Ronald C. Ruecker, Director of Public Safety, City of Sherwood, Oregon
n the last 20 years, we have witnessed remarkable progress in vehicle safety technology. The broad acceptance and deployment of air bags, the development and use of better passenger restraint systems, and the engineering of vehicles according to a philosophy that places a premium on occupant protection have made vehicles safer. At the same time, we have witnessed an increasing focus on other factors related to vehicle crashes: stiffer penalties for impaired driving, the passage of primary seat belt laws, stricter child restraint laws, and a focus on designing safer highways.
Yet despite these improvements and enforcement efforts, the highway remains a very dangerous place. According to the World Health Organization, more than 3,000 people die on the world’s roads every day. That’s more than one million every year. In addition, as many as 50 million are injured or disabled every year.
In the United States alone, there is a death related to a traffic crash every 12 minutes. That adds up to nearly 44,000 deaths a year.
The simple truth is that for most of the citizens we are sworn to protect, the greatest threat to their safety comes not from violent crime or terrorist activity but from traveling in a vehicle.
Tragically, these fatalities and injuries are, to a great extent, preventable. Crucial risk factors such as speeding, not wearing seat belts or child restraints, poor road design, and, most critically, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can be reduced and even eliminated.
That is why effective highway safety enforcement programs are so vital to our efforts to protect our communities. In fact, I believe that it is no exaggeration to say that few duties of the law enforcement community affect the quality of life of our citizens as significantly as the rendering of quality police traffic services.
For example, in the United States, over 188 million motor vehicles and more than 170 million licensed drivers travel over two trillion miles a year on our streets and highways. Hazardous materials pass our doorsteps every day in quantities sufficient to destroy a city block if stored, transported, or handled improperly. Additionally, in today’s mobile society, motor vehicles are the primary method criminals use to reach the scene of the crime and to elude the police. Carjacking, motor vehicle theft, and drive-by shootings, as well as most drug deals, burglaries, and armed robberies, require a motor vehicle.
Surprisingly, given these facts, not all law enforcement executives recognize that traffic safety programs are an integral component of an effective, comprehensive law enforcement operation. Other law enforcement issues constantly compete with traffic safety for law enforcement resources, and too often traffic safety initiatives take a back seat to what are perceived as more important programs. Violent crime, gang violence, and the proliferation of illegal narcotics are important matters that, for many police executives, far outweigh the need to dedicate time to proactive traffic safety.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Study after study has shown that successful traffic safety initiatives have resulted not only in reductions in crash-related deaths and injuries but have also played a vital role in other enforcement efforts, such as drug and firearm interdiction. These efforts can have a significant impact on local crime rates.
As a result, I believe it is vital that we, as police leaders, take a leading role in promoting and implementing effective traffic enforcement efforts. We know that traffic enforcement saves lives and that it also helps to identify or prevent other criminal activity. We need to be leaders both in word and in deed, as we work to develop community-based strategies that will involve parents, educators, and activists who share the goal of promoting safer highways and, as a result, safer communities.
Traffic enforcement is not a glamorous duty. It is a silent and never-ending battle that law enforcement officers wage every day. There are no flags that wave or bands that play for the officers who, on their routine day on patrol, might stop people who could have caused injury or death to themselves or to someone else, perhaps even a child.
But we must never tire of our efforts to keep our roadways safe, to keep reckless or drug- and alcohol-impaired drivers off of our highways. Our communities expect this of us; our duty demands it. ■