By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana
uccess in traffic safety is measured in terms of lives saved and injuries prevented, rather than by total number of citations written. Although consistent and aggressive enforcement is essential, roadside conversations with violators are but one part of an effective strategy to keep motorists safe. The foundation for a successful law enforcement traffic safety program is built on sound policy, training, incentives, recognition of officer achievement, public information, enforcement, and evaluation.
For the past several months, this column has focused on these foundational fundamentals while walking through the judging criteria for the IACP’s National Law Enforcement Challenge. The creators of the Challenge included these criteria for a reason: they are the basic and essential elements of an effective lifesaving traffic crash prevention program at the municipal, county, and state levels.
The purpose of this increasingly popular competition is to challenge law enforcement agencies across the United States to enhance their traffic safety programs and to share information among agencies about efforts that have successfully increased safety belt use, reduced impaired-driving offenses, and helped manage speed violations.
It should be noted that this series is not simply a primer on how to enter the National Law Enforcement Challenge; it discusses what works for agencies interested in reducing the number and severity of traffic crashes in their jurisdictions. Tips on completing an application to enter the competition can be found online at www.lawenforcementchallenge.org .
In previous columns, the judging process for the Challenge was examined, topic by topic. To this point, the important aspects of departmental policy and enforcement guidelines that help guide officer actions and state the significance of traffic safety work to an agency’s mission have been discussed. It has also been stressed that educating officers on traffic safety topics should be part of an agency’s balanced training program. Most recently, the column included an outline of employee incentives and recognition for exemplary performance in educating the public and enforcing seat belt, alcohol, and speed laws. It was stated that such recognition sends an important message internally and to the public and serves to motivate officers to reach higher levels of service.
In this fifth installment in the series, let us look at the area of public information and education to raise awareness of the issues of occupant protection, impaired driving, and speed enforcement.
Educating the public about traffic safety topics is best accomplished through a variety of forums. Although it may seem foreign to many who view enforcement alone as a means to change driver behavior, there is a body of evidence to show that enforcement combined with public information is the most effective means to increase safety belt use and reduce impaired driving offenses. It is also important to remember that police officers are highly respected sources of information about personal safety.
Most agencies are comfortable with assembling a press conference or writing and disseminating press releases to radio, television, and newspapers. This is an effective way to reach large numbers of people with a message. Many agencies routinely include information on alcohol involvement and use of seat belts, when known, in press releases on traffic crashes as a reminder for the public.
Press conferences also present an opportunity to involve community members in getting the message out. Crash victims who survived because they were properly buckled up can tell a convincing story. The stories of impaired-driving deaths also serve as meaningful reminders not to drive after drinking. Agencies should not forget other advocates and allies who have an interest in injury prevention, such as emergency room doctors and nurses.
The national enforcement campaigns around holiday periods present excellent opportunities to take advantage of U.S. national media work and localize the traffic safety message. Agencies can check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Web site (www.nhtsa.gov) for campaign planners that feature ready-to-use press releases, talking points, and suggestions for editorial page comment that can be adapted for local use.
Relying on mass media exclusively for conveying messages to the public, however, has a downside. Time and space limitations mean that an agency will see less than what it wanted or needed to say in print or on the airwaves. Avenues to better control the message are afforded through face-to-face events such as civic club presentations, employee safety meetings, and school group activities. Displays at community fairs and festivals are also effective means of getting the message out. Agencies can also develop their own brochures or use fact sheets from national organizations to help communicate the information.
Evidence from National Law Enforcement Challenge entries proves that communicating the traffic safety message is limited only by the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity devoted to the effort. For example, agencies have successfully deterred impaired driving by steps as simple as providing posters and coasters with enforcement and designated-driver messages to retail outlets. At the other end of the creativity spectrum, one agency successfully promoted awareness of impaired driving on New Year’s Eve by using a surplus military bus to provide safe rides for partygoers.
Ideas to promote seat belt use have ranged from contests and challenges with high schools to rollover simulators that use dummies to show the effects of nonuse. One agency cut a wrecked police car in half, using the back half to show proper use of restraints.
Increased awareness can cause changes in driver behavior. Creative use of a variety of avenues of communication is the most effective way to increase public awareness of traffic safety issues, improving an agency’s image as a guardian of public safety.
An important side benefit is that community residents better accept—and often support—aggressive enforcement when they understand the impact on their safety. Join us here next month for a discussion of enforcement tactics that work.■