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CHP Reducing Traffic Fatalities and

Motor vehicle travel is the primary means of transportation in the United States, providing an unprecedented degree of mobility for American travelers. Yet for all its advantages, deaths and injuries resulting from motor vehicle collisions have exacted a heavy toll on Americans. In California, with more than 4,100 killed and more than 300,000 injured annually on California roadways, reducing traffic fatalities and injuries is an immense challenge for the California Highway Patrol (CHP), the state’s leading traffic law enforcement agency.

This is no inconsequential issue given that there are currently in California more than 25 million registered motor vehicles, about 24 million drivers, more than 300 billion vehicle miles traveled annually, and more than 150,000 miles of state and local public roadways. As population, motorization, and vehicle miles of travel continue to increase dramatically each year, traffic collisions have remained the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 4 and 33.

The Traditional Four E’s of Traffic Safety

As in other states, the prevention and reduction of road collisions in California have traditionally been based on the four E’s of traffic safety, which are education, enforcement, engineering, and emergency medical services. In California, enforcement and education are routinely emphasized by law enforcement mostly through a multitude of specialized, targeted enforcement and public education programs aimed at specific problems (e.g., speeding, impaired driving, occupant protection) and/or populations (e.g., ethnic drivers, migrant workers, motorcyclists, older Californians, transients).

Engineering and infrastructure safety efforts such as improved signage and changes in road geometry are accomplished through law enforcement’s cooperative relationships with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), local motorists, activist groups, and safety advocates. Emergency medical services are promoted through improved and reliable communications among law enforcement agencies and other first responders, trained ambulance personnel, specialized emergency equipment, and efficient transportation to medical facilities to increase the survivability of collisions, particularly in outlying rural areas where injuries usually occur far from hospitals with trauma centers.

California’s Cooperative Focus

In adopting the four E’s of traffic safety, California has found that building collaborative partnerships is vitally important because drivers cross jurisdictions, and no single entity working alone can solve all traffic safety problems or address all traffic safety needs. Through its collaborative approach to traffic safety, California has been in the forefront of developing innovative efforts to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries.

The state’s Mileage Death Rate (MDR), the number of traffic fatalities for every 100 million miles of vehicle travel, has declined dramatically over the past 20 years, from a high point of 2.5 in 1986 to a low of only 1.19 in 1999 (a decline of more than 50 percent), before creeping slightly to 1.30 in 2003 and then declining again to 1.25 in 2004.  

Although some of the credit for reduced traffic deaths can be attributed to safer roadways and/or vehicles (e.g., wider roads, mandatory airbags, stability control, anti-lock brakes) as well as to improved medical technology, particularly in emergency room care, behavioral changes such as increased safety belt usage and specifically targeted enforcement also have played significant roles in reducing traffic fatalities and injuries.

California’s traditional traffic safety focus has been on the three major contributors to fatalities and injuries on the roadways, namely non-compliance with safety-belt laws, driving under the influence (DUI), and speeding. Its approach to reducing traffic fatalities and injuries has involved traffic safety stakeholders acting together to find more effective and innovative ways of proactively dealing with intractable traffic safety problems.

Occupant Protection

California’s safety belt usage has been consistently ranked among the top in the nation, hitting a new high of 92.5% in 2005 (up from 90.4% in 2004, and significantly higher than the 82% national average). California instituted a primary safety belt law as early as 1993 and beat the national goal of 90 percent safety belt compliance in June 1998, two years before the national target date of 2000. The state’s safety belt compliance program relies heavily on education and high-visibility enforcement to send the message that safety belts save lives and to embed “click it or ticket” in the driver’s consciousness.

California has a statewide program to aggressively enforce safety belt laws and conduct a public awareness campaign to increase compliance. Currently, California is investing heavily in promoting the use of age-appropriate occupant restraint systems for children and teenagers in an effort to further decrease the rate of injuries and fatalities from traffic collisions throughout the state.

Impaired Driving

Alcohol-related fatalities in California have crept slightly upward in recent years, consistent with the increases in statewide traffic fatalities, and most likely are due to increased alcohol consumption, especially among the youth population. Nevertheless, the proportion of alcohol-related fatalities to all traffic fatalities in California has remained relatively stable between 39% to 40% in recent years.

In the past two decades, alcohol-related fatalities in California have actually declined by a significant 45%, from a peak of 2,961 in 1987 to only 1,643 in 2004.

Efforts to control alcohol-related fatalities have been helped by California’s strict DUI laws, including, among others, the lowering of the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) threshold from 0.10 to 0.08 percent for being considered legally intoxicated, the administrative per se license suspension (permitting law enforcement officers to take, at the time of arrest, the driver’s license of a person charged with DUI), and the Zero Tolerance Law (making it unlawful for a person under 21 to drive with a BAC of 0.01 percent or higher).

California’s campaign of sustained enforcement against impaired-driving violations includes sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols, punctuated by periodic high-intensity crackdowns, and backed up by relentless, well-advertised public-awareness campaigns.

Speed Enforcement

Speed is consistently one of the top primary collision factors and also a secondary factor in a majority of traffic collisions in California. About 15% of fatal collisions in California are the result of speed, while speed-related collisions normally account for about 28% of all statewide reportable collisions.

Despite the continuing consumer emphasis on speed in an increasingly hectic lifestyle, speed-related fatalities in California actually dropped by 5% in 2004. The CHP and its local traffic law enforcement counterparts have relied on the deployment and use of radar/LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and speed trailers to effectively enforce speed limits.

Attention on young drivers and their driving behavior is also a constant concern because the social stigma of speeding does not even come close to rivaling other unsafe driving behaviors (such as failure to buckle up or drinking and driving) and is even considered “cool” in many circles, particularly among young males—the demographic most frequently involved in traffic collisions. Innovative CHP programs such as “Start Smart,” where new teen drivers and their parents are introduced to the sometimes dangerous driving arena with real-world examples, are showing promise in curbing speeding among teen drivers.

The CHP also has put into service specially marked patrol vehicles, including a fleet of white Camaro patrol cars (The Ghost Riders) that have been successful in enforcing speed limits for trucks. Several areas of the state also have implemented highly publicized “Zero Tolerance” enforcement days to crack down on speeding and call attention to compliance with speed laws.

The Collaborative Approach

How did California achieve traffic safety progress over the years, despite the continuing phenomenal growth in its driver population and vehicle miles of travel? Not surprisingly, it did so mostly by forging cooperation and partnership among key organizations with a strong vested interest in traffic safety. These organizations include businesses, manufacturers, vendors, insurance and health-care providers, nonprofit community safety organizations, and government agencies at the local, regional, state, national, and international level.

As the new paradigms for dealing with traffic safety, cooperation and partnership effectively promote a sense of ownership, which serves as a catalyst for change, in contrast with the more traditional, but less effective, “top down” intervention approach.

California’s Traffic Safety Philosophy

Underlying California’s safety philosophy is a collaborative, holistic and integrated approach in which all stakeholders contribute resources by sponsoring, financing and/or implementing required safety interventions. Local involvement, broadly representative, is the primary source of local planning, prioritization, and coordination. Regional and state involvement focuses on facilitating communication, policy, programmatic, resource allocation, and prioritization. Nationally, the federal National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers policy guidance and funding.

At the international level, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) provides a forum for the CHP to share its traffic safety experiences and learn from its counterparts worldwide. The IACP’s “National Chiefs Challenge” also serves as a model for the CHP’s California Law Enforcement Challenge Program, which, with support from NHTSA and the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), recognizes the frontline role of local law enforcement in promoting traffic safety.

Local Partnerships

Interorganizational links and collaboration are the keys to the CHP’s Traffic Corridor Safety Program, which since its inception in 1992 has strategically focused intervention on traffic safety corridors meriting enhanced enforcement and increased public awareness. This multidisciplinary, multifaceted program spans across agencies and jurisdictions and employs a network of safety organizations working together in interagency task forces to realize common goals.

Partnering agencies include state and local law enforcement and transportation departments, emergency and health-care service providers, public and private safety organizations, and other stakeholders. The program, financed through OTS’s innovative grant funds with federal support from NHTSA, was subsequently expanded to cover DUI and DUI-college, pedestrian, and truck safety corridors. This program was recognized in 2001 with the top award in international competition for problem-oriented policing (the program won other state and local awards, as well).

Other states, including Oregon, Virginia, Washington, New Mexico, Massachusetts, have adopted the traffic corridor safety concept and now have similar corridor safety programs in place. The CHP also teams up with local law enforcement partners statewide in the AVOID enforcement and public education program to conduct highly publicized roving patrols and sobriety checkpoints during holiday periods (Christmas, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Fourth of July) and to communicate to the state’s drivers NHTSA’s “You Drink, You Drive, You Lose” message and the consequences of a DUI arrest.

Statewide Leadership

Statewide, the CHP chairs the multi-agency Older Californian Traffic Safety Task Force, which is a partnership effort of about 50 stakeholders to collaboratively address the safety and mobility of older adults in California. Key participants include state and local agencies on law enforcement, transportation, aging, and community organizations such as the California affiliates of the American Automobile Association, the American Society on Aging, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), and others.

Community partnerships have proved useful in helping the CHP understand more accurately the public’s priorities and needs, promoting more effective service delivery, increasing community support for older driver safety, and serving as an advocate for road safety.

Interagency, Multidisciplinary Coordination

More recently, the CHP partnered with sister state departments including the Departments of Transportation, Motor Vehicles, Alcoholic Beverage Control, OTS, and about 125 local law enforcement agencies statewide in Operation “Statewide Traffic Action Response” (STAR) campaigns, combining resources to crackdown on unsafe drivers with focused enforcement and education efforts during selected holiday periods, starting in late 2004 with the highly successful “Holiday Wish List” program.

The joint holiday “Maximum Enforcement Period” (MEP) deployments have paid off handsomely, with traffic fatalities during the 2005 Labor Day weekend dropping by nearly 40 percent from a comparable period in 2004, down to 34 from the previous 56. More important, state agencies now work seamlessly together to enhance traffic safety. The CHP is also a founding member of the California Statewide Coalition on Traffic Safety (SCOTS), a statewide alliance of federal and state traffic safety agencies and major nongovernmental safety organizations.

Nationally, the CHP has joined forces with neighboring allied traffic safety agencies from Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon in Combined Accident Reduction Effort (C.A.R.E.) enforcement, focusing on DUI, speeding, and safety belt use during the Fourth of July weekend in an effort to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities.

Requires Everyone’s Participation

The challenge of achieving safety goals of reducing traffic fatalities and injuries requires more than just the traditional four E’s of highway safety. The only answer to tackling the traffic safety problem is a collective answer, and that demands an unprecedented collaboration, an integrated network of leaders and organizations in business, government, academia, and community. It will require active participation from people of many different disciplines and jurisdictions.

Collaboration builds bridges that will lead to safety and progress, bridges that will develop common understanding, open lines of communication, and create a stable coalition that will enable safety organizations to tackle heretofore intractable traffic safety problems. The more coherent, steady, and coordinated these collaborative efforts are, the more likely they will succeed where other disjointed or discontinuous approaches have failed. California has demonstrated that its collaborative approach to traffic safety, based on cooperation and partnership, while a long and possibly arduous process, is one with significant safety promises.

Joseph A. Farrow is the deputy commissioner of the California Highway Patrol and has been a member of this department since 1979. He is a graduate of the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Executive Institute and the Peace Officer Standards and Training Law Enforcement Command College. He can be reached at

Trac H. Pham is a research program specialist with the California Highway Patrol. He has been with the department since 2001 and currently works in its Planning and Analysis Division, Special Projects Section. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2006

Rating : 7.2

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