Dangerous Intersection: RIDOT Hides Crash Data from Public

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Illustration by Habesha Petros

PROVIDENCE — Crash data — where they happen, how, and who is involved — is often reviewed by Rhode Island Department of Transportation staffers and consultants when making changes to the state’s roads or responding to safety issues.

But requests for this information from the public, including residents, researchers, and advocates, are routinely denied, even though RIDOT staff have considered sharing the information with the public in the past.

“There’s a clear public interest in disclosing this data and allowing a better understanding of accidents occurring across Rhode Island,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC). “It’s a public interest that many other states already recognize.”

Since 2019, RIDOT has denied 17 individuals or groups, including ecoRI News, that requested crash data on the basis the information was not public record, according to documents provided to ecoRI News via a records request. Although the crash data itself is not considered public record by RIDOT, the requests for the data and the agency’s responses to those requests are.

RIDOT Director Peter Alviti, Jr.

Denial, appeal, response

When Providence Streets Coalition member Jamie Pahigian’s request for the data was denied, he chose to file a complaint with the attorney general, which was first reported in The Providence Journal.

Pahigian said he requested data on crashes that involved pedestrians and people using bicycles, scooters, wheelchairs, and other personal mobility devices in Providence from 2007 to 2022 to help make a map of the city and help identify problem areas for walkers or people using such devices.

“Our thinking is if people are making decisions about infrastructure changes, that should be informed by where the risks are and where the potential for greater benefit is from,” he told ecoRI News after he filed the complaint. “If we’re going to spend money to reconfigure an intersection, we should consider what the pedestrian experience is now.”

Pahigian argued in his complaint that RIDOT should release the information because he was not using it in a lawsuit and because the same information was available to the public from police departments.

But the attorney general found RIDOT did not violate Rhode Island’s Access to Public Records Act (APRA), under an exemption which makes “non-public any records that would not be available by law to an opposing party during litigation and records required to be kept confidential.”

“Even if the crash records can be withheld under APRA, that doesn’t mean they must be,” Silverman said. “RIDOT would serve the public well by heeding the AG’s advice and reconsidering its secrecy.”

Although Pahigian’s complaint was not resolved with a trove of crash data, he said he will try to advocate for legislation that mandates the information be public.

“The Attorney General’s ruling affirms RIDOT’s contention that the public currently has no legal right to know where traffic accidents and injuries are most common in Rhode Island,” he wrote in a statement to ecoRI News. “The only viable path to putting these records in the public domain would be legislation to bring Rhode Island up to the standards of transparency seen in states like Louisiana and Mississippi, which are actually far more progressive than [Rhode Island] on this issue.”

Red roads are owned by RIDOT and black roads are owned by the city

Other states share information

Other states have no problem giving the public access to information on where crashes are happening.

Jonathan Hall, a professor from the University of Toronto whose request for statewide crash data from Rhode Island was denied, said he requested data from the other 49 states and got results from more than 30.

The data collected by Hall will be used to evaluate the safety of driving-assistance technologies, like lane assistance and automatic braking.

Massachusetts was one of the states that gave Hall direct access to the data. The state’s Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has a portal that allows users to request and access a vast amount of statewide crash data.

“I can tell you what we do in our state, other states look in horror,” said Bonnie Polin, MassDOT manager of Highway Safety Programs. “They don’t have the ability to release information at all because of public records.”

The fear of being sued prevents some states from releasing the data, but not Massachusetts, she explained.

“The reason we decided to create the portal was because we get calls all the time,” Polin said. “I think maybe last time we recounted how many times we got calls and emails, requests, we had over 3,000 a year.”

Those requests came from journalists, traffic engineers, or even residents who were dealing with tickets in traffic court.

Now, the information can be accessed through MassDOT’s IMPACT portal. The website’s data visualization tool has 170 different criteria for searches.

“If you were interested to find out how many crashes in [a town in Massachusetts] involved a bus making a right turn, with a bicyclist, on a Tuesday, you’d be able to find those crashes,” Polin said. “You can query anything.”

MassDOT also uses the software to help with its own projects. The department has a little less than $40 million a year to spend on safety projects through the Highway Safety Improvement Program.

“It’s all data-driven, so it’s based on this,” said Polin, referring to IMPACT. “It definitely benefits us at [MassDOT], but it also benefits everyone else.”

Liza Burkin, of the Providence Street Coalition, who got her master’s degree in urban planning in Massachusetts and used the MassDOT tool frequently, said she would love to see RIDOT adopt something similar. “We’ve been looking for crash data. We need crash data as advocates and trying to understand where the problem spots are.”

In his statement responding to this story, St. Martin, the RIDOT spokesperson, wrote: “At this time RIDOT will continue to maintain its longstanding policy to follow federal law of not releasing crash data, but using it for its intended purpose to have RIDOT and our consultants propose improvements that make roads safer.”

Colleen Cronin writes for ecoRI News as a Report for America corps member.  She worked previously at The Boston Globe and has freelanced for many other publications.

This article is condensed and reprinted with kind permission from ecoRI News, September 25, 2023.  To read the article in its entirety please visit: https://ecori.org/dangerous-intersection-ridot-hides-crash-data-from-public/