Rules of the Road

Are we doing enough traffic enforcement in our community? Here’s what the numbers say

I’ve received a number of questions focused on various traffic violations that end with a similar refrain: Why don’t the police do more enforcement of (fill in the blank)?

Collectively all these questions hint at the larger question: Are we doing enough traffic enforcement in our community?

Instead of answering that question with a yes or a no, I’ve done some research on how much enforcement is happening in our county. I’ll give you the numbers and let you reach your own conclusion.

Last year law enforcement agencies in Whatcom County issued over 21,000 infractions, arrested over 1,000 drivers for impaired driving and cited almost 2,800 drivers for various criminal traffic violations, for a total of nearly 25,000 enforcement actions over the year.

With a county population of around 220,000, that works out to more than 10 percent of people in Whatcom County getting an infraction, citation or arrest.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you have a one-in-10 chance of getting a ticket if you live here. If you generally obey traffic laws your odds move closer to zero. And if you generally don’t obey traffic laws, well, you’re probably part of that 25,000.

As a point of reference, the 25,000 tickets and arrests in 2017 is a significant decrease compared to 10 years earlier. In 2007 that number exceeded 41,000.

Certainly the economic crisis of 2008 impacted nearly every police department in the state, but there are multiple reasons for the decrease in traffic enforcement that exceed the space in this column.

I’ve talked with a lot of agencies in Washington about levels of traffic enforcement, and across the board they see it as an important part of their role as an agency, but also one that has to be balanced against competing needs in the community.

Often people who want to see more enforcement suggest what appears to be an easy solution – hire officers just to write tickets, and the revenue from the tickets will more than pay for their positions.

There’s just one flaw in that solution; in Washington law enforcement agencies don’t receive any revenue from writing tickets. The money goes a lot of places, but none of it goes to the ticket writers.

Overall, I think that’s actually a good thing. Without the pressure of having to raise their own revenue, enforcement isn’t colored by a financial incentive to write tickets.

I agree that more traffic enforcement is good for the community, but effective enforcement is more than just the number of tickets. It has to be the right kind of enforcement. We want laws enforced that will improve the safety of road users.

Agencies in Washington from the local police and sheriff to statewide operations including the Department of Transportation, the Washington State Patrol and the Washington Traffic Safety Commission all collect data on the type of, severity of and factors involved in traffic crashes and use that data to prioritize enforcement.

Locally and statewide, the biggest risk factors in fatal traffic crashes are impairment, speeding, distraction and not wearing a seatbelt. Throughout the year our law enforcement agencies not only include traffic enforcement efforts to address those factors, but also participate in multi-agency emphasis patrols focusing on one or more of the specific high-risk driving behaviors.

Whenever we explore traffic data it’s important to realize that it’s not just numbers.

Last year 565 people were killed in traffic crashes in Washington. Of those, 25 people were in Whatcom County.

As a way of remembering this loss, on Nov. 15 many of us will participate in World Day of Remembrance. This international event is commemorated to remember the many people killed and injured on the world’s roads, together with their families, friends and many others. It is also a day on which we thank the emergency services and reflect on the tremendous burden and cost of this continuing disaster to families and communities, and on ways to halt it.

I invite you to join with others in our community at Bellingham City Hall at 5 p.m. on Nov. 15 to remember and honor those who died in traffic crashes in our community.

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.