting to use this data to pinpoint trends in specific areas of their eight districts, said Capt. Randall Hargus, assistant director of the IT bureau for the Fairfax County Police Department.

Meanwhile, the center is positioning itself to further customize crash data with enhanced technology, such as integrating the information with 3D city models and using visual analysis to evaluate other problems in transportation safety. By integrating this with other work they are doing, the center will have a powerful platform to support decisions related to comprehensive hazards and risks facing the commonwealth.

Sforza has found that his own driving habits have changed since he has been working so closely with crash information. He said he avoids certain intersections in Blacksburg at which crash data reveals a high occurrence of vehicles hitting pedestrians.

For Hancock, finding ways to keep people safe is her mission as a civil engineer. During an introduction to transportation course that she teaches at Virginia Tech, she explains to students that whether or not they are interested in the field, they all are part of it as a driver of a vehicle.

“If there’s anything that we can do to keep us safe, to keep our families safe, then it behooves us as engineers to do that,” said Hancock, who once was asked if her research on fatal traffic crashes makes her sad.

“I try to look at it from the other way,” she answered. “What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen?”

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone