By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana
t is appropriate that the first traffic safety column of a new year features enforcement of traffic laws as the subject.
After all, only law enforcement officers have the ability, call, and mission to stop and cite those who are violating traffic laws and ordinances. Among those who wish they could play a greater role are the advocates for greater attention to issues such as improper use (or nonuse) of seat belts and child safety seats, driving at unsafe speeds, alcohol- and drug-impaired driving, underage alcohol consumption, aggressive driving, fatigued driving, distracted driving, and the myriad other concerns that affect the safe operation of motor vehicles.
Those advocates covet the credibility of the law enforcement community with the public at large as well as law enforcement access to the media and other forums to communicate the importance of these issues. Law enforcement agencies certainly understand their role in these areas, and police and sheriff’s agencies across the United States have stepped up with aggressive and creative public information campaigns, as was discussed in this space last month.
The elements of a successful traffic safety program have been the focus of this column for the past several months, based on the judging criteria for the IACP’s National Law Enforcement Challenge. Together the columns examine the basic and essential elements of an effective, lifesaving traffic crash prevention program at the municipal, county, and state levels.
An increasingly fun and popular competition, the Challenge has sought to encourage 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.
Previous columns have looked at departmental policy and enforcement guidelines; training; recognition of officers who exhibit exemplary performance; and increasing awareness by educating the public on the important topics of seat belt, alcohol, and speed laws.
Continuing to consider the categories on the Law Enforcement Challenge application and judging criteria in order, we come to the important area that is the exclusive domain of the law enforcement community: traffic enforcement.
For some, this term may conjure up a variety of negative images: speed traps, quotas, or more complaints crossing the chief’s desk. For others, the same term brings to mind much more positive images: safe roadways; courteous drivers; and a professional, proactive police department that consistently and fairly applies the law.
The difference in these two perceptions is often in how an agency enforces traffic laws and how well the public understands the purpose and importance of enforcement activity.
Methodical application of traffic laws means understanding what a jurisdiction’s problem areas are and where they are located. Analyses of historical and current crash data, traffic complaints, and observational surveys are among the ways to identify problem spots. Data-driven solutions will allow an agency to deploy resources, for example, where and when speed-related crashes are happening rather than to spots where high volumes of citations can be written but no crashes are taking place.
Many options for enforcing traffic safety laws are available. There are a variety of names for these tactics, including targeted patrols, saturation patrols, roving patrols, integrated patrols, blitz enforcement, checkpoints, and more. All have been tested, and their effectiveness documented.
Targeted patrols allow an agency to zero in on a particular geographic location or traffic safety problem identified by data analysis. For example, a particular intersection with a high number of crashes that would benefit from increased enforcement might be identified. The analysis could also indicate that officers should target a particular violation, as would be the case if belt use surveys indicate that drivers and passengers are not buckling up as they should.
Saturation or blitz patrols can be an effective tool. A high-visibility type of enforcement that tends to effect significant results, these patrols involve blanketing an area with patrol units. They can target a specific violation or all violations in a specified area. Saturation patrols are often used as an opportunity for neighboring jurisdictions to work together, covering a wide area and garnering good press coverage for the participating agencies.
Which enforcement tactic—or combination of tactics—will work for an agency depends on the problem it seeks to address and the staffing it has or intends to make available.
Ideally, traffic enforcement is integrated into the daily work goals of routine patrol operations. When all officers—rather than simply a specialized division or overtime detail—are responsible for enforcement activity, the result is likely to be more consistent action addressing crash and traffic problems in their areas. It has also been proven that aggressive traffic law enforcement positively affects crime detection and deterrence.
IACP Law Enforcement Challenge entrants have shown that creativity can be applied to enforcement just as well as it can be to public information campaigns. For example, judges have noted speed enforcement in problem areas successfully conducted with radar from a bucket truck, a stalled vehicle, and even by an officer dressed as Santa Claus.
Clearly, most of those served by the law enforcement community will obey the law. Some may simply need an educational reminder from a public service announcement to, for example, buckle up. A small segment of the populace, however, will only comply if they fear that failure to do so will lead to a citation or arrest. For that fear to be real, the enforcement in that jurisdiction also has to be real. Well-publicized, aggressive, and highly visible enforcement equals deterrence, which in turn results in fewer crashes and fewer lives lost.
Next month we will look at the value and benefits of evaluating an agency’s traffic safety efforts. ■