By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana
ver the past several months, this column has examined five essential elements of a law enforcement traffic safety program: departmental policy and enforcement guidelines; training; recognition of officers who exhibit exemplary performance; educating the public on the important topics of seat belt, alcohol, and speed laws; and high-visibility enforcement. But for any traffic enforcement program, the evaluation of an agency’s operations and how they are implemented is an additional necessary component for maximizing effectiveness and efficiency.
This last element of a comprehensive law enforcement traffic safety program calls on agencies to examine how effective their efforts have been. This discussion has been guided by the judging criteria for the IACP National Law Enforcement Challenge. (In addition to the content-related judging points, which have been described in detail in this column, there is one other judging point, how well the agency’s application was assembled, which does not require further explanation.)
For the judges to have some knowledge of the effectiveness of a traffic safety program, the Challenge application asks specifically about measured changes in safety belt use rates from the previous year and the percentage of crashes that were alcohol or speed related. It also asks that an agency be aware of how many crashes occurred in its jurisdiction during the last three years.
These are basic numerical measurements of what effect an agency’s traffic safety efforts are having on driver behavior. Completing observational surveys of safety belt use allows an agency to continue refining its education and enforcement work in areas where drivers continue to commit violations. Comparing the percentage of alcohol- and speed-related crashes in an agency’s own jurisdiction with rates in others provides information an agency can use to more successfully target its public information and specialized enforcement activity.
A more thorough analysis of crash data affords even more opportunities to optimize the use of limited resources. A comprehensive analysis will look at the time of day crashes are occurring, locations that experience higher rates than others, and the cause of those crashes. Those data will help determine whether the best solution involves driver education or stricter enforcement of existing laws or indicates a need for roadway engineering improvements.
Evaluation Affects Every Area of a Program
To build a life-saving traffic safety program, an agency should not limit evaluation to data analysis, nor should it perform an evaluation only once a year. Rather, each of the elements this column has discussed these past months should be evaluated on an ongoing basis. Evaluations should be conducted to ensure accountability for a process, to understand whether or not a program component is serving its purpose, or to provide information that increases efficiency in the way a project operates. In other words, evaluation may focus on processes, outcomes, or impacts.
Applying evaluation concepts to each of the other elements of a traffic safety program reveals important and valid questions that should be asked. For department policy and enforcement guidelines, it is important to know that these statements communicate to officers the importance the agency places on its role in ensuring safe travel for citizens. Take a ride around town and see how many officers are wearing their safety belts on patrol. If they are all buckled up, that will indicate they understand that they set a traffic safety example for the public (or, at the very least, will reveal that supervisors are enforcing agency belt use policy).
Evaluating traffic safety training goes beyond simply measuring knowledge gained during the training. Continuing the tone set by the agency policy statements, one outcome should be an increased understanding of the role of law enforcement agencies in increasing roadway safety. Topics covered by the training program should be examined to ensure that they are focused on the problems revealed in crash data analyses. Officers have many training needs, but it is important to ensure that traffic safety topics are not squeezed out of the schedule. Agencies should work to achieve balance in their training programs.
For those officers who demonstrate exemplary commitment to increasing safety belt use, getting impaired drivers off the road, or reducing speed-related crashes, are they recognized in a meaningful way? Are community and advocate groups involved in recognizing these officers?
Getting the word out to the public should involve at a minimum working with the news media and giving public presentations on traffic safety. Look at how many feature stories were placed with media outlets on traffic safety. Make sure that routine releases on crashes are reporting safety belt use and alcohol involvement when known. For speeches and presentations to community groups, compare the topics to ensure that traffic safety is included.
Keeping Enforcement Programs on Target
Effective enforcement targeted to the problems that exist in the community can generate public support for any agency. Evaluating enforcement activity goes beyond looking at numbers; it helps to ensure that citations are written in a manner that addresses the existing problems. If impaired driving is a problem that needs addressing, a high volume of speeding citations will not have much impact (unless officers are discovering a significant number of impaired drivers on those speed stops). Similarly, if a jurisdiction has a major crash problem in its southeast corner, writing many tickets in the northwest part might not help.
As agencies look back and plan forward, they should not lose sight of the goal for the traffic safety program they are building: lives saved and injuries prevented. If your evaluation indicates your program met with success in 2007, go to www.lawenforcementchallenge.org and enter the IACP National Law Enforcement Challenge. We would love to hear what has worked for you and share that knowledge with others.
Thank you for taking the time to read this series. It is our hope that you gained some knowledge that will save lives on the streets where you live.
Stay safe. ■