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Back to Archives | Back to September 2005 Contents 

Top Ten Trends: Traffic Enforcement

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


he field of traffic enforcement continues to change with the times, but some things never change. Traffic deaths continue to outnumber homicides in the United States by a factor of three to two. In this mobile society, citizens and police officers continue to share streets and highways with the reckless driver, the drunken driver, and the criminal. Traffic is a major issue for every community's residents. From hamlets to major cities, whenever a law enforcement agency conducts a citizen survey, traffic issues emerge as the number one concern that the community wants the police to address more effectively.

The traffic-related mission of the police, however, is not immune to the winds of change. Police administrators and managers must keep abreast of the latest developments in the field of traffic, just as they need to be aware of what is happening in the field of crime. In an effort to help the police administrator the IACP Highway Safety Committee, in collaboration with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has authored several publications that are available on the committee's page of the IACP Web site at (www.theiacp.org):

  • Traffic Safety Strategies for Law Enforcement, a living document that was recently updated

  • Highway Safety Desk Book, an excellent reference for a commander first assigned to a traffic unit or reassigned to one after a hiatus

  • Manual of Police Traffic Services Policies and Procedures, intended as a benchmark that police executives can use to review their agency's policies and from which procedures can be either developed or updated

Change is a constant in traffic enforcement and the following is the year 2005 compilation of the ten trends in traffic enforcement that is of importance to police executives.

1.     Speed Enforcement
Excessive speed is a factor in one out of every three fatalities in the United States and affects all other safety programs. A speeding drunk driver is more dangerous than one who is not. A speeding vehicle that runs off the road is far more likely to have a fatal result. A rollover that involves excessive speed is the most likely to result in death. Speeding through an intersection can result in a T-bone crash, considered the most fatal of all crashes. Speeding on a motorcycle and speeding by an unbelted youthful driver are particularly laden with danger. Speed reduces reaction time, braking distance, and maneuvering space.

Fatal crash statistics show that over 60 percent of all speed-related fatalities occur on rural roads. Motorists' disdain for observing the speed limit cries out for both an intensive campaign of driver education and targeted enforcement.

2.     Dangerous Work Zones
Road construction zones spring up daily. In the long run, this construction will improve the traffic flow but in the short run it creates delays and frustrations on the part of motorists, often reflected in carelessness and aggressive driving. Construction zones are dangerous places for department of transportation workers and contractor personnel. Officers involved in work zone traffic details must remain alert to stay alive themselves and to keep others alive.

An officer sitting in a police vehicle and providing only a flashing light to slow traffic or standing outside the vehicle chatting with contractor personnel or watching a ditch being dug is not effective. The officer must let the passing motorists know that their driving behavior is monitored, that speed limits are enforced, and that the officer is acting to ensure the safety of everyone in the work zone.

Supervisors should be required to check job sites frequently to ensure that officers are alert and active, and they should coordinate closely with contractors and department of transportation personnel to be sure work zone safety standards are being observed. In addition to the officer working the work zone, there also should be speed enforcement details to ticket persons who speed through work zones so that warnings about doubled fines for violations in work zones no longer ring hollow.

3.     Fatigued or Distracted Drivers
In an increasing number of traffic deaths, the crash report narrative states that the driver drifted inexplicably into a lane of oncoming traffic or drifted off the road and struck a roadside object. These incidents are becoming numerous enough that special attention needs to be given to fatigued and inattentive drivers.

The United States is becoming a sleep-deprived nation. Workers put in long hours and many work two jobs. One result is that they neglect their sleep, and the consequences of driving while fatigued can be serious.

And the multitasking motorists do elsewhere in their lives carries over to the driver's seat. For more and more motorists, the driver's seat is becoming a place to talk on the cellular phone or read a newspaper. These drivers are paying less attention to the road and spending less time controlling their vehicle.

While it is difficult to enforce against this type of behavior, law enforcement must take steps to reinforce the message that driving is a full-time task. Departments should apply the community policing technique of scanning, analyzing, responding, and assessing strategies to identify innovative ways to reduce the number of collisions caused by fatigue and inattention.

Departments with highway rest areas in their jurisdictions also need to have patrol units check these locations frequently and maintain a high police presence so that motorists feel that it is safe to stop and take a rest. All too often, motorists have come to regard rest areas as dangerous places to stop and sleep, traveling on under fatigue rather than resting for a safe trip.

4.     Sleep-Deprived Officers
Departments must set reasonable limits on the number of hours an officer can work in a day or a week, including regular time, overtime, and paid details. In some departments, officers have so much available overtime and are making so much money working these assignments that the regular patrol shift has become simply a place to rest up for the next paid detail. A recent study of several police departments in New England revealed that some of the officers who were working an excessive amount of details had reaction times equivalent to those of an intoxicated person.

In order to guard against this situation, policies and procedures should be in place along with an administrative review of overtime assignments to ensure officers are prepared to work.

5.     Safer Traffic Stops
More officers die in crashes than in shootouts. Officers sitting in their vehicles writing traffic tickets have been killed when their cruisers were hit in the rear by speeding vehicles driven by confused, inattentive, or intoxicated drivers. Officers standing outside their vehicles at the driver's door have met similar fates. Officers, firefighters, and other emergency response personnel have been struck and injured or killed while assisting disabled motorists or investigating traffic crashes. The IACP's Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee (LESSS) has developed many lifesaving suggestions to make emergency personnel safer at the roadside:

  • Return to the old offset method of parking at a traffic stop rather than the more recent tactic of having the cruiser angled out.

  • Make sure items in the cruiser's trunk are stored laterally and that sharp objects and explosive items, such as gasoline cans, are not carried.

  • Minimize the time an officer spends sitting in the cruiser at a traffic stop.

  • Considering passenger-side approaches whenever possible.

  • Opt for rear lighting that is less dazzling to avoid the hypnotic effect on motorists.

  • Use more amber lighting and directional arrows with long On and short Off cycles.

  • Apply additional retro-reflective markings that better outline the shape of the cruiser and chevron designs that send a clearer message to motorists.

  • Use traffic cones to set up a work zone when investigating collisions.

To remain aware of the latest developments by LESSS and to obtain new policies, procedures and training materials, visit the LESSS Web site at (www.theiacp.org) regularly.

6.     New Laws and Tactics
Looking beyond the traffic ticket to interdict drugs and detect illegal activity requires continual and up-to-date training, policies, and procedures to guide officers. To accomplish this the administrator must remain current with new court decisions that call for different tactics. Subscribing to free online court reporting services is one way administrators can stay current.

Traffic stops should be based on reasonable and articulable suspicion. When officers base their stops on motorist behavior rather than on a motorist's race or other immutable characteristics, the stops will usually pass court review. Recent state and federal court decisions have suppressed evidence when it is found that the officer deliberately prolonged the traffic stop longer than necessary to (1) accomplish the original purpose of the stop, such as issuing a ticket or a warning, and (2) check the vehicle's equipment and make a wants-and-warrants check. In these cases the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop but were holding the motorists to await the arrival of a drug-sniffing dog. Without reasonable and articulable suspicion, officers can not detain the motorist.

Although officers can have a more extended conversation with a motorist, they need to first return the driver's documents and be certain that a reasonable person would feel that they are free to leave at that point. Training officers how to hold these conversations can lead to the detection of other illegal activities.

7.     New Types of Vehicle
As a result of attempts to develop cleaner fuel and more fuel-efficient vehicles, there is now a smattering of electrically powered vehicles and a rapidly growing number of hybrid vehicles that are powered by a gasoline engine and an electrical motor. These vehicles pose new safety concerns to emergency workers. Voltages high enough to electrocute a public safety officer can be present under the hood. Officers must be trained to recognize these vehicles and taught how to render the vehicles safe at crash scenes.

Likewise, head- and side-impact airbags have joined driver and passenger airbags in most vehicles today, and an unexploded airbag must be carefully deactivated to avoid danger to rescuers at crash scenes. Departments should provide updated policies and training so officers who encounter these vehicles at crash scenes know how to protect themselves and others.

8.     Drugged Drivers
The number of motorists who drive while under the influence of drugs is alarming. One in six (or 600,000) high school students drive under the influence of marijuana, almost as many as drive under the influence of alcohol.1 A study of motorists stopped for reckless driving showed that among those who were not impaired by alcohol 45 percent tested positive for marijuana.2 In other words, a significant number of the drivers police officers encounter are under the influence of drugs. Yet it takes special skills to detect the drugged driver.

More departments need to train additional officers in the Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) program conducted by the IACP and supported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.3 Having certified DREs on duty on more shifts and available to examine drivers who appear impaired but test below the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration will support the traffic enforcement effort of patrol officers.

Police administrators also must lobby for DWI laws that criminalize driving with any quantity of an illegal drug in the system, that make failure to submit to roadside physical performance tests a cause for loss of driving privileges, and that add a suspected drunk driver's saliva to blood, breath, and urine as something that can be chemically tested to detect illegal drugs or an illegal level of alcohol in the driver's body.

9.     Traffic Officers and Homeland Security
Whether looking to locate the newest illegal methamphetamine laboratories or the homegrown or foreign terrorist, the traffic officer can be the first line of defense against threats to homeland security. Officers should be trained both in what to look for in a traffic stop that may uncover evidence of possible terrorism and how to report their observations or suspicions. And agencies must establish a system for quickly receiving and screening these bits of intelligence and passing them along to the appropriate state and federal terrorism task forces. These task forces, likewise, must develop a method of providing feedback to both the department and the officer providing the information, so the officers realize it was appreciated and acted upon.4

10.     Incident Clearance
When an incident occurs on a major highway, traffic backs up quickly and the results are felt many miles upstream in the form of congestion, delay, and secondary collisions. Generally, traffic diverts to secondary roads that are incapable of handling the higher volume, and police in adjoining jurisdictions are overwhelmed. The longer emergency workers allow a highway incident to shut down traffic, the more resources the incident ties up. Police authorities need to form interdisciplinary traffic incident management teams that include representatives from law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services, state and local departments of transportation, and the towing companies to develop protocols for responding quickly, staging properly, establishing emergency work zones and detour routes, and restoring rapidly the traffic flow.

Techniques such as photogrammetry can speed up on-scene crash investigations. Changeable message boards, barricades, and cones provided by transportation departments can help keep traffic moving safely.

State laws and local ordinances can be passed that require drivers to move their vehicles off the highway after a collision if they can do so safely. Other laws can require motorists to give a wide berth to emergency vehicles and workers at crash scenes. Laws should also provide that vehicles can be towed and that spilled loads must be cleaned up on orders of the incident commander, with or without permission of the owners.

Remember, in order to be eligible for federal homeland security funds, the state and local police departments and county sheriffs must adopt the National Incident Management System (NIMS), of which the incident command system (ICS) is the major component, and departments must train all their first responders in this system.5

1 White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, "Marijuana and Kids: Steer Clear of Pot," fact sheet.
2 White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, "White House Drug Czar Launches Campaign to Stop Drugged Driving," press release, citing the New England Journal of Medicine.
3 For more information about the Drug Recognition Expert program, visit (www.theiacp.org), or call the IACP at 800-THE-IACP.
4 "Efforts to Develop Fusion Center Intelligence Standards," The Police Chief 72 (February 2005): 47-53. For more information, call 850-385-0600.
5 Gil Jamieson, "NIMS and the Incident Command System," The Police Chief 72 (February 2005): 68-78. For more information, visit the NIMS Web page at (www.fema.gov/nims).

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From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 9, September 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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