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Back to Archives | Back to March 2008 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Traffic Safety: Changing the Culture

By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana

ver the past several months in this space, we have applied the judging criteria of the IACP National Law Enforcement Challenge to the basics of a sound and effective police traffic safety program. The topics discussed in that series included 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; high-visibility enforcement; and program evaluation.

For many agencies, saving lives and preventing injuries through effective traffic safety programs have been normal, accepted parts of their mission. For others, making traffic safety a priority has required nothing short of cultural change. In some cases, department management has had to change the way it views the agency’s priorities and goals. Attitudes and beliefs about the importance of a safety belt citation have been changed through clear guidelines and effective training. How officers approach the tasks of traffic enforcement and public education has been altered by meaningful recognition for exceptional performance and clear communication about the necessity and positive benefits of these tasks.

Changing an agency’s culture can be challenging and complex. The rewards, however, are significant. For agencies that find themselves in need of changing their values and beliefs regarding their traffic safety tasks, participation in the Challenge can be an effective tool and a clear road map to bring about that sort of change.

Changing the way employees view the mission of traffic safety requires commitment, vision, and consistent actions on the part of an agency’s leadership. Personnel must see that management is committed to making the changes required in policy, training, and other areas of the agency’s operation. There must be a clear and clearly communicated understanding of the vision—of what leadership expects to result from the path chosen. Up and down the chain of command, actions must consistently reflect the value placed on saving lives through enforcement and education.

While this column discussed changing the culture of law enforcement traffic safety programs across the United States, the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety released a synthesis of 20 papers regarding the bigger picture of changing the norms and behaviors of the public at large toward driving and safety (available on the Web at The foundation, concerned about what it calls a culture of complacency in U.S. attitudes toward traffic safety, commissioned the papers, which were written from a variety of professional perspectives. The summary was prepared by the widely respected Dr. Jim Hedlund, a former associate administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In his introduction, Hedlund states,

The United States has a strong culture of safety in many areas. We expect—we demand—that our food is safe to eat, that our medicines are free from harmful side effects. We are not willing to accept a single commercial airline, train, or subway passenger fatality. But we seem not to care about more than 40,000 deaths and 2,500,000 injuries each year from traffic crashes or at least we don’t care enough to take serious action to reduce the toll. The best descriptions of our current traffic safety culture may be “indifference” or “complacency.”1

The summary finds the topic of traffic crashes to be unpredictable from one perspective and yet predictable from another. The deaths of each of the 40,000-plus individuals killed in crashes each year are “sudden, shocking, and unpredictable.”2 Taken in total, however, deaths and injuries from traffic crashes are very predictable and preventable.

Officers face a significant risk every day owing to the number of miles they drive in varying conditions and times of day—an issue not often discussed in the context of traffic safety. Given their greater exposure, they are at higher risk for death or injury that strikes “young and old, rich and poor, in all seasons and at all hours. Everyone who drives or rides in a motor vehicle or walks or bicycles on or across a road is at risk.”3

Citing the national success in increasing safety belt and child safety seat usage rates and reducing the toll of injuries and deaths from impaired driving, Hedlund is optimistic. He finds a number of specific ways to start changing the culture, including continuing to work with the law enforcement community to make traffic safety a priority. The researchers found that other elements that should drive change include communication; sound programs; enhanced research; and good traffic safety leadership at the national, state, and local levels.

Many of the findings in the papers fit with the working concepts proposed, promoted, and proven by the IACP National Law Enforcement Challenge. In his conclusion, Hedlund writes that crashes nationally “could be reduced by implementing known methods to increase seat belt use, to reduce speeding and alcohol-impaired driving, to incorporate additional safety features into vehicles, and to improve our roadways. They could be reduced further by investigating, developing, and implementing creative new strategies. Some progress is made every year, but far more could be done.”4

In many departments and agencies, participation in the IACP National Law Enforcement Challenge has provided a foundation for doing more. Accepting the challenge has allowed leaders to change the culture in their agencies, that is, the way their personnel view their traffic safety mission. For some who had already advanced their programs, entering the Challenge allowed them to refine their activities and win recognition from their peers. For others, participation has resulted in more dramatic changes in attitudes and effectiveness in increasing the safety of drivers, passengers, and pedestrians in their communities. ■


1James Hedlund, Improving Traffic Safety Culture in the United States: The Journey Forward, summary and synthesis (Washington, D.C.: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, December 2007), (accessed January 31, 2008), 2.



From The Police Chief, vol. 75, no. 3, March 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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