How Much Traffic Enforcement Is Enough?

Whatcom Traffic Stop

You say that the Whatcom County Target Zero Task Force has a vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030 but what is being done to achieve that goal? Every day I see worrisome traffic infractions – speeding, tailgating, texting, passing in no-passing zones; but I seldom see a police presence. The recent spate of fatal accidents caused by irresponsible drivers is frightening. I know that at any time I could become a statistic. Isn’t it time to get tough and send a message that driving is a privilege, not a right, and with that privilege comes serious consequences for flouting the law?

Even edited to half its original length, this two-part question still conveys the passion of someone that wants to see a change in driving behavior. And for good reason; in 2014 Washington lost 462 people in fatal crashes, and over 2000 people were seriously injured. The data for 2015 isn’t complete yet, but it may be even higher. Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens and young adults. Clearly, this is a serious issue.

What are we doing about it? The Washington Traffic Safety Commission (the parent organization of the Whatcom County Target Zero Task Force) supports and funds many traffic safety initiatives, including coordinating emphasis patrols focusing on impaired drivers, distracted drivers, speeding and seat belts; conducting public education campaigns; researching the best methods to reduce crashes; working with legislators for better traffic laws; improving road engineering; and working with communities to resolve traffic safety issues.

Could we do more? Sure, and the second part of the question asks, “Isn’t it time to get tough?” As a traffic safety professional, I’d like to see a reduction of crashes, and enforcement plays a major role in achieving that outcome. But what level of traffic enforcement does our community want? In contrast to the original question, I’ll bet nearly every cop has been asked a variation of the following question during a traffic stop: “Isn’t there some real crime you should be investigating instead of hassling drivers?” Community support for traffic enforcement is not a universally shared point of view.

However, most citizens recognize a need for traffic enforcement; it’s more of a question of how much enforcement. Here are a few proven crash-reduction strategies that we don’t utilize in our community:

-Red light cameras: Multiple studies show a significant reduction of injury crashes, and minor increase in non-injury crashes. Bellingham had a short-lived relationship with red light cameras until community opposition ended the program.

-Speed cameras: Most studies show a reduction in crashes, but Washington limits use almost exclusively to school zones. Cities with citizen support for speed cameras are a minority in the US.

-In-car data recording: This method uses a device installed in a car to monitor driver behavior. Some insurance companies already use in-car data recording. One study showed a 20% reduction in crashes. Law enforcement doesn’t utilize data from in-car recording, and even discussing it feels like we’re getting into Big Brother territory.

Beyond enforcement, we could reduce speed limits, redesign roads to force traffic to drive slower, make driver licensing requirements more restrictive and increase penalties for violations. We could even build a transit system with so much capacity that no one really needs a car to get around any more.

These aren’t just ideas. They’ve all been done in other places, and every one of them can be implemented if the citizens have the collective desire to do so. Understand that I’m not advocating that we do all these things; just that it takes more than a law enforcement agency or a judge, it takes the support of our whole community to make positive changes. There is currently a distracted driving bill being proposed in the legislature that is struggling for support. That bill will likely live or die based on the input of citizens to their elected officials.

We have many important issues competing for our attention and resources. Within them all, where does traffic safety rank? How serious are we about eliminating vehicle fatalities? What is an acceptable number of vehicle fatalities for our state? What is an acceptable number of vehicle fatalities within your family and friends? How we answer these questions determines the social will to make changes.

Okay, I’ll step off the soap box. Now it’s your turn. How do you envision making driving safer? Post a response and let us know.



  1. To eliminate traffic fatalities in the long term: remove the person from behind the steering wheel; humans make terrible drivers. Google’s cars are already safer than your average driver. The state should encourage the development and deployment of driver-less cars to make this happen sooner rather than later.

  2. It’s obvious to me that those who oppose red light cameras and speed traps are those who run red lights and speed! I say, “To hell with them!” I’d like to see cameras on every overpass and at every intersection linked to a computer system that automatically records violators for proof of their violation and mails tickets with scheduled court dates.

  3. It’s obvious to me that those who oppose red light cameras and speed traps are those who run red lights and speed! I say, “To heck with them!” I’d like to see cameras on every overpass and at every intersection linked to a computer system that automatically records violators for proof of their violation and mails tickets with scheduled court dates.

  4. Traffic deaths in the USA is like one 911 disaster every month!
    As a wise friends once said, “A Law without enforcement is merely a suggestion.”
    Unfortunately, cell phone use while driving is one of these.
    Thanks for your traffic safety passion and your well researched and well written column, Doug.

  5. The traffic laws, first and foremost, are intended to make things safer for all involved. Traffic laws not enforced and hence almost universally disregarded make a mockery of these laws. Furthermore, anyone trying to obey the law becomes a hinderance to the flow of traffic and makes themselves more likely to be involved in an accident. I travel by motorized two-wheeler much of the time and can’t obey the law against much heavier and aggressive machines demanding I drive faster than the speed limit or they will commit some unsafe and aggressive following or passing maneuver no matter where we are.
    At four way stop intersections I continually lose the right of way even having arrived first simply because I come to a full stop – no one else does and they just carry on through the intersection. I could go on and on, but everyone out there who drives knows the score.
    One possible solution that comes to mind is what I think of as a “Truth in Law“ bill that would repeal any law not enforced. Any new law would have to be signed off on by the voters, law enforcement and judiciary before being enacted into law. This would prevent laws that the police or the courts haven’t the manpower or funds to enforce and force the legislature to fund the enforcement of any new rulings. Democracy, the will of the people, would be served better than the present system, also democratic, but more chaotic, where no one, including the LEOs wants to obey or enforce the rules, or be ticketed for not doing so. I think that without the rules that aren’t being enforced the public will come to a better agreement on what rules they really need.

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