Rules of the Road

Road Rules: Are authorities doing anything to reduce car crashes?

Whatcom County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Linderman talks to the driver of a car he pulled over for speeding on Loomis Trail Road on Nov. 1, 2010. While more traffic enforcement likely would help reduce crashes, many people complain when they get pulled over, asking if police don’t have “more important things to do.”
Whatcom County Sheriff’s Deputy Keith Linderman talks to the driver of a car he pulled over for speeding on Loomis Trail Road on Nov. 1, 2010. While more traffic enforcement likely would help reduce crashes, many people complain when they get pulled over, asking if police don’t have “more important things to do.” pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Question: You say that the Whatcom County Target Zero Task Force has a vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030, but what is being done to achieve that goal? Every day I see worrisome traffic infractions — speeding, tailgating, texting, passing in no-passing zones — but I seldom see a police presence. The recent spate of fatal accidents caused by irresponsible drivers is frightening. I know that at any time I could become a statistic. Isn’t it time to get tough and send a message that driving is a privilege, not a right, and with that privilege comes serious consequences for flouting the law?

Answer: Even edited to half its original length, this two-part question still conveys the passion of someone who wants to see a change in driving behavior. And for good reason: In 2014 Washington lost 462 people in fatal crashes, and more than 2000 people were seriously injured. The data for 2015 isn’t complete yet, but it may be even higher. Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens and young adults. Clearly, this is a serious issue.

What are we doing about it? The Washington Traffic Safety Commission (the parent organization of the Whatcom County Target Zero Task Force) supports, funds and coordinates many traffic safety initiatives, including emphasis patrols focusing on impaired drivers, distracted drivers, speeding and seat belts; conducting public education campaigns; researching the best methods to reduce crashes; working with legislators for better traffic laws; improving road engineering; and working with communities to resolve traffic safety issues.

Could we do more? Sure, and the second part of the question asks, “Isn’t it time to get tough?” As a traffic safety professional, I’d like to see a reduction of crashes, and enforcement plays a major role in achieving that outcome. But what level of traffic enforcement does our community want? In contrast to the original question, I’ll bet nearly every cop has been asked a variation of the following question during a traffic stop: “Isn’t there some real crime you should be investigating instead of hassling drivers?” Community support for traffic enforcement is not a universally shared point of view.

It takes more than a law enforcement agency or a judge, it takes the support of our whole community to make positive changes.

However, most citizens recognize a need for traffic enforcement. It’s more of a question of how much enforcement. Here are a few proven crash-reduction strategies that we don’t utilize in our community:

Red light cameras: Multiple studies show a significant reduction of injury crashes and a minor increase in non-injury crashes. Bellingham had a short-lived relationship with red-light cameras until community opposition halted the effort before any enforcement began.

Speed cameras: Most studies show a reduction in crashes, but Washington limits use almost exclusively to school zones. Cities with citizen support for speed cameras are a minority in the U.S.

In-car data recording: This method uses a device installed in a car to monitor driver behavior. Some insurance companies already use in-car data recording. One study showed a 20 percent reduction in crashes. Law enforcement doesn’t utilize data from in-car recording, and even discussing it feels like we’re getting into Big Brother territory.

Beyond enforcement, we could reduce speed limits, redesign roads to force traffic to drive slower, make driver licensing requirements more restrictive and increase penalties for violations. We could even build a transit system with so much capacity that no one really needs a car to get around any more.

These aren’t just ideas. They’ve all been done in other places, and every one of them can be implemented if the citizens have the collective desire to do so. Understand that I’m not advocating that we do all these things. I’m just saying that it takes more than a law enforcement agency or a judge, it takes the support of our whole community to make positive changes. There is currently a distracted driving bill being proposed in the Legislature that is struggling for support. That bill likely will live or die based on the input of citizens to their elected officials.

We have many important issues competing for our attention and resources. Within them all, where does traffic safety rank? How serious are we about eliminating vehicle fatalities? What is an acceptable number of vehicle fatalities for our state? What is an acceptable number of vehicle fatalities within your family and friends? How we answer these questions determines the social will to make changes.

OK, I’ll step off the soap box. Now it’s your turn. How do you envision making driving safer? If you’re reading this online, post a response, or go to TheWiseDrive.com and send a comment from the “About TheWiseDrive” page.

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. Ask a question.

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