raffic crash data tracked by the federal government indicates that a plateau has been reached. The number of Americans killed in traffic crashes has held between 40,000 and 43,000 for the last few years and is the leading cause of death for those between the ages of 3 and 33.
The good news is that the number of deaths has stayed level, even with more cars on the road and more miles driven. In terms of deaths per million vehicle miles traveled, the rate of fatalities is the lowest it has been since record keeping began.
Law enforcement has played a major role in saving lives on our nation's highways. Safety belt use stands at 80 percent now, and fewer people were killed in alcohol-related crashes last year, due in large part to the efforts of police agencies in educating the public and enforcing the law.
What can we do to save more lives? Along with improving highway and vehicle safety features, we must analyze and respond to data indicating when and how people are dying on our streets and highways.
For example, in the last 40 years, safety belt use has been responsible for more than half the lives saved through safety improvements. We also know that most passenger car occupants killed in crashes are unrestrained. Because police efforts have helped increase safety belt use to the 80 percent level, we can work to raise the use rate to an achievable 90 percent, increasing the number of lives saved.
There are still gains that can be made in the safety of vehicles. New equipment will help drivers avoid rear-end, intersection, and roadway departure crashes. Electronic stability control, for instance, has shown promise in reducing the number of rollover crashes, a type of crash involved in about one-third of fatalities. Other vehicle safety improvements include side curtain airbags and better window materials.
Engineers and policy makers are also examining standards that deal with how far the roof of a vehicle is allowed to crush and deform to help reduce head and neck injuries in rollover crashes. They will also be working in areas ranging from improvements to safety belt systems to more immediate notification of crashes to emergency responders.
For police administrators, the future of traffic safety is here. We have proven that effective leadership; good policy and guidelines; and trained and motivated officers can have a significant impact on saving lives and preventing injuries.
Your leadership sets the tone for the members of your agency, determining whether enforcement of safety belt and alcohol laws is a priority or an afterthought. By taking a strong public stance, you send an important message that saving lives is worth the effort of making a traffic stop for a seat belt violation or undertaking the mountain of paperwork involved with a drunk driving arrest.
Participate in the national high-visibility belt, alcohol, and speed enforcement mobilizations. These are proactive lifesaving programs that can result in positive publicity for your agency. Each of these enforcement efforts is accompanied by national publicity. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also publishes public information materials that you can tailor to your local market and needs to help educate your community.
Effective policy statements include not only procedures but also enforcement guidelines for officers to follow in belt, alcohol, and speed enforcement. Guidelines provide clear statements about the importance the agency places on traffic safety. The IACP has developed model policies and guidelines to help.
Contact your state highway safety office for training assistance on traffic safety topics. Training programs are available that range from an overview of the traffic function in a law enforcement agency to the highly technical DRE (drug recognition expert) training program. Recognize officers who make the extra effort to keep our streets safe.
Analyze your crash data to see where and when the problems in your jurisdiction are occurring. This analysis will also provide insight into how to focus your public information and education efforts.
Your review of your local crash data will likely bear out what has been seen nationally. Young people are more often unrestrained when they are injured or killed in a crash, and they are more likely to have been drinking. In 2003, nearly one-third of drivers aged 15-20 killed in crashes had been drinking, and 25 percent of those had a blood alcohol level above 0.08. Of those in this age group, 74 percent were unrestrained when they were killed in a crash.
Another area of concern involves motorcyclists. Fatalities for those on motorcycles have increased 85 percent since 1997, making this group an effective target for education on the importance of helmets and safe riding skills.
Take the lead in your community to make traffic safety a priority. Educate your officers and the public. You can increase safety belt use, decrease the number of those who choose to drink and drive, and save lives. ■