The data collected at the scene of a crash by law enforcement officers are important for more than just drivers and their insurance companies. The information is also used on a much larger scale by state agencies and researchers to analyze and evaluate crashes, trends, and potential countermeasures.

“Big decisions get made based on that data—million-dollar decisions,” said Nichole Morris, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s HumanFIRST Laboratory and Roadway Safety Institute (RSI). “So you have to be sure that what goes in to that report is high quality and reflects what actually happened at the scene of the crash.”

To improve this data quality in Minnesota, Morris is leading a team of researchers in a project to redesign the electronic crash report interface used by law enforcement officers. The team’s goal is to create a new interface that improves the accuracy, speed, reliability, and meaningfulness of crash report data. Morris presented the work at one of a series of Roadway Safety Institute seminars last fall.

The project is occurring in conjunction with a redesign of Minnesota’s crash records database and is being sponsored by the Traffic Records Coordinating Committee (TRCC) at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) and by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

“In industry, they do this work all the time, looking at usability and design. But when you think about what a state does in terms of usability, nothing like this, to our knowledge, has ever been done. This makes it a very exciting and revolutionary project for Minnesota,” Morris said.

In the first phase of the project, the researchers completed a human factors analysis on the existing crash report interface, identifying several areas they hoped to improve. For instance, they wanted the new interface to be smarter, making better use of autofill features to reduce the amount of data entry for the officer. Based on feedback from officer interviews, the researchers also decided to change the order in which data are entered to make the process more intuitive.

Following the analysis, the team built two versions of a mock crash report interface for usability testing: a wizard and a form. The wizard prompts the user with a limited number of questions, one screen at a time, similar to the interface users see when installing new computer software. The form is similar to the current crash report interface and contains many questions and data entry points on each page.

The researchers then conducted four rounds of usability testing with law enforcement officers for both the wizard and the form. Results were split: half the officers preferred the wizard and half preferred the form.

Because of these findings, the TRCC is planning to build full versions of both, Morris said, which will allow officers to use the version they prefer.

Going forward, the researchers plan to make a few more adjustments to the research prototype before handing it off to the state vendor. The new interface is expected to launch in January 2016.

“The results of the HumanFIRST prototypes are being combined with the vendor’s prior experience for a best-of-breed approach,” said Kathleen Haney, traffic records coordinator at DPS. “This is a fantastic project, and the results will be relevant for years to come.”

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