Rules of the Road

Are emphasis traffic patrols by police more proactive or reactive to accidents?

Here’s where accidents are most likely to happen in Bellingham

Bellingham Police logged 1,350 accidents from January 2016 to June 2017. Here are the intersections that saw the highest number of accidents.
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Bellingham Police logged 1,350 accidents from January 2016 to June 2017. Here are the intersections that saw the highest number of accidents.

Question: It’s obvious that the police respond to high-crash locations after crashes happen, but do they ever patrol these areas (and most others) to do proactive, deterrence enforcement? I guarantee that if traffic stops were performed and citations written, the driving behavior would improve.

Answer: I don’t know if your guarantee is based on research or your gut feelings, but either way you’re right. I’ll get to that in a bit.

First, I’ll address your question: do the police do proactive traffic enforcement, especially in our problem areas? I can say with confidence that the answer is ‘yes.’

With limited resources, law enforcement agencies rely on data to maximize their effectiveness. They keep track of high collision locations and focus their enforcement efforts in those areas.

One recent instance applying that data resulted in a multi-agency saturation of the intersection at Bakerview Road and Northwest Avenue, identified as the highest crash location in Bellingham.

Not only does law enforcement target high-crash locations; they also focus on the types of violations that cause the most serious crashes.

The top three factors in fatal crashes are, and if you read this column regularly you can probably say it with me, impaired driving, speeding and distracted driving.

The emphasis patrol I just mentioned at Bakerview and Northwest focused on distracted driving – a factor in about a third of fatal crashes in Washington. In a four-hour period officers stopped 85 drivers and issued 53 tickets for distracted driving. Those numbers could have been even higher – there were more violators than there were officers to stop them.

Clearly we have room to improve on our safe driving habits.

Seeing those kinds of numbers could easily inspire me to get on my soapbox and preach about how talking on a phone while driving decreases your perception and reaction times, that it has a crash risk similar to a driver with a .08 blood alcohol level and that texting and driving has a crash risk that’s even four times higher (or more, depending on the study).

But I’m not going to do that. Instead I’ll just stick to the original question and remind drivers that our local law enforcement agencies are stopping drivers and issuing tickets for dangerous driving behaviors.

Now, back to the part about the relationship between enforcement and collisions. Multiple studies have shown that an increase in traffic enforcement is linked to a decrease in crashes. That’s why they do it.

For anyone that argues that cops write tickets for the money, allow me to dispel that myth. Money from traffic tickets goes a lot of places, but none of it goes directly to the agency that writes the tickets. Cops write tickets because tickets reduce crashes.

Here’s the hitch: traffic officers spend a significant portion of their time responding to and investigating crashes. If they spent more time writing tickets for the most common crash-causing violations, they’d reduce the number of crashes they have to respond to, creating more time to do enforcement that reduces crashes. But they can’t spend enough time doing proactive enforcement because they’re busy investigating crashes; crashes that might not have happened if they could spend their time on enforcement instead of responding to crashes.

As much as traffic enforcement reduces crashes, we ultimately can’t expect police to solve the problem entirely.

That’s up to all of us as drivers. Last year we had 25 fatalities from traffic crashes in Whatcom County.

Of those crashes, 56 percent involved an impaired driver, 48 percent involved a speeding driver and 32 percent involved a distracted driver.

If you’re doing the math, we’ve exceeded 100 percent. That’s because some of those drivers were doing two or even three of those things at the same time.

Consider how much safer our roads would be if we could just eliminate those three problems. If you’re reading an article about traffic safety, you likely care enough not to be engaging in dangerous driving behaviors. But if you struggle with any of the big three violations, I’ll challenge you to commit to making a change. It’ll take all of us to make our roads safer; let’s travel with care.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.