Education preferred over tickets by police
Tucson police motorcycle officers Kenny Vaughan (left) and Chad Kasmar watch for red-light runners at South 12th Avenue and West Ajo Way.
Tucson police are reducing traffic enforcement and citing far fewer motorists while fatal crashes are increasing.
Fatal crashes tend to go up as traffic enforcement goes down, and that appears to be happening in Tucson, said Leonard Evans, a former General Motors Corp. research scientist and author of the 2004 book “Traffic Safety.”
“A majority of severe crashes involve violations of the law such as speeding,” said Evans, co-author of a widely cited study on traffic enforcement. “For each 3 mph someone drives over the speed limit, the risk of a crash with a casualty doubles.”
Tucson police say a shortage of traffic and other patrol officers is a likely reason for the decline in citations. The motorcycle squad, which is responsible for 80 percent of citations made by the department, has also assumed new duties.
Within a few years, the Police Department hopes to double the size of the traffic unit and make it a division, said Assistant Chief Sharon Allen. More officers on the streets would reduce crashes, she said.
“Any time we can educate drivers will contribute to a decrease in the number of accidents,” Allen said. “There’s a direct correlation.”
Crashes killed 259 people in Tucson in the past five years, six more than the number of homicide victims in the same period.
Traffic citations have been dropping for a while. In the past three fiscal years, Tucson police issued about 365,000 citations, a 27 percent drop compared to the three preceding years, statistics from City Court show. The citations were for speeding, red-light running and all other traffic violations except DUI, which is recorded separately.
In about the same period, Tucson’s rate of non-DUI fatal crashes went up, while rates for Arizona and the country stayed the same. Last year Tucson had a rate of 9 such crashes per 100,000 residents, a 13 percent jump over the rate in 2000, according to Police Department figures.
With 32 non-DUI fatal crashes this year through August, Tucson is on pace to hit a five-year high.
The department’s staff levels fell relative to population in the period citations went down. Last year, the department had 2.03 officers per 1,000 residents, a 4 percent decrease from five years earlier.
Another reason for the decline in citations is that the department’s motorcycle squad was given new and time-consuming duties, including assisting DUI patrols and handling most accident reports, said Lt. Mike Pryor, head of the traffic unit.
The motorcycle patrol has 24 officers, the same as five years ago.
The patrol also stopped receiving grant funds to pay the overtime costs of running high-profile crackdowns on traffic offenders, said Sgt. Mark Robinson, a police spokesman who previously worked in the unit.
Tucson police also emphasize education of drivers, instead of just citing them, said Pryor. The department meets with community groups and gives roadside warnings.
“I’m not convinced that we need to have as many citations as we had a few years ago,” he said.
The drop in citations followed an October 2003 Police Department survey in which residents called for less traffic enforcement. The nearly 1,000 respondents ranked traffic, out of 10 crime types, as the second-lowest for the department to focus on, just above noise complaints and below prostitution.
“Reduce traffic enforcement and get some crime fighters,” one resident wrote, repeating a comment made by others.
Officer Jeffrey Couch, who’s worked in traffic for 20 years, doesn’t consider his assignment any less important than others in the department.
“Auto accidents kill or severely injure more people than any crime,” he said. “Traffic officers are very dedicated.”
Officer Kenny Vaughan, a 23-year veteran of the unit, recently stopped Gloria Najera on a charge of red-light running.
Najera initially disputed whether the light was red. After giving her a ticket, Vaughan patiently drew a diagram of the intersection and showed where her car was when the light changed. She agreed with him.
“We need enforcement; it prevents accidents,” she said. “I shouldn’t have done that. It was too late for me to turn. I’m tired.”
In about half of Tucson’s fatal crashes in the past six years, police couldn’t determine if a traffic violation was involved, records show. But when a determination could be made, 89 percent of fatal crashes involved a traffic violation such as speeding or red-light running.
That’s why traffic enforcement is important, safety expert Evans said.
In a 2003 study in The Lancet, a medical journal, Evans and two other researchers reviewed driving records of 8,975 motorists in fatal crashes. For a month after a traffic conviction, motorists were 35 percent less likely to be involved in a fatal accident than a motorist without a conviction, they found.
The authors concluded that “inconsistent enforcement . . . may contribute to thousands of deaths worldwide.”
Tucson police motorcycle officer Kenny Vaughan tries to educate a red-light runner he has stopped near South 12th Avenue and West Ajo Way.
Vehicle safety stats
● People killed in Tucson homicides, last five years: 253
● People killed in Tucson vehicle crashes, last five years: 259
● Tucson motorcycle squad officers per 100,000 residents, 2000: 5.11; 2005: 4.73
● Percentage of fatal crashes involving a traffic violation (when determination made), last six years: 89
● For each 3 mph someone drives over the speed limit, the risk of a crash resulting in death doubles.
Sources: Tucson Police Department, Arizona Department of Transportation, traffic safety expert Leonard Evans
Numbers to keep
Here are numbers to program into your cell phone or cut out and keep in your car.
● Tucson Police Department hot line to report aggressive drivers, 235-7243
● Pima County car pollution complaints, 622-5700
● Motorists wanting to report an accident or other emergency should call 911.
Auto safety links:
● Web site of auto safety expert Leonard Evans, www.ScienceServingSociety.com
● Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a federal government database of fatal crashes, http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/
● Tucson Police Department accident and crime statistics database, www.tucsonaz.gov/police/Crime_Statistics/crime_statistics.htm