By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana
Preparing for Holiday Travel
he end of 2008 will soon be here. November will bring the Thanksgiving holiday period and herald the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. After Christmas, there will be only days until the celebration of the New Year.
Each of these holidays brings an opportunity to save lives and prevent injuries by anticipating traffic safety issues and designing solutions, simple steps that can be taken now in preparation. September is not too soon for agencies to begin planning their enforcement efforts.
What Can Be Expected
Celebrations take place throughout the holiday period, as family and friends gather for the festivities. Many of these parties will have hosts who are not trained to monitor their guests’ alcohol consumption; neither do they understand when and how to intervene when a guest elects to drive impaired. Other hosts simply do not care.
Historically, fatalities resulting from someone’s decision to drive impaired increase during the winter holiday periods. A U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study of five years of crash data found an average of 36 fatalities each day as a result of an impaired driver. That daily toll jumped to 45 per day through the Christmas holiday period and 54 during the New Year holiday period.
At this point, the impact of gas prices on vehicle miles traveled during the holiday season is an unknown. The U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) estimates that distance traveled dropped by more than 40 billion miles in the period from September 2007 through May 2008. Typically, the beginning of summer and the Memorial Day holiday lead to an increase in travel during the month of May, but this was not the case this year. In fact, there was a 9.6 billion mile drop when compared with May 2007. In the 66 years the FHWA has been tracking these data, this was the third largest monthly decrease.1
Fewer miles traveled does not necessarily mean fewer trips—perhaps instead it indicates a decision to make shorter excursions. The favorable impact on traffic safety if that was the case could be fewer crashes related to fatigue.
A potential downside of more people staying close to home through the holidays would occur if the number of parties serving alcohol increased, leading to more impaired drivers on the road.
Preparing to Lead
Leading an effective law enforcement traffic safety program through the holidays requires a review of the current state of traffic safety operations. The tone is set with written directives, a trained workforce, active public information, analysis of crash problems, and aggressive enforcement.
Sound written policies and enforcement guidelines are the cornerstone of any enforcement effort. Internally enforced policies requiring safety belt use by officers, for example, lead to increased public enforcement of belt use laws. Policy statements that make clear the importance the agency places on traffic safety encourage more proactive officer engagement.
A trained officer is a critical part of a good traffic safety program. Officers that know and can apply the laws covering safety belt nonuse, speeding, alcohol use, and other topics are more comfortable with educating the public and enforcing those laws. Agencies can contact their state highway safety offices for information on available training programs.
As with a trained and educated law enforcement staff, educated citizens who voluntarily comply and drive safely are crucial. Most drivers observe safety belt laws and speed limits and routinely decide not to drive after drinking. There is another segment of the population that needs reminders through news stories, press conferences, public service announcements, safety presentations, and other public events.
Evaluating the traffic safety data an agency collects can help target public information work and guide enforcement strategies. For example, an area within an agency’s jurisdiction with significantly lower safety belt use rates would benefit from educational campaigns explaining the reasons for wearing safety belts and the provisions of the safety belt law. Similarly, a specific intersection with a high number of crashes caused by signal violations could see the collision rate lowered by proactive enforcement.
NHTSA and Other Resources
The holiday period will find national resources and support available to help get the word out that lives will be saved and laws are being enforced to prevent holiday tragedies. The NHTSA Web site (www.nhtsa.gov) will release materials supporting the national campaign, including prepared press releases, letters to the editor, talking points for speeches and media interviews, posters, print ads, and more.
The NHTSA campaign can be expected to target impaired driving and to be designed to support local law enforcement agencies’ efforts to improve traffic safety. Using the prepared materials simplifies the chore of getting the word out to the public and allows leveraging with national media to increase everyone’s effectiveness.
Local enforcement efforts can benefit through contact with other agencies in the area to work together on special enforcement details and joint press conferences. Coordinated efforts generate more media attention and are effective at deterring violations.
The proven combination of public education and active enforcement saves lives and prevents injuries. Agencies must prepare to work effectively through the holiday season. ■
1See “May 2008 Traffic Volume Trends,” FHWA Web site, http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ohim/tvtw/08maytvt/index.cfm (accessed August 1, 2008).