If you write a hyperlocal news site, I can guarantee you’ll have roads and junctions in your area which are known for being dangerous. It’s possible to use the Freedom of Information Act to get your local council to tell you just how dangerous they really are. The data you’ll receive could be the basis for several good stories for your site, or even a campaign.
I recently used an FOI request to find out the details and location of every road accident in the Saddleworth area since 2000. Authorities will normally only release ‘headline’ figures of casualties or accidents on a council-wide basis, but I used FOI to get not only the figures for the specific council wards which cover my area, but also details about each incident, including the exact location where each took place.
My interest in this issue was prompted by a local road, the A62 Huddersfield Road. I’d noticed it was often described in the local paper, or by councillors, as the ‘notorious’ or ‘dangerous’ A62. But there never seemed to be any statistics provided to back up this assertion. So I thought I’d see if I could find some data that might do just that, especially as the council had last year imposed new speed limits on stretches of the road, and had spent money on new warning signs.
My actual FOI request was very straightforward. I simply asked for details of every road accident which had been recorded on public roads in my three local council wards since 1 January 2000 (obviously this means ten years of data, I’ve been told by people who know about road safety that you need at least five years to see a pattern emerging). I also requested brief descriptions of each accident and, if possible, a map showing the precise location of them all, data I was keen to receive to see if I could pick out any specific accident blackspots in the local area.
Sure enough, after 20 days the council sent me all the information I asked for. The headline figures were surprising, showing a sharp fall in both the number of accidents and the amount of people either injured or killed. They sent me both short descriptions of each accident and small maps with the incidents all plotted precisely, a wealth of data which was pretty overwhelming when I first received it.
The data all surrounds something called a Personal Injury Accident. As you’d expect, a PIA is a road incident in which someone gets hurt, and it’s the details of these accidents which the council will send you. The short descriptions include information such as what exactly happened, the vehicles involved, the age and sex of the injured people, the weather and road conditions and any other factors which might have contributed to the incident.
While it was easy enough to write a story from the headline data (mine, published last Friday, is here – http://www.saddleworthnews.com/?p=2782), the process of looking at the rest of the data and picking out interesting trends or titbits is pretty difficult. The council sent me a map of the accidents for each of the three wards, for each of the ten years, so I was left with 30 little maps to analyse, all with dots where the accidents took place and serial numbers linking them to the brief written reports I’d also been sent.
To try to identify any blackspots, I decided to divide the maps into different junctions and stretches of road, and make a note on a separate piece of paper of how many accidents happened in each area in each year. This was a bit time-consuming and dull, but I was able to establish that certain stretches of, for example, the A62 had far more incidents on them than others. Most interestingly of all, in the data the council sent me covering the first half of 2010, after the new speed limits had been imposed, I was able to see that there had been no accidents anywhere on the A62 in Saddleworth during that time (I gave this a mention in my first story, and will write more about this specifically later this week).
As it happens, in my area councillors and others already seemed to be well aware of the dangers of that particular road, but it may be that the data in your area reveals a series of incidents in an unexpected place. This could form the basis of a local campaign for your site, which will be all the stronger for having proper data to back it up. There’s also the possibility that a particular type of incident seems to happen a lot, whether it’s teenagers being knocked down near a school or cyclists being hit on a specific road, and that might be worth investigating further.
I’m now expanding my own investigation, and have asked a neighbouring council for data relating to the A62 as it runs through their area, where there aren’t the sort of safety measures imposed in Saddleworth. There’s also nothing stopping you requesting the latest data again in six months or a year’s time, so you can monitor whether the situation is improving or not and keep a steady supply of interesting stories for your site.
One last point. By ‘interesting’ I don’t mean it has to be a bad news story about people dying or being injured. The data I got for my area showed a generally positive picture. But to my mind, for a hyperlocal site, a good news story about casualties coming down and safety measures actually working is just as interesting, especially as local newspapers traditionally focus on the negative, often complete with pictures of angry-looking councillors next to a junction.
Getting road safety data from your council is a good way of producing content which can be tailored to a very local audience. Even if your site covers just a street or an estate, you’ll be able to get that kind of targeted information. And it can give you distinctive, meaty stories about your local area, which your readers will still find interesting when they find them on Google weeks or even months after you’ve published them.