y the time kids start making their list for Santa Claus, police administrators should already have completed their plans for keeping those kids and their brothers, sisters, moms, dads, uncles, aunts, and neighbors safe on their holiday excursions to grandma’s house. In other words, now’s the time to start your operational planning for the upcoming busy travel periods. We already know where to focus our attention to have the most impact on traffic safety throughout the holiday period: impaired driving, safety belts, and unsafe speed violations. Tactically, the approach to all three is the same: educate and enforce.
Teach Officers and Motorists the Safety Value of Traffic Enforcement
Education begins in-house, as we train our officers to ensure that they understand not only the technical aspects of a violation of state laws but also the importance to everyone’s safety of encouraging compliance. They should be aware that alcohol was involved in 16,885 deaths on our nation’s highways last year, 39 percent of the total figure of 43,443 killed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that more than 15,000 lives were saved by safety belts in 2005 and that another 5,328 would have been saved if everyone over the age of four buckled up. Speed was listed as a contributing factor in 30 percent of the fatal crashes.
Education also involves making the public aware of its role in traffic safety. Informing the citizens you serve helps gain voluntary compliance and increases acceptance of your department’s enforcement efforts. High levels of public awareness of the importance of safety belts, child safety seats, and air bags demonstrate the ability of law enforcement to deliver the traffic safety message. There is still more work to do in these areas, as well as the important topics of impaired driving and speed. Education of the public must continue as new technologies are introduced and a new generation of drivers hits the streets.
When there is understanding among the public of the extent of the traffic safety problem, motorists are more apt not only to understand but also to support increased enforcement efforts. When the public believes that traffic enforcement is all about revenue generation, you can expect lots of phone calls from irate motorists who have been cited. But when you and your officers reinforce the message that impaired driving kills innocents and that police enforce the law to prevent tragedy (or that safety belts save lives, or that speed is involved in too many serious crashes), you will find much wider public acceptance of your officer’s work. Chances are, you will find surprising support for championing a lifesaving cause.
Explore Many Ways to Reach the Public
Public education is best accomplished by using a variety of communications channels: radio, television, newspapers (including high school and college), public meetings, Web sites, newsletters (not just your department’s but those of civic clubs, churches, and senior groups), e-mail lists, mass mailings, local tabloids, paid advertising, and public service announcements.
Press Releases: The first channel of communication we typically think of is the news media. Written press releases are a great way to get the important points of your traffic safety message to a large number of people. You should be prepared for your written information to be edited for brevity, but be ready for some writers who will call seeking additional information. Include a contact name and number of a knowledgeable member of your agency reporters can call for interviews. Prepare this officer with talking points about the extent of the traffic safety problem nationally and in your jurisdiction. Watch the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Web site (www.nhtsa.gov) for sample press releases, talking points, and editorial suggestions.
Press Conferences: News conferences get the media’s attention in ways that are limited only by your imagination. Uniformed officers and marked police vehicles make great photo backdrops. Partnerships with other professionals in your community interested in traffic safety provide a strong and unified message. If you don’t have an existing traffic safety coalition, reach out to potential advocates for safer streets by including them at your press conference. The list should include emergency room physicians and nurses, traffic engineers, elected officials, safety professionals, victims of impaired drivers, advocate groups such as MADD, crash victims who were saved from serious injury or death by use of their safety belt, and representatives of neighboring police agencies.
Presentations to Civic Groups: While radio, television, and newspaper contact will allow you to reach large numbers of people, there are other avenues of communication. Presentations to civic organizations, community groups, and business safety meetings may limit the number of people you reach at one time, but offer other significant advantages for delivery of your traffic safety message. For one, you are able to deliver your message without the time constraints of a short segment on the evening television news. In these settings, you are able to determine the points you need to communicate rather than be subject to the whims of an editor.
You can also use whatever props or delivery method you are comfortable with in front of a group. Some people prefer reading a prepared speech. Others like to talk from a PowerPoint presentation. You may choose something more dynamic to make your points, such as strapping raw eggs into a toy car to demonstrate the effectiveness of safety belts.
Word-of-Mouth: One method of getting the word out that we haven’t mentioned yet is good, old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Strict, aggressive, and consistent enforcement action will get people talking, helping you achieve your goal of voluntary compliance.
Combine Education with Enforcement
To be effective, good public information and education must be backed up by solid enforcement. Watch for holiday enforcement campaign dates and supporting materials from NHTSA that you can use to enhance your local efforts.