by Lawrence Herzog

In 1994, when police in Peoria, Illinois, decided to make traffic enforcement a priority, something remarkable happened. As officers issued 24 per cent more traffic tickets over the next two years, traffic collisions declined by 21 per cent and total criminal arrests increased by 34 per cent. Why? Because when officers pulled over motorists for traffic infractions, they found weapons, drugs, suspended drivers and wanted criminals. In other words, the Peoria police discovered that policing the roads had the unexpected side effect of making the entire community safer.

Similarly, in 1993, New Year City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani adopted and implemented its “Broken Window” approach to law enforcement. Built on the belief that small problems lead to larger ones, the strategy focused police efforts not just on serious offences such as murder, assault and robbery but also on traffic violations, including lesser misdemeanours such as jaywalking. The result, in just five years: the city experienced a 44 per cent decrease in overall crime, including a 60 per cent drop in its murder rate.

Both the Peoria and New York experiences illustrate that it really is the little things that matter, says Rob Taylor, Alberta Motor Association (AMA) vice president of advocacy and community services “It’s vital to maintain social order. If people see others getting away with breaking the law, there’s a ripple effect – the message that those laws aren’t important. Soon, speeding is acceptable and running red lights is okay. Then people get seriously hurt or killed.”

The Traffic Dragnet

Some of the most notorious criminals have been caught by police while driving or during routine traffic checks. They include:

  • Serial killer Ted Bundy was arrested in 1975 after he was pulled over by a Utah highway patrolman for driving without his lights on in a Salt Lake City suburb.
  • David Berkowitz, the ‘Son of Sam,” terrorized New York City in the mid-1970s, killing six people. Despite a highly publicized hunt, Berkowitz was not caught until police investigated a ticket he had been issued for parking too close to a hydrant.
  • California serial killer Randy Kraft was stopped in 1983 by the state highway patrol for suspicion of impaired driving. He was later charged with the murders of 16 young men, although authorities now believe the total could well exceed 65.
  • Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995. He was arrested after the vehicle he was driving had no license plate.
  • John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the Washington, D.C.-area sniper suspects, were captured in 2002 while sleeping in their car at a rest stop.
  • Inspector Dave Mitchell, program manager for RCMP traffic services in Alberta, is another firm supporter of the Broken Window approach. Mitchell points to Whitecourt, Alberta, as further evidence. In the last year since Whitecourt increased traffic enforcement he points out, police have seen “a significant decrease in overall crime. Of course, visibility is one part of the equation, but so too is the increased awareness that enforcement brings.”

    An Ontario study (Traffic-Law Enforcement and Risk of Death from Motor-Vehicle Crashes, the Lancet, June 2003), for example, shows that motorists convicted of traffic violations are 35 per cent less likely to be involved in a fatal car crash for at least a month after being ticketed. By studying the driving records of 8,975 Ontario motorists involved in a fatal car crash between 1988 and 1999, the authors found that for every 80,000 tickets issues, a death is prevented. For every 1,300 convictions, an emergency room visit is avoided. For every 13 tickets, there’s a $1,000 saving in health care costs, property damage and increased insurance premiums. The study notes that this reduction of risk is significant when compared with the combined benefits of safety improvements since 1950 (including seat belts, air bags and anti-lock brakes), structural vehicle design changes that have reduced traffic fatalities by 20 per cent.

    Yet even though consistent traffic law enforcement has been proven to save lives and make communities safer, funding for police services in Alberta and across the country continues to be eroded. From 1975 to 1991, police numbers in Canada grew at about the same rate as the population. But in the last dozen years, the ratio has skewed considerably. Since 1991, the number of Albertans per police officer has increased from 626 to 650 – the worst ratio in 25 years. In 2003, Alberta had 4,884 police officers, the third lowest ratio in the country, ahead of only Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. At the same time, Alberta’s fatality rates continue to climb.

    An independent survey of AMA’s 660,000 members in 2003 found that only 38 per cent felt police have adequate resources to ensure safety on our streets and highways. Members noted that Alberta’s new Traffic Safety Act, which became law in May 2003, is a significant step toward reducing carnage on our roads, but that revised laws don’t mean much without a dedicated commitment of time and resources to enforce them. And responses to an informal opinion quiz on the new act in the April 2003 issue of Westworld Alberta revealed 71 per cent of respondents believe Alberta needs more law enforcement to make the new act work.

    AMA agrees. “Recent cuts in traffic enforcement budgets and personnel must be reversed to address the unfavourable trend and enormous costs of traffic trauma throughout Alberta,” says Don Szarko, director of AMA’s advocacy and community services. “And we are encouraging governments to set standards for traffic law enforcement and provide appropriate funding.” Recognizing that six times more Albertans die in automobile collisions than from homicides, AMA’s MISSION POSSIBLE is also partnering with stakeholders to increase awareness of the need for traffic enforcement.

    Edmonton Police Service Staff Sgt. Kerry Nisbet acknowledges that a change in enforcement strategy is exactly what’s needed. “In our last three public opinion surveys, traffic safety has come in number one or number two at the top of the list of concerns, so we know people are aware of the magnitude of the problem. But the traditional attitude has been that writing traffic tickets is the job of the traffic section alone.”

    Between 1990 and 2001, for example, the number of collisions in Edmonton alone jumped by 49 per cent and the number of fatalities by 52 per cent, but the number of traffic tickets issued by the Edmonton Police Service dropped by 10 per cent. “We need to change the police culture from being about chasing the “bad guys” to an understanding that enforcement also means prevention. And that by preventing drivers from breaking the traffic laws, we are saving lives,” Taylor says. “The argument that traffic enforcement is merely a cash cow needs to seriously analyzed.”

    Still, given that so many Albertans rely on their automobiles for daily transport, increased traffic enforcement holds the promise of a deeper hole in drivers’ wallets. Because not only do Albertans drive 40 million kilometres per year (more time behind the wheel than virtually any other drivers in the country) many of them do so recklessly.

    “Albertans seem to have a high tolerance for risk, and we’re too complacent about the toll of crashes on our roads,” Szarko observes. “We seem to value convenience over safety, and we are perturbed when someone tells us we can’t break the law. But a driver’s license does not give us the right to break the laws and endanger the lives of others.”

    RCMP Inspector Dave Mitchell says the decision on how to police the roads comes down to resources and priorities. “Most policing agencies are strapped for cash and manpower and, as the laws and systems become more complicated, costs have gone up accordingly. I certainly believe that enforcing traffic laws has a ripple effect. But just going out and writing tickets by itself doesn’t do the job. There needs to be awareness and education.”

    AMA’s Taylor concurs: “Research has consistently shown that enforcement is far more effective when combined with education. But education and awareness also require some serious resources.”

    As part of its effort to educate the public about traffic safety and motivate behavioural change, the Edmonton Police Service has been lobbying government for technology that will help them enforce traffic laws more efficiently, including using affidavit evidence from red light cameras for speed violations. “Sixty-nine per cent of injuries and 43 per cent of fatalities occur at intersections,” Nisbet says. “Our data shows a lot of motorists are speeding through intersections, and we believe having the ability to use the cameras would prompt drivers to approach the intersections with more caution and less speed.”

    “We now have new resources in the form of technological enforcement, such as red light cameras, to help us improve and maintain order on our roads,” Taylor says. Those working to reduce the road toll believe a strong commitment to enforcing traffic law sends the message that we as a community are serious about safety. That commitment will save us considerably – in reduced crashes, reduced crime and reduced costs, in both hard dollars and human terms.

    A version of this feature originally appeared in Westworld Alberta, the Alberta Motor Association’s magazine to its members.

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