As a new lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department, I became watch commander of 60 uniformed traffic-collision investigators. Alcohol-related (DUI) collisions accounted for more than half of our traffic fatalities. Obviously, I was interested in reducing these occurrences. Two officers, working partners, had the highest rate for DUI prosecutions. I interviewed them to discover their motivation and/or special techniques. They related an emotional story.
The two officers had responded to a two-vehicle traffic collision near Los Angeles Griffith Park late one evening. In one overturned and mangled vehicle, a severely injured man lay trapped in the wreckage. A fire truck with the Jaws of Life was on the way. One of the officers climbed into the wreckage as close as he could to the bleeding man. The young father told the officer he was getting sleepy and weak, and he didn t think he was going to make it. He asked the officer to please take a message to his wife and two daughters. The officer took dictated notes from the dying man. The officers later met with the young widow and gave her the notes.
The two officers displayed obvious emotion as they recounted this experience. The driver of the other vehicle, who caused the collision, had been driving under the influence. Suddenly I understood the officers motivation.
Most of us subconsciously place a hierarchy of significance on the various causes of death. In that hierarchy, deaths caused by traffic collisions remain low in significance. We seem to accept the current rate of 40,000 traffic deaths per year in the United States nearly half involving DUI. Whereas we are repulsed, shocked and troubled when very small fractions of that massive death toll are caused by any other single cause, such as armed robbers, rapists, serial killers or even war. The children, loved ones and friends of those killed in traffic collisions are just as devastated as those killed in all other situations. Those of us who have had to make death notifications have seen the same shock, grief and agony regardless of the cause of the demise.
The numbers of those killed, injured and otherwise impacted by traffic collisions prove very significant. Because we are charged with protecting life and property, this issue demands our attention. Take action with the following practical steps to fulfill your leadership responsibilities in addressing this major social tragedy.
Do your homework. Determine the number of people killed, injured and otherwise impacted by this problem in your jurisdiction, state and nation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.gov) provides a wealth of information. Determine the primary causes for the deaths and injuries in your jurisdiction. You ll discover many lost lives and injuries involved violations of the law and should not be considered facts of life.
Develop a critical mass of support. Share the results of your research with your chain of command, colleagues and anyone who can effectively contribute. You may not be the top decision maker, but you can share your concern and make recommendations. Remember the adage, Great things are accomplished if you don t care who gets the credit.
Develop a plan. You don t have to reinvent the wheel. Consult articles from publications such as this magazine to determine what others are doing successfully. Discuss the issue with a cross-section of people addressing the problem or who have some stake in it. Adopt strategies and procedures with a unique application to your situation.
Define specific objectives. A goal without a timetable is not really a legitimate goal. Also, goals must include a method to regularly evaluate progress. People working on a problem become encouraged when they see their efforts are successful, recognized and appreciated.
Involve the public. In our democratic society, law enforcement agencies must obtain the public s approval and support for a plan to become effective. Most people don t realize the magnitude of the traffic problem and the criminal behavior connected to it. Once you make the public aware of these facts and the effectiveness of your strategies, you ll gain their support.
Retain focus on the problem s solution. Keep your goals in clear view. Use innovative ways to remind everyone of where they are headed and the progress they re making. This often remains the most neglected step of leadership. Newly adopted projects tend to fade from view unless strong efforts are made to keep them highly visible and a major priority.
Many law enforcement officers and agencies have been highly effective in traffic safety. You too can be a leader in reducing these tragic deaths and injuries —on point.