By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana
nother successful national mobilization has heralded the start of the summer travel season. Thanks to the many departments that actively participated in the Click It or Ticket blitz, more people are now buckling up—saving many lives and preventing numerous injuries.
As U.S. police officers investigate nearly 6 million motor vehicle crashes each year, the value of national mobilizations and the potential to make a difference are clear. Impaired drivers are being removed more effectively from our streets and highways with aggressive enforcement and heightened public information work. Safety belt use stands at 82 percent, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with much of the credit for that going to the law enforcement agencies across the United States that have not only actively participated in the national mobilizations but made saving lives a part of the daily routine.
Still, more than 2.5 million people are injured in crashes each year, and more than 42,000 die. These numbers mean that there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Dangers of Night Driving
In the experience of most police officers, crashes seem to be more severe and serious as night falls. Crash analyses undertaken by the NHTSA bear that out, showing that the fatality rate for passenger vehicle occupants is about three times higher at night than during the day. The data also clearly show that seat belt use declines through the night as well, reaching its lowest point for fatally injured occupants between midnight and 4:00 a.m.
To better understand the reasons for this tendency, the type of vehicle operators on the road at that time of day must be considered. Late-night drivers include some of those most willing to take risks: young males, drivers with a less-than-perfect driving record, impaired drivers, and those who continue to ride unrestrained.
With initial research indicating that nighttime seat belt use rates are at least 6 percent below daytime numbers, it is clear that increasing enforcement at night is one of the steps that must be taken to reduce nighttime fatality rates. It is also clear that enforcing occupant restraint laws at night presents a special set of challenges.
Difficulties of Nighttime Enforcement
Obviously, it is more difficult to observe seat belt law violations during low-light conditions. Some departments have reported successfully using night vision goggles and scopes; however, agency administrators should be aware that at least one agency experienced negative public reaction to this use of technology in belt enforcement.1
Detailed research on increasing seat belt use at night is expected to be released later this year. For now, there is preliminary information from projects in West Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, Indiana, and Pennsylvania that agencies can use to get started. These projects used observer officers, saturation patrols, checkpoints, or “minicade” details to increase belt enforcement at night.
The NHTSA explains that minicades are similar to checkpoints but use less staffing and are designed to be mobile. Saturation patrols are focused enforcement efforts that involve high-visibility traffic law enforcement activity in a specific geographic area, either by a single department or through coordination with multiple agencies to maximize resources and impact. Saturation patrols have been applied to nighttime belt enforcement in many locations with great success.
Most jurisdictions have areas that are sufficiently lighted (such as intersections or off-ramps) to post officers acting as observers, who can then radio observed violations to other officers, who then take enforcement action. Safety should be a priority in selecting the location for the observer. Information to be communicated includes the vehicle description and the location in the vehicle of the unrestrained occupant.
The Greenville, North Carolina, Police Department used portable light towers that were moved to different locations each night. Officers in cars and on motorcycles observed violations as traffic moved through the lighted area. The department used the light towers to supplement saturation patrols, and some of the selected locations were in highcrime areas to use the resources as effectively as possible.
Checkpoints are also an effective tool for nighttime belt enforcement. A checkpoint, as defined by the NHTSA, is an organized, planned, and systematic operation designed to identify traffic law violations. Conducted in compliance with state and local laws, an operational plan defines the location, time frame, and method used to contact drivers passing through the checkpoint.
These high-visibility enforcement activities generally result in good media coverage as well as arrests for other offenses beyond seat belt law violations. (For this reason, it is a good idea to have personnel trained in standardized field sobriety testing on hand at nighttime checkpoints). Full-scale checkpoints require good staffing and equipment such as variable message signs, reflective vests, cones, and lighting.
Police in Reading, Pennsylvania, developed an enforcement plan that combined saturation patrols and checkpoints with minicade details. Minicades are set up in high-traffic and highly visible locations, with safety as a determining factor.
Creative, aggressive, and well-publicized nighttime enforcement can make a significant difference in seat belt use rates during these dangerous hours for vehicle occupants. As a bonus, it appears that the work and effort invested at night carries over into increased belt use during the day as well. ■
1See “Nighttime Seat Belt Enforcement Strategies,” NHTSA, http://www.nhtsa.gov/staticfiles/DOT/NHTSA/Click%20it%20or%20Ticket/Articles/Associated%20Files/NightSeatBelt.pdf (accessed May 1, 2008), 6.