By Earl M. Sweeney, Commissioner, New Hampshire State Liquor Commission; and Chair, IACP Highway Safety Committee
raffic death statistics are astonishing; during any three-day period of any year, between 300 and 400 people will die in traffic crashes somewhere in the United States.1 Each victim will leave behind a family or loved ones, each victim will be mourned by someone, and each victim will have had something to contribute to society that is lost forever.
Police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, department of transportation workers, employees of contractors working on road jobs, and tow-truck operators also can become traffic crash victims. Certain necessary actions place these workers in harm’s way of motorists. Police officers pursuing a drunk or reckless driver or an escaping felon, or when stopped at the roadside writing a ticket or investigating a crash, are in danger out of necessity. Others responding to crashes can perish while providing a medical response, fighting vehicle fires, clearing debris, and removing vehicles. Transportation workers who maintain the roadways, remove the roadside trash and hazards, or work with construction contractors building or maintaining highways are also at risk. One person every 10 hours is killed somewhere in a work zone in the United States.2
Traffic deaths kill more than one police officer a week.3 Between 20 percent and 25 percent of firefighter deaths are caused by motor vehicle collisions,4 and many of these firefighters will be struck while assisting police officers at crash scenes.5
Every three days, more than 19,000 people—equal to the population of a small city—are injured in the nearly 16,000 reportable crashes each day.6 Some victims will be disabled for life, and others will suffer unimaginable pain, while still others who have inadequate or no insurance coverage and who are involved in crashes with uninsured or underinsured drivers will be burdens on society or will lack the care they need to once again become productive members of society. In many cases, the license of an at-fault driver involved in such a crash will have been already under suspension or revocation for drunk driving or for amassing a poor driving record, yet that person continued to drive because the perceived odds of being caught were so slender. The cost to the national economy for crash-related injuries and deaths over a typical three-day period will exceed $1.8 billion7—money that could be used to address other pressing societal problems or to reduce the nation’s ballooning governmental deficits.
The tragic fact is that most of these annual deaths and injuries and most of the property damage and economic losses are preventable. Nearly one-third of these deaths will be caused by a drunk driver.8 Excessive speed will be a factor in more than 12,000 of them.9 A few will be caused by faulty brakes, steering, and worn-out suspension components. Some will fall victim to aggressive drivers who run red lights and stop signs. The number caused by sleepy drivers or by drivers talking on cell phones, text messaging, or manipulating an iPod or similar device will be underreported.
Traffic crashes are the major cause of death of persons between the ages of 3 and 34.10 Many deaths result from people not wearing their seat belts and not buckling their children properly in approved child-safety seats. Many crashes involve those invincible-feeling folks mistakenly believing that they can drive through all sorts of inclement weather. Unfortunately, they often leave the roadways and hit trees, roll over, or careen across the centerline into oncoming motorists because they were in a hurry and thought their personal schedules trumped other people’s safety.
There are other costs to society, too, besides property damage, personal injury, and lives lost. Americans depend on the trucking industry for a great many deliveries. This industry operates in a fast-cycle supply chain. Businesses and factories today carry very little warehouse stock and seek a “just in time” short production cycle from raw goods, to factories, to retail businesses. The groceries picked up at a supermarket today were probably delivered yesterday. Most major stores keep two days or fewer of perishable items on hand. Gasoline probably arrived at the local filling station sometime this week, or there would have been none to sell. The part a dealer needs to repair a car today probably arrived in the parts department the night before, or was ordered this morning for an afternoon delivery. Whenever a truck is caught in a traffic jam, the price of goods and services goes up. The trucking industry lost more than 243 million hours in 2004 due to traffic bottlenecks,11 and 25 percent of the trucks caught in these bottlenecks were waiting for roadways to clear after traffic incidents.12 In addition to the loss of billions of dollars, many lives are lost due to secondary collisions that occur when the road is not quickly cleared.
The only strategy that consistently is proven to reduce deaths, injuries, and property damage due to crashes is proactive, consistent enforcement of the traffic laws. Traffic enforcement is not an annoyance—it is a necessity and a lifesaving tool. The first thing most new police officers do when they are turned loose in a police car by themselves is stop a traffic violator. All it takes to enforce the traffic laws is two tools: a traffic law book and a ticket book. The public supports traffic enforcement that is fairly applied, consistent, data-driven, and not seen as merely a way to produce revenue. Citizens responding to opinion polls in hundreds of communities, even in high-crime areas of inner cities, report that the number one or two top priorities they want from their local police agency is to stop dangerous driving.13
If a department’s traffic enforcement efforts are met with unexpected resistance, it may be time to look at the “bedside manner” of the officers doing the work, to be sure they are trained in and are using the proper approach when they issue a ticket or a warning. Reviewing in-car videos and having supervisors ride occasionally with their officers can correct these problems.
Every uniformed police officer has an obligation to make traffic stops—it is not just a job for specialists. Hats off to the chiefs and officers that make traffic work a priority. Everyone should respect and admire them for what they do. It is not a pleasant experience to have a combative drunk driver urinate all over the backseat of a cruiser, or to pull a small child’s broken body out of a wrecked car and feel sick for weeks afterwards. It is no fun to see a DWI case lost because of a technicality after the officer spent hours at the end of shift completing the report and missed a family event as a result. These officers can be very proud of what they do—they will never know how many lives they have saved or the crimes and crashes they have prevented by just being out there.
Police administrators, whenever they address their officers, should remember to thank them on behalf of the children, the soccer moms, the hardworking dads, and the elderly grandparents that depend on them and that feel safer when they see these guardians of the public safety out there watching traffic or pulling over a violator. ■
1NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, “2008 Data Overview,” Traffic Safety Facts, DOT HS 811 162 (December 2009), 1, http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811162.pdf (accessed March 5, 2010).
2Federal Highway Administration, “Work Safety Zone Fact Sheet,” http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/wz/facts_stats (accessed February 4, 2010).
3National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, “A Tale of Two Trends: Overall Fatalities Fall, Fatal Shootings on the Rise,” Research Bulletin (December 2009): 3, http://www.nleomf.com/assets/pdfs/2009_end_year_fatality_report.pdf (accessed February 4, 2010).
4U.S. Fire Administration, “Historical Overview,” findings from the report: Firefighter Fatality Retrospective Study 1990–2000 (October 14, 2009), http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/fireservice/fatalities/statistics/history.shtm (accessed February 4, 2010).
5Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association, Protecting Emergency Responders on the Highways, Howard S. Cohen, ed. (October 1999), 3, http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/cvvfa.pdf (accessed May 24, 2010).
6NHTSA, “2008 Data Overview,” Traffic Safety Facts, 1.
7Augustus “Chip” Chidester, NHTSA’s Sources of “Real World” Crash Occupant Protection Data, DOT HS 811 273 (February 12, 2010), http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811273.pdf (accessed March 5, 2010).
8NHTSA, “2008 Data Overview,” Traffic Safety Facts, 4.
9NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, “2007 Data Review,” Traffic Safety Facts, DOT HS 810 993 (February 2009): 7, http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/810993.pdf (accessed March 5, 2010).
10NHTSA, “2008 Data Overview,” Traffic Safety Facts, 1.
11American Trucking Association, “Highway Bottlenecks Cost Truckers Millions of Lost Hours in 2004,” Handson News (April 2006), http://www.hansonlogisticsgroup.com/enews/Ap2006/highwaybottlenecks.html (accessed March 9, 2010).
12FHWA, “Figure 2.9: Sources of Congestion,” 2.0 National Freight System Capacity and Performance (December 9, 2008), http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/otps/bottlenecks/chap2.htm (accessed March 8, 2010).
13IACP Highway Safety Committee, Traffic Safety in the New Millennium: Strategies for Law Enforcement (November 2001), 13, http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/enforce/TrafficSafety.pdf (accessed March 9, 2010).
Please cite as:
Earl M. Sweeney, "Highway Safety Initiatives: Traffic Enforcement: An Aggravation or an Invaluable Tool?" The Police Chief 77 (July 2010): 68–70, http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/naylor/CPIM0710/#/68 (insert access date).