By Joel Bolton, Project Manager, Gulf States Regional Center for Public Safety Innovation, Natchitoches, Louisiana
Across the United States, traffic safety news is good. In 2007, traffic fatalities fell to 41,059, the lowest since 1994. When measured by fatality rate per mile traveled, the rate is the lowest on record. The NHTSA began collecting data in 1988 on the number of occupants injured in crashes, and the 2007 total of 2.49 million people injured is the lowest of any year since then.1
Drunk-driving fatalities were down 3.7 percent, from 13,491 in 2006 to 12,998 the following year. Thirty-two states reported reductions in these numbers, which are counted when a vehicle operator has a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher.2
In addition, seat belt use rates continue to inch upward, placed now at 83 percent. Breaking down this number by type of vehicle, 84 percent of passenger car occupants are taking a few seconds to put on their belt; 86 percent in vans and sport-utility vehicles; and 74 percent for pickup trucks. In states with primary seat belt laws, use rates averaged 88 percent.3
Credit Where It Is Due
When the U.S. Department of Transportation released the news of the historic drop in traffic fatalities in 2007, it was careful to give appropriate credit to the work of the law enforcement community in reducing deaths and injuries on U.S. roadways. Secretary of transportation Mary Peters noted that the primary factors in the drop were “aggressive law enforcement” and vehicle manufacturers’ continued work to build safer cars.
When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that seat belt use hit an all-time high in 2008, it acknowledged the efforts of state and local police in attaining that high number. NHTSA acting administrator David Kelly pointed specifically to “high-visibility law enforcement” as a significant factor.
When federal officials informed the public of a significant decline in drunk driving–related fatalities, they once again recognized the role of the law enforcement community in making that happen. Secretary Peters said, “More drivers are getting the message that if you drink and drive, you will be caught, you will be arrested and you will go to jail.”4
Police officers, deputies, and troopers do not always receive this kind of credit for the hard work they do. The remarks from Secretary Peters and Acting Administrator Kelly are huge “pats on the back” from Washington, D.C., for the law enforcement community as a whole, and they should be accepted as such specifically by those individuals who are making the stops, writing the citations, and slapping on the handcuffs.
It is these officers who have accepted the challenge of making travel safer for all of us. They are the ones who made the effort to learn the law, tackled the technicalities of impaired-driving arrests, and completed the accompanying mountain of paperwork. They have been proactive and vigilant in watching for violations, in the heat of day and the cold of night. They have made stops on crowded city streets and on lonely rural roads.
Reaching the Next Level
The question now before law enforcement agencies and their officers is how to take this effort to the next level and continue the good work that has garnered such high-profile recognition.
Law enforcement leaders can pass the word of thanks along to their line officers and internally recognize what has been accomplished in their agencies. Think about those who took the initiative to attend extra traffic safety training to sharpen their skills, and do not forget those who made the effort to ensure that the training was available. Acknowledge officers who have helped get the word out to media and community groups that drunk driving will not be tolerated and that seat belt use is required.
If more training is needed, agencies can contact their state highway safety offices for assistance.
It is important to review policy statements and enforcement guidelines to make sure all officers understand the importance of traffic enforcementwhich is all about saving lives and preventing injuries.
Leaders should constantly evaluate what their agencies are doing, how they are doing it, and what needs to change or improve. This applies not just to programs but also to crash trends and enforcement efforts. Data analysis will reveal information that can help guide educational efforts, media releases, and other public information outputs. The data will also show where and when crashes are occurring, therefore enabling better allocation of enforcement resources.
The public should be informed about local enforcement effortswhat local agencies are doing and why. In this way, the public comes to accept the value of traffic safety enforcement more easily, overcoming any perception that writing citations is simply about revenue generation. Also useful is frequent follow-up with media information about the number of impaired-driving arrests and seat belt citations. It is important that the public understands that the law is being enforced and violations are not tolerated.
Even with the numbers trending in the right direction and credit being given where it is due, now is not the time for agencies to rest on their laurels. The law enforcement community can and will do its part to sustain this positive trend with creative programs that address seat belt, alcohol, and speed issues; high-visibility enforcement that creates a very real perception that violations will not be tolerated; and the belief that lives will be saved on streets and highways across the country. ■
1“U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters Announces Historic Drop in Highway Fatalities and Rate,” U.S. Department of Transportation press release, August 14, 2008, http://www.dot.gov/affairs/dot11308.htm (accessed October 2, 2008).
2“DUI Fatalities Down Nationwide and in 32 States, Says U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters,” U.S. Department of Transportation press release, August 28, 2008, http://www.dot.gov/affairs/dot12508.htm (accessed October 2, 2008).
3“Seat Belt Use Hits Record Level in 2008,” NHTSA press release, September 17, 2008, http://www.dot.gov/affairs/nhtsa0608.htm (accessed October 2, 2008).
4“U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters Announces Historic Drop.”