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Highway Safety Initiatives

Arresting Rising Traffic Fatalities

By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP

As 2013 dawns, the immediate highway safety challenge for law enforcement is developing effective strategies to reduce the alarming increase in traffic fatalities. After recording declines in U.S. traffic deaths for the first six months of five consecutive calendar years (2007–2011), fatalities were projected to increase by 9 percent between January and June 20121 in the largest such increase during the first half of a year since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) first began collecting data in 1975.2 Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the first six months of last year rose 15.6 billion miles or about 1.1 percent over the same period in 2011.3

Significantly, these early estimates translate into the loss of 1,340 more lives than those 14,950 persons predicted to die during the first half of 2011. Based on the projected 16,290 traffic deaths in the first six months of 2012, an average of 89 lives were lost each day. Even though 2012 was a leap year, February 29 most likely accounted for only a small number of the additional 1,340 fatalities.4

The early estimates projected a 13.5 percent increase in fatalities during the first quarter of 2012, followed by a 5.3 percent increase during its second quarter.5 These predictions also tended to reflect the experience of jurisdictions that IACP Highway Safety Committee members represent. Consider the following examples:

  • Missouri reported a 31 percent increase in traffic deaths in the first quarter of 2012, 30 percent of which involved impaired driving;6 a 22 percent increase between January 1, 2012, and June 6, 2012;7 and a 10 percent increase for the first nine months of 2012.8 The increase was attributable to the mild winter, to motorcyclists,9 and to 63 percent of those
    fatalities not wearing seat belts.10
  • Arizona experienced an 11 percent increase in traffic fatalities during the first quarter of 2012, which was ascribed to impaired driving and to commercial vehicle violations.11 Sixty-three percent of its traffic deaths were not wearing seat belts.12
  • Georgia recorded a 15 percent increase in highway deaths in the first five months of 2012, with motorcyclists contributing to the increase.13
  • Cincinnati, Ohio, reported 12 fatalities in the first five months of 2012, with motorcyclists being overrepresented.14
Despite the severe fiscal issues and the increased responsibilities with which many law enforcement agencies continue to deal, there still are viable approaches by which agencies can positively impact the rising fatality rate in the United States, which—if the preliminary figures hold—was 1.12 fatalities per 100 million VMT during the first half of 2012, compared to 1.04 deaths per 100 million VMT for the same periods of 2010 and 2011.15

NHTSA defines “weekend” as being from 6:00 p.m. Friday to 5:59 a.m. Monday, and “nighttime” from 6:00 p.m. to 5:59 a.m.16 If law enforcement agencies enhance their enforcement efforts on weekend nights by harnessing the tremendous amount of information that their officers generate to pinpoint and then target specific incidents when and where they intersect, they are capable of reducing highway fatalities in the four crucial areas that are most often contributing factors in most traffic deaths.

  • Speeding. Speeding was a contributing factor in more than 30 percent of traffic deaths each year in the decade 2001–2010; in 2010, 86 percent of speeding-related fatalities occurred on roads that were not interstate highways.17 In 2009, between 12 midnight and 3:00 a.m., 72 percent of speeding drivers involved in fatal crashes had blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of .08 grams per deciliter (g/dL) or greater.18 Thirty-five percent of all motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes in 2010 were speeding, a far larger percentage than drivers of passenger cars, light trucks, or large trucks.19
  • Impaired Driving. In 2010, 58 percent of the 11,432 drivers who had been drinking and were involved in fatal crashes had BACs of .15 g/dL or greater.20 Further, the rate of alcohol impairment among drivers involved in fatal crashes was four times higher at night than during the day (37 percent versus 9 percent), and 31 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes on weekends were alcohol impaired.21
  • Occupant Restraints. Sixty-two percent of the passenger vehicle occupants killed between 6:00 p.m. to 5:59 a.m. in 2009 were unrestrained.22 In 2010, of the 5,189 passenger vehicle drivers killed with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher and where restraint use was known, 70 percent were unrestrained.23
  • Motorcyclists. Motorcyclists’ deaths increased each year—except one—between 2001 and 2010.24 In 2010, they accounted for 14 percent of total traffic fatalities yet for only 3 percent of all registered vehicles in the United States and for only .6 percent of all VMT.25 Fifty-six percent of those motorcyclists killed in 2010 were 40 years or older; motorcyclists’ fatalities in this age group increased 100 percent between 2001 and 2010.26

There is no practical reason for agencies to expend precious time reinventing the proverbial wheel. There already are successful programs that can be adopted or modified to address agencies’ specific problems, and the officers creating or implementing these strategies more often than not are able and willing to share their experiences. Several program descriptions follow.


    The Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety developed Summer HEAT (Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic), a comprehensive enforcement approach that tackled impaired driving, speeding, and aggressive driving and that reduced highway fatalities 14 percent in 2004 over the same period in 2003.27
  • The Cincinnati, Ohio, Police Department determined the primary causes of crashes (speeding and aggressive driving, alcohol- and drug-impaired driving, and seat belt violations) at those times and in those locations identified via data analysis. It implemented thereafter a comprehensive series of measures—including altering the road surface on two streets—that yielded in 2009 a 47 percent reduction from 2005’s fatal crashes, the fewest traffic deaths that city had experienced in 15 years.28

Impaired Driving

  • NHTSA has suggested employing sobriety checkpoints between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. to leverage their deterrent value, coupled with saturation or roving patrols between 9:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. when approximately half of all alcohol-impaired fatalities occur.29 This consistent combination of preventive sobriety checkpoints and high-visibility enforcement efforts at those times and locations when they will achieve the greatest success could continue to reduce these deaths.
  • Multiagency low-staffing sobriety checkpoints are one vehicle that can economically demonstrate agencies’ commitment to reducing impaired driving deaths and are force multipliers promoting cooperation and camaraderie among participating deputies and officers.30 They easily can be designed to take place within the confines of established shifts, thereby eliminating overtime expenses.
  • Similarly, the Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Department institutionalized checkpoints in 2003, essentially using one on-duty officer from each of its eight districts to staff weekly four-hour checkpoints or directed patrols coordinated by its Traffic Safety Division at locations recommended by the districts and warranted by ongoing reviews of impaired driving crashes and arrests, and remains a viable model for reducing crashes and increasing arrests without incurring overtime costs.31

Occupant Restraints

  • The Washington State Patrol pioneered a nighttime seat belt enforcement program that evolved into a national model.32
  • The Georgia Governor’s Office of Highway Safety and the Georgia Department of Public Safety are emphasizing nighttime seatbelt enforcement.33 Recently, 151 seat belt citations were issued during a two-and-a-half-hour period, and arrests were made for other violations discovered. Georgia’s seat belt use rate now stands at 93 percent.34


The New York State Police, in conjunction with allied agencies, initiated checkpoints focusing on motorcycle safety inspections, as well as on other educational efforts.35

Law enforcement officers and the agencies they represent must remain ever cognizant that numbers simply are means to gauge performance, but that each number represents flesh and blood: spouses, parents, siblings, children, neighbors, and coworkers. Despite ongoing funding and staffing issues, lives are too precious for law enforcement to ignore this issue. Identify your jurisdiction’s specific problems, select and implement strategies to address them, and reduce crashes and the deaths and serious injuries they produce. Those whom you strive to serve professionally each day of every year genuinely will appreciate all of your lifesaving efforts. ♦

1 “Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities for the First Half (January–June) of 2012,” Traffic Safety Facts—Crash Stats, September 2012, DOT HS 811 680, 1, (accessed November 20, 2012).
2Ibid., 2.
3Ibid., 1.
5Ibid., 2.
6IACP Highway Safety Committee, “Agenda Screening Meeting Minutes, March 31–April 1, 2012,” 3, (accessed November 20, 2012).
7IACP Highway Safety Committee, “Midyear Meeting Minutes, June 6–9, 2012,” 4, (accessed November 20, 2012).
8IACP Highway Safety Committee, “Annual Meeting Minutes, September 30, 2012,” 3, (accessed November 20, 2012).
9“Midyear Meeting Minutes, June 6–9, 2012,” 4.
10“Annual Meeting Minutes, September 30, 2012,” 3.
11“Agenda Screening Meeting Minutes, March 31–April 1, 2012,” 5.
12“Annual Meeting Minutes, September 30, 2012,” 6.
13“Midyear Meeting Minutes, June 6–9, 2012,” 3.
15“Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities for the First Half (January–June) of 20121.”
16 “Alcohol-Impaired Driving,” Traffic Safety Facts: 2010 Data, April 2012, DOT HS 811 606, 3, (accessed November 20, 2012).
17 “Overview,” Traffic Safety Facts: 2010 Data, June 2012, DOT HS 811 630, 6-7, (accessed November 20, 2012).
18 “Speeding,” Traffic Safety Facts: 2009 Data, May 2012, DOT HS 811 397, 3, (accessed November 20, 2012).
19“Motorcycles,” Traffic Safety Facts: 2010 Data, July 2012, DOT HS 811 639, 2, (accessed November 20, 2012).
20 “Alcohol-Impaired Driving,” 5.
21Ibid., 3.
22“Highlights of 2009 Motor Vehicle Crashes,” Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, August 2010, DOT HS 811 363, 3, (accessed November 20, 2012).
23“Alcohol-Impaired Driving,” 4.
24“Motorcycles,” 1.
25Ibid., 2.
26Ibid., 3.
27For additional information, see Bob Dallas and Ricky H. Rich, “‘100 Days of Summer Heat’ in Georgia: Taming Georgia’s High-Speed Driving Culture,” The Police Chief 72 (July 2005): 59–60, (accessed November 20, 2012).
28For additional information, see Daniel W. Gerard, Nicholas Corsaro, Robin S. Engel, and John E. Eck, “Cincinnati CARS: A Crash Analysis Reduction Strategy,” The Police Chief 79 (July 2012): 24–31, (accessed November 20, 2012).
29IACP Highway Safety Committee, “Midyear Meeting Minutes, June 4–7, 2008,” 3–4, (accessed November 20, 2012).
30NHTSA, Low-Staffing Sobriety Checkpoints, April 2006,DOT HS 810 590, (accessed November 20, 2011).
31Captain Susan H. Culin, email message to the author, November 15, 2012.
32For additional information, see Brian A. Ursino, “Nighttime Seat Belt Enforcement in Washington State,” The Police Chief 75 (July 2008): 40–43, (accessed November 20, 2012).
33“Annual Meeting Minutes, September 30, 2012,” 5.
34“Midyear Meeting Minutes, June 6–9, 2012,” 3.
35For additional information, see David A. Salmon, “Reducing Motorcycle Fatalities through Checkpoints and Education: The New York State Experience,” The Police Chief 75 (July 2008): 28–31, (accessed November 20, 2012).

Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, "Arresting Rising Traffic Fatalities," Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 80 (January 2013): 64–66.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 1, January 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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