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Enforcing Traffic Laws Makes Roads Safer, New Research Shows

High visibility enforcement of traffic safety laws actually works. When carried out, regulations governing driving have a positive and measurable impact on safety by reducing dangerous behaviors behind the wheel that put road users at risk.

That is the main take-away of a new research study released on Tuesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that confirms that when laws are implemented, positive behavior change often occurs.

“This study reinforces the need for equitable traffic enforcement focused on the most dangerous driving behaviors,” Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), said in a statement. “Over the past two years, traffic enforcement has declined in many parts of the country while traffic deaths surged.”

Synthesis of Studies That Relate Amount of Enforcement to Magnitude of Safety Outcomes” was conducted by the National Cooperative Research and Evaluation Program, now called the Behavioral Traffic Safety Cooperative Research Project, a federal research program managed by NHTSA and GHSA with the goal of helping State Highway Safety Offices improve their programs.

The report synthesized existing research that examined data from 80 studies on the relationship between high visibility enforcement efforts and safety outcomes. The analysis focused on the dangerous driving behaviors that are among the greatest contributors to fatal crashes: not buckling up; speeding; and drunk, distracted and aggressive driving. The results, according to the GHSA, indicated that initiatives involving enforcement and public outreach can reduce these risky behaviors.

For example, seat belt use rates increased an average of 3.5 % when a high visibility enforcement campaign was utilized. Even relatively small increases in the belt use rate can translate to hundreds of lives saved. As a result of the federal “Click It or Ticket” seat belt enforcement program, belt use rates in this country rose from only 58% in 1994 to more than 90% in 2020, according to the analysis. However, after years of steady progress, that rate fell slightly in 2020 during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, when many police departments reduced traffic enforcement, the report said.

The study also found that high visibility enforcement campaigns focused on distracted driving, alcohol-impaired driving and speeding led to a reduction in hand-held phone use, lower rates of drunk driving crashes and citations, and decreased speeds in work zones, respectively.

“Enforcement alone will not solve the traffic safety crisis,” Adkins added. “We cannot simply enforce, build, design or educate our way out of this problem. The Safe System necessitates a comprehensive approach for achieving our collective goal of zero traffic deaths, including equitable enforcement that focuses on risky driver choices that endanger all road users.”

The Safe System approach to road safety and design, also known as Vision Zero, takes human error into account. First put into effect in Sweden in the 1990s, the goal is to eliminate all road deaths and serious injuries by creating multiple layers of protection, so if one fails, the others will create a safety net to lessen the impact of a crash.

To read a summary of the report, click here. To read the full report, click here. To read more about the Behavioral Traffic Safety Cooperative Research Project, click here.

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