Health reporting project leads to more questions for the future
This past year, Lake County News has dedicated a lot of time, planning, information gathering and writing to our California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship project, titled "Hazards Ahead."
It's probably one of the best and most meaningful efforts of my journalism career; along the way, we've learned how to access a lot of new resources, use new tools and have made great friends and connections.
On the production and research side, it's been one of the toughest and most frustrating projects I've undertaken, which in retrospect shouldn't have been surprising.
After initially starting out on a much broader set of health topics, we narrowed our focus to Lake County's high vehicle crash rates. The major visual component was mapping crashes from the start of 2006 forward. The map can be seen here.
We found no lack of data, but as we moved forward we did find lack of uniformity among law enforcement and state agencies, confusing mismatches of information reporting and flat-out mistakes.
Regarding that last topic, as I was trying to match up fatal collision stats for 2010, I discovered a fatal hit and run bicycle crash from 2010 had not been reported as a fatal by the police department. That means it didn't show up in state fatal crash report. But I had written a story about it and documented it. Similarly a crash that wasn't a fatal was reported as one.
There is another curious issue that we discovered as we focused on crash causation. While many reports and much research have been dedicated to alcohol-involved motor vehicle collisions, few that we found delve into drug-involved collisions.
Just why that is isn't yet clear, but it's a point of concern, since our analysis of DUI- and drug-related crashes from 2006 to 2010 in Lake County shows that drug use amongst people involved in fatal collisions was equal to – and, in some cases, slightly greater than – alcohol use.
We're now asking ourselves, where does this project take us from here?
I've never been under the impression that we were going to complete this project and simply walk away from it. Quite the contrary: We want to use this project as a foundation for future efforts, which is one of the reasons why we plan to make our collision map a permanent, featured fixture of our site, updating it on a monthly basis.
There are other directions it can take us, including a drilling down on drug-related crashes, which – as we've noted – appear to be just as devastating by the numbers as DUI, although not as clear a focus of enforcement and education.
There are a host of epidemiological questions we can explore by looking closer at age ranges, times of day, times of year and so on. It's notable that most of our crashes didn't happen in bad weather or darkness, but in the clear light of day, in dry and clear conditions. As one California Highway Patrol officer told me, collisions are almost always preventable, and it would appear that he's right.
A future project could use the data we've collected and attempt to correlate it with toxicology results from fatal crash victims.
We are also asking local law enforcement to partner with us on making our mapping more accurate, more user-friendly and more comprehensive. So far we're getting positive, interested responses.
Hindsight is, indeed, 20/20. As I look back on the project, I wish I would have had a clearer understanding of what to ask and who to ask, but a great thing about the project is that I've learned those new questions and the answers, which of course will inform all of our reporting going forward.
We've also show our community members that their health and safety remains a top concern, and we hope they'll use the project to help make good driving decisions on local roadways.