By Sheldon Greenberg, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University
“Traffic safety programs form an integral component of the effective, comprehensive law enforcement operation. Unfortunately, not all law enforcement executives recognize this important fact.” – National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 
Effective traffic enforcement is important to the quality of life in and sustainability of neighborhoods and communities. It decreases death, disability and injury, and is directly correlated to crime reduction. Research shows that people support aggressive, meaningful traffic enforcement activity. It further supports that officers are most visible in patrol and traffic functions and this visibility contributes significantly to the people’s perception of the police.
The amount of time officers spend on traffic enforcement varies by agency and size and type of jurisdiction. Police officers’ outlook toward and engagement in traffic safety activities is contingent on many factors including the agency’s culture, commitment of executives and supervisors, availability of data to target enforcement activities, belief in the value of traffic safety and emphasis (in some jurisdictions) on traffic enforcement as a primary source of revenue for the local government.
According to police officers (varied ranks representing urban, suburban, rural, large, mid-sized, and small agencies) participating in a roundtable discussion on traffic safety, the quality of traffic enforcement varies considerably. The participants cited the need for agencies to overcome the obstacles or inhibitors to effective traffic enforcement. The following list provides a brief summary of 20 of the identified inhibitors to effective traffic safety and enforcement. All are manageable and can be overcome.
- Lack of vision (a tangible picture) of the intended end product or outcome of traffic safety and enforcement efforts.
- Lack of direction or well-stated expectations of the chief of police or sheriff (or the district, precinct, or barrack commander) relevant to traffic enforcement.
- Dependence on overtime as a primary driver of traffic enforcement activities.
- Dependence on grants as a primary driver of traffic enforcement activities.
- Statistical outputs perceived as more important than substantive outcomes.
- Lack of data or evidence to support targeted or “hot spot” traffic enforcement.
- Tolerating mediocre traffic-related performance (“good enough will do”).
- Failure to routinely inspect/review the traffic-related performance of patrol officers.
- Lack of commitment or engagement by first line supervisors in directing and ensuring the quality of traffic safety and enforcement.
- “Fishing hole” traffic enforcement.
- Overemphasis on crime mitigation and reduction as the primary purpose for traffic enforcement.
- Failure among personnel to view a traffic crash as a violent encounter and a traffic offender as the initiator of or contributor to a violent act.
- Officers’ belief that traffic enforcement is a choice or option rather than an obligation or responsibility.
- Enforcement activity based on officers’ whim rather than as a planned, purposeful endeavor.
- Lack of consequence for officers who fail to provide quality traffic enforcement and lack of positive reinforcement for officers routinely engaged in quality traffic enforcement.
- Misperceptions about the time officers have available to allocate to traffic enforcement.
- Lack of quality traffic-related training, particularly at the in-service and supervisory levels.
- Insufficient, mediocre and/or poorly sequenced traffic-related training.
- Reliance on specialized traffic units, rather than patrol, for primary traffic safety and enforcement activity.
- Failure to engage fully and routinely in sobriety checkpoints, DUI enforcement, seatbelt initiatives, child safety seat initiatives and other prevention and enforcement programs.
The role of those serving in the position of Law Enforcement Liaison (LEL) in overcoming these inhibitors is paramount and their influence to affect change cannot be overstated. LEL’s are in a position to provide an objective perspective on and offer suggestions and support to advance an agency’s traffic safety activities. A brief list of considerations for LELs follows.
- Focus on communicating to meet the unique perspective of the varied stakeholders, each of whom views traffic safety and enforcement from a different vantage point. A single message may not be accepted by all of the intended audiences. Target messages so they connect to chiefs and sheriffs, commanders, supervisors and front line officers, deputies, and troopers based on their role, expectations and needs.
- Work with those responsible for training, particularly state and local academy directors and instructors, to ensure that traffic-related courses focus on purpose (saving lives, preventing disability and injury, strengthening neighborhoods and communities) as well as process (laws, forms and reports and tactics). A study of 28 police academy curricula showed that most of the time spent in traffic courses is process and tactics focused, of necessity. In 75 percent of these agencies, trainers briefly introduced, but rarely reinforced, the purpose of traffic safety and enforcement. Reinforcing the purpose occurred primarily in state police academies.
- When promoting effective traffic safety and enforcement initiatives, focus on well-defined action steps. Balance discussion about theory, programs, policies, improvements and expansions with the “how to’s” in order to avoid delays, minimize confusion and advance implementation.
- Work with Field Training Officers (FTOs) and Police Training Officers (PTOs) to ensure that these experienced officers positively influence new recruits toward traffic safety and provide the needed knowledge, skill and connection to purpose. New recruit beliefs and approaches toward traffic safety and enforcement are influenced significantly by their FTOs and PTOs.
- Support agencies in conducting a comprehensive annual assessment of traffic safety and enforcement efforts that goes beyond statistical analysis. Areas to consider in conducting a qualitative assessment include patrol officers’ self-initiated enforcement activity on roadways of highest crash frequency, patrol supervisors’ attention to and direction of traffic safety and enforcement activity, efforts to minimize “fishing hole” enforcement, interaction between the traffic unit and patrol and the extent of traffic enforcement activity independent of grants or overtime funding. The National Law Enforcement Challenge (NLEC) is a national traffic safety awards program that recognizes excellent traffic safety programs. Participation in the NLEC is one way an agency can engage in a recognized assessment process.
Sheldon Greenberg is Professor of Management in the Johns Hopkins University, School of Education, Division of Public Safety Leadership. He served as head of the Division for 18 years and Associate Dean for 12 years. Before joining Johns Hopkins University, he served as Associate Director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) for seven years, where he led organizational assessments in over 50 law enforcement agencies worldwide. He is a former police officer, supervisor, and bureau commander with the Howard County, Maryland, Police Department. He has been involved in efforts to advance law enforcement highway safety and traffic enforcement activities for over 30 years. He has published extensively, is a member of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Accreditation Board of Directors, and serves on numerous other boards and committees.