Meet Dona Sapp, an Indiana vehicle crash data guru

Rachel Thelin and Dona SappView print quality image
Rachel Thelin, left, and Dona Sapp. Photo courtesy of Dona Sapp

Dona Sapp's official title is "senior policy analyst with the Indiana University Public Policy Institute." Unofficially, she could be called an Indiana crash data guru.

It's an expertise she developed over the course of a dozen years as she analyzed the many contributing factors to the more than 200,000 traffic crashes that occur annually in Indiana.

Since 2006, the IU Public Policy Institute has worked in collaboration with the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute to analyze vehicle crash report data from the Automated Reporting Information Exchange System, known as ARIES and maintained by the Indiana State Police.

The multidisciplinary institute is part of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Other traffic safety research team members include senior policy analyst Rachel Thelin, professor emeritus Samuel Nunn, and graduate and undergraduate student research assistants who are afforded opportunities to build their research skills on this data-rich project.

Having started as project manager during the early years of this partnership, Sapp now serves as principal investigator leading the Public Policy Institute's traffic safety research team.

Poster prepared by Sapp's team with headline Crash Statistics by Indiana State Police DistrictView print quality image
A traffic crash data poster prepared by the traffic safety research team. An accessible version of this graphic is available online. Photo courtesy of Dona Sapp

Researchers analyze trends and produce data visualizations that highlight traffic safety problem areas and provide essential information to state officials, local law enforcement agencies and other stakeholders as they apply for funding to support traffic safety program improvements with the goal of reducing Indiana traffic deaths and injuries.

Research findings are summarized in an annual series of fact sheets on various aspects of traffic collisions, including alcohol-impaired driving, speeding and other dangerous driving behaviors, seatbelt use, child passenger safety, motorcycles, young drivers, non-motorists, and commercial vehicles.

An additional publication provides detailed crash information at the county and municipality levels, and the final publication is the annual Indiana Crash Fact Book, which provides an in-depth view of Indiana crashes, incorporating the more than 200 data items collected from each crash report.

These publications are the go-to source for easily accessible information concerning traffic collisions in Indiana.

"What I think is great about this project and this work is that it allows people at the state, local and national levels to make informed decisions," Sapp said. "We provide our partners with meaningful information they need to build public awareness and to develop programs to tackle traffic safety problems in their communities.

"This is a very collaborative project. ICJI is a great partner, and the people there have worked very hard to build and sustain a strong statewide collaboration. We work with state and local collaborators who are all committed to sharing information and creating linkages between various data sets. Our team also works very closely with the IU Department of Biostatistics, which assists us in this effort. Some of these innovative approaches have had a tremendous impact on the ability of policymakers and practitioners to make informed decisions, whether it results in legislative changes, policy changes or developing new programs. It's very rewarding."

One traffic safety issue that Public Policy Institute researchers helped to tackle was expanding use of seatbelts in Indiana. Drawing upon the institute's analysis, the Indiana General Assembly adopted legislation several years ago that required all occupants of passenger vehicles to wear seatbelts, a move that not only dramatically increased seatbelt use in cars, but in pickup trucks and SUVs as well.

Another issue involved the development of a graduated driver's licensing system for young Hoosier drivers to help them gradually gain experience and skills in a lower-risk environment before earning full driving privileges.

"The goal with the graduated driver's licensing law was to ensure young drivers are driving under supervision and with more restrictions," Sapp said. "When the GDL law was initially implemented, the rate of 15-to-17-year-old drivers involved in crashes dropped quite a bit." Indiana recently expanded the GDL system to cover drivers ages 18 to 20, and the institute research team plans to examine the effects of this expansion in the coming months.

A new priority in Indiana and across the nation is the examination of data collection concerning drug-impaired driving. "We're working with a group of partners across the state to improve the testing and reporting of drug use while driving," Sapp said. "We're hoping that going forward we can develop ways to provide a clear understanding of this problem that will assist state and local law enforcement, service providers, and other organizations in their efforts to tackle this growing problem. It is going to take a team effort."

One trend that has continued to concern Sapp over the years is the driving habits of young male drivers.

"Whether it's seatbelt use, speeding while driving or other aggressive driving behaviors, young male drivers are much more likely to engage in dangerous driving behaviors than people in other age groups or female drivers," Sapp said. "That's something that is a consistent trend not only here but elsewhere. It's an area that is ripe for new, innovative programs to improve young males' driving behaviors and increase their awareness of the potential consequences of their actions."