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Highway Safety Initiatives

Traffic Enforcement Faces Interesting Times

By Earl M. Sweeney, Assistant Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Safety; and Chair, IACP Highway Safety Committee

here is an old curse once attributed to the Chinese but that is more likely of English origin that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” It is the first of three supposed curses of increasing severity, with the other two being, “May the government be aware of you,” and “May you find what you are looking for.”

As to the first part of the curse, we are certainly living in interesting times today. I am in my 53rd year as a sworn police officer, and I have never seen a more interesting time or one that will require every ounce of forbearance and ingenuity that we can muster to keep our law enforcement agencies viable and provide the array of services that is now expected of us with the diminishing resources that we are being given to do the job.

Faced with all of these problems, readers cannot be blamed for thinking, “I have enough to worry about just keeping enough cars on the road, let alone focusing on traffic activity.”

Communication and Travel

But the fact is, there are two main contributors to our way of life today: one is relatively new—the information superhighway; and the other has been with us since the turn of the last century—the U.S. highway system. Predators exist on each of these systems. Parents can lock their doors at night and tell their children not to accept candy from strangers, but Internet predators are sneaking into their homes and communicating with their children by the hundreds of thousands. Criminal gangs, drug dealers, and terrorists are communicating with one another over the Internet and with throwaway cellular phones that cannot be traced. Con artists are fleecing the elderly population and stealing their identities using Internet and telephone scams.

The same criminals who are utilizing the information superhighway to their advantage continue, as they have since the invention of the automobile, to exploit the U.S. highway system as well. This means the basic building block of police work remains proactive traffic enforcement. Society is more mobile than ever before and so, too, are the criminals and the terrorists who are never more vulnerable to police detection and arrest than when they are traveling from point A to point B in their motor vehicles. And as ordinary citizens travel these highways too, the only thing standing between them and criminals are troopers and patrol officers in their vehicles and on their motorcycles, armed with the three best intelligence tools in the world: a pen, a motor vehicle law book, and a ticket book. Traffic stops save lives and prevent and solve crimes. If law enforcement agencies neglect the basics, criminal activity can grow in prevalence. Traffic enforcement is first among the basics.

Distracted Driving

One of the most pressing issues in the traffic safety world today is distracted driving. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates, 5,474 people were killed and 448,000 were injured in the United States alone as a result of distracted driving in 2009.1 Eighteen percent of these fatalities and 20 percent of injury crashes involved someone using a cell phone2—an underreported figure; and many more no doubt occurred when someone was text messaging, shaving, reading a newspaper, applying makeup, fiddling with the radio or a GPS device, or eating while driving. Increasingly, controlling a vehicle is becoming a secondary chore that is relegated to multitasking. For those who might have doubts about how dangerous this multitasking is, recall that the field sobriety tests used to detect drunken and drugged drivers are divided attention tasks. Therefore, it follows that anything that divides a driver’s attention from the driving task—whether it be the effects of alcohol, fatigue, or an electronic communications device—has a similar effect on driving ability.

The laws that U.S. legislatures have passed to address this problem are difficult and in some cases impossible to enforce. Law enforcement agencies must rely on other tools, such as educating the public and enforcing lane-control laws, following too closely laws, and other vehicle code sections to address these drivers.

And who are some of the most distracted drivers on the road? Police officers. The next time you meet one of your cruisers on the road, take a close look: It is likely that one out of every three or four officers on the road will be talking on a cellular phone. Combine this with distractions from radar readouts, license plate reader devices, and mobile computing, and it is a wonder cruisers stay on the road at all. I urge you to look at this problem and at the very least mandate through policies—and enforce those policies—that your officers have a hands-free cellular phone setup in their cruisers and do not text message while their vehicles are in motion. The lives saved could be those of officers and the community members they serve. ■


1National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Distracted Driving 2009,” Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note, September 2010, DOT HS 811 379, 1, (accessed April 18, 2010).

Please cite as:

Earl M. Sweeney, "Traffic Enforcement Faces Interesting Times," Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 78 (June 2011): 90.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 6, June 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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