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Back to Archives | Back to February 2009 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Why Are Traffic Laws Enforced?

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

f there were a personality profile test for law enforcement traffic managers, a central question would read as follows:

Traffic laws are enforced and the public is educated on traffic safety topics because:
A. We have to.
B. We’ve always done it.
C. It generates good revenue.
D. There’s nothing a law enforcement agency can do that has as much potential to save lives and prevent injury.

The best candidate would, of course, answer “D.” Truly, there are few activities in which a law enforcement officer can engage that have the same level of positive impact as increasing safety belt use rates through enforcement and education, removing impaired drivers from the streets before they are involved in crashes, or reducing the incidence of dangerous speed violations.

Unfortunately, in too many agencies, traffic law enforcement is approached as a laborious task rather than a golden opportunity. Instead of focusing the attention of officers on the positive outcomes of their efforts, too much time is spent bemoaning court appearances or the reams of paperwork involved in an impaired-driving arrest.

A crucial component to any successful enforcement program, the attitude of agency leadership should be aligned with the agency’s mission, beliefs, and policy statements. Supervisors and managers play a role in encouraging officers not only to enforce the law but also to educate motorists about the need for enforcement. If the public understands the whys of enforcement—saving lives and preventing injuries—it will be less likely to object to stricter enforcement or to equate citations with revenue generation.

Agencies should take advantage of training opportunities offered by state highway safety offices and others to help effect any needed change in officer attitudes toward traffic enforcement. Line officers need to understand how important their enforcement actions are to making travel safer for everyone. One way to accomplish this is to ensure adequate training that explains the purpose and equips officers to do their jobs. Traffic Occupant Protection Strategies (TOPS), a course updated last year by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), is one example of training available to improve officer skills and knowledge; readers can contact their state highway safety office for upcoming training opportunities.

Creative Solutions

Effective training can result in new creativity to address old problems an agency may be facing. As the entries in the IACP’s National Law Enforcement Challenge competition attest, there are rewards for agencies that take bold steps toward making their streets safer. For towns, counties, and even states, entries demonstrate that the attitude of an agency and the public it serves can be changed for the better with clear goals and a little creativity.

Many have found solutions for locations with a high incidence of traffic crashes by strictly enforcing the law, working to educate the public, and coordinating with traffic engineers. Engineers can help identify design issues that may contribute to a crash problem or solutions to traffic problems, such as speed bumps and traffic circles, which have a traffic-calming effect.

Agencies have successfully taken on specific problems, such as aggressive driving, and found a renewed commitment among members to make a difference. Catchy slogans and even mascots have been used to help educate the public about traffic safety topics as part of state and local campaigns.

In many cases, crash data have been used to identify not just where crashes are occurring but what violations contribute to both the causes of crashes and the injuries that result. Armed with that information, agencies are able to develop strategies that involve enforcement and public education and result in significant and lasting effects on crash rates.

Participation in the national crackdowns around holiday periods has also been a factor in reducing deaths and injuries from crashes. These national efforts provide press-ready materials for local use to complement national media buys that reach large numbers of U.S. residents.

Partnerships and task forces are an effective way for jurisdictions large and small to increase the impact of their traffic safety efforts. Some involve a coordinated enforcement period, whereas others are more elaborate and include joint service agreements or contracts between agencies that allow the loaning of personnel to increase law enforcement presence in patrol efforts or aid in staffing checkpoints.

Nontraditional partnerships should be considered for specific problems. If there are problems in a jurisdiction involving large trucks, for example, state motor carrier safety agencies would be a good place to start.

Crashes and Law Enforcement Officers

Often overlooked in conversations about traffic safety is the impact of crashes on the law enforcement community. Beyond the time spent investigating traffic incidents, there is the emotional impact on officers who respond to scenes where fatalities have taken place, particularly those involving a child.

Of greater concern, though, is the crash risk faced by police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and state troopers each time they start their patrol tours. The chance of being involved in a serious crash is greater for a law enforcement officer than for members of the general public due to various factors, including the many miles driven in severe weather conditions, hours of darkness, and emergency response mode.

This past year marks the 11th straight year that more officers died as a result of traffic-related incidents than from any other cause. For that reason alone, the law enforcement community needs more officers that know the correct answer to the test question posed at the beginning of this column is “D”—traffic enforcement is about saving lives and preventing injuries. ?



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 2, February 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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