By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana; and Robert T. Wall, Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Coordinator, IACP National Law Enforcement Challenge
he intended outcome of an effective law enforcement traffic safety program is crash reduction, in terms both of total number and of severity. Saving lives and preventing injuries on the roadways of any jurisdiction involves several elements, including sound policy, training, recognition for officer achievement, public information, enforcement, and evaluation.
It is no accident that these elements form the judging criteria for the IACP’s National Law Enforcement Challenge, a program that recognizes agencies that go above and beyond the call of duty to keep their streets safe for drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.
Last month in this space, we looked at the judging process for the Challenge and encouraged you to critically review your traffic safety efforts. Perhaps your evaluation found that you were doing everything you could possibly do to increase safety belt use, detect impaired drivers, and reduce speed violations. If so, congratulations! Complete the Challenge application and send it in so that others may learn from you.
If, on the other hand, you found some areas of your traffic safety education and enforcement work could use improvement, read on. Take heart, though, in the fact that you are not alone. There is still plenty of time to enhance your programs and submit a winning entry for the 2007 National Law Enforcement Challenge.
Policy and Guidelines
The foundation of a well-managed law enforcement agency is in its written policies and procedures. For your traffic safety program, the most important policy statement is the agency’s requirement that all officers use safety belts—no excuses, no exceptions. Not only is buckling up critical for the safety of law enforcement personnel, but it also sets a vital example for the rest of the motoring public.
In the same vein, use of safety belts by agency administrators and supervisors sets the tone for the rest of the agency. A clear and concise agency policy requiring belt use is useless if the agency’s leadership fails to adhere to it and supervisors do not continually enforce it.
Other policy statements should make it clear to officers that traffic safety—specifically regarding nonuse or improper use of safety belts and child restraints, alcohol consumption, and speeding—are priorities. In the rush and routine of the typical patrol officer’s day, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that traffic safety is an important part of an agency’s responsibility to the public. Enforcing traffic law is seldom as glamorous as making a high-profile arrest for a violent crime or solving a string of burglaries. The reality is, however, that officers are more likely to save a life by detecting and apprehending an impaired driver than they are by targeting any other category of criminal offense.
In order to communicate your agency’s guidelines, choose the venue you deem most appropriate. Administrators may elect to include statements in written policy, as part of the department’s goals and objectives, or through memoranda distributed to all employees. These statements go beyond, for example, operational guidelines for setting up a DUI checkpoint. Neither is it sufficient to recommend simply that employees follow state law and buckle up. It is providing guidance about the importance of what should be enforced—not just articulating enforcement procedures—that makes a real difference.
Pop quiz: what are the requirements of your state’s child passenger safety law?
Chances are that if you cannot immediately answer that question, neither can your officers. When agencies are timid and unsure, it’s unlikely that they will be aggressive and consistent with their enforcement actions.
If agencies regard saving lives and preventing injuries by reducing crashes as an important law enforcement duty, it follows that traffic safety topics would consume an appropriate portion of their training time investment. Training is essential to performance, regardless of the task. Training on traffic issues must be part of an agency’s balanced educational program to ensure that officers have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to address safety on the streets and roadways in their jurisdiction through enforcement and public education.
Enforcing traffic laws can be challenging. If you correctly answered the child passenger law question above, then you are probably familiar with how much that law has changed over the years. Have changes occurred in your state’s impaired-driving laws and regulations as well? How do you update your employees when these changes occur?
The training presented should not only answer technical questions (such as specific law requirements) but should also increase officers’ understanding of the extent of the problem and law enforcement’s role in the solution. While supervisors may understand that aggressive enforcement of safety belt laws increases correct use rates, which in turn saves lives, officers may hear only an administrative interest in more tickets.
Training should lead officers to address the issue effectively by citing violators in areas of frequent crashes, for instance, rather than in locations where tickets come easy but crashes are few. This is important to public understanding and support for traffic enforcement: when the goal (saving lives) is clear and the methods are appropriate (focused enforcement on violations where and when crashes occur), public acceptance—and even appreciation—will follow.
Clear policy and a training emphasis are two of the important cornerstones of an effective law enforcement traffic safety program. Join us here next month as we continue discussion of the Challenge with more information on creative methods and good sources of training, as well as a look at public information/education, enforcement, and evaluation of your efforts. ■