esigning an effective traffic safety program in a law enforcement agency is always a challenge. Gathering and analyzing data is the first step in determining what is needed and what will work to make travel in your jurisdiction safer. That analysis will help determine the focus for your public education efforts as well as the locations and times that need to be affected by enforcement activity.
The National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA) of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has completed numerous research projects that will help you along. The research reports may not be as exciting to read as a bestselling thriller, but they will help you find solutions to your local traffic safety problems.
Research Shows Belt Use Lower at Night
For example, determining patterns of safety belt use are important if your crash data indicates that high levels of fatal or seriously injured occupants are not buckled at the time of the crash. Preusser Research Group conducted a study for the NCSA that examined safety belt use by time of day.1 Crash data in Connecticut indicated a wide gap between occupants buckled during the day and those wearing safety belts at night. This data showed that belt use was highest during the 10:00 a.m. hour and declined steadily until it reached its lowest level (27 percent) for fatally injured front seat occupants at 2:00 a.m.
Preusser went high-tech to verify nighttime use rates with night-vision equipment and handheld infrared spots. Using Connecticut's normal belt use survey observation sites, researchers compared day and night safety belt use rates before and after the May Click It or Ticket campaign in 2004. The study found that there was indeed lower safety belt use at night.
The research team took the effort a step further and compared use rates at the various locations in the state that were surveyed. Interestingly, rural areas of the state showed less of a difference between day and night use than urban areas.
The Click It or Ticket campaign in Connecticut, using high visibility enforcement and media awareness, increased daytime use rates, and that increase carried over into the nighttime hours. Researchers noted that Connecticut used television advertisements that showed officers enforcing the safety belt law at night in urban areas; those ads may have helped close the gap.
Although this study wasn't designed to answer the question of whether it was media awareness, enforcement, or a combination of the two that worked, it does provide us with some insight as we plan local programs. With or without a study, most of us know that belt use rates are lower at night. We also know that enforcing a law that requires the sort of observation that determining belt use does is much more effective during daylight hours.
Part of the answer may be to learn from Connecticut and use public education through media campaigns to create the perception of high levels of belt use enforcement during nighttime hours. Another lesson to take from this research is to target enforcement efforts where the safety belt use rates are lower.
Teen Drivers Respond to Advertisements, Parents, Teen Leaders
Another NCSA study addressed one of the traffic safety problems you face if your jurisdiction is typical: teen drivers. Their willingness to take risks, their inexperience behind the wheel, and their low safety belt use rates are too frequently a deadly combination for youngsters. Of the fatally injured passenger car occupants ages 16 to 20 killed in 2004, more than 60 percent were unrestrained. The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation completed a study for NCSA seeking solutions that work by focusing on programs and literature in use.2
This study provides some focus areas for your program efforts, including public information campaigns through youth-oriented radio and television outlets and enforcement near schools and recreational facilities.
As you build your program, consider including a component to work with parents and teen leaders. Parents have more influence on teen behavior than they think, according to this review. Belt use rates for teens are higher when parents buckle up. Peers also have some effect, particularly when teens organize and conduct observational use surveys.
The study also finds solutions in legislation. Upgrading to a standard enforcement law has a significant impact on use rates, as do graduated driver's license programs with provisions that require safety belt use.
Federal Research, Local Program Ideas Available
Whether your community is tackling impaired driving, safety belt use, pedestrian safety, or almost any other problem, research can pay big dividends. The NHTSA Web site at www.nhtsa.dot.gov is a good place to find reliable and useful information. For a sampling of other police department ideas that work, check out the IACP Law Enforcement Challenge Nifty Fifty at (www.theiacp.org). ■