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February 2, 2011

Police need to be first to obey traffic laws

Roger Martin of Glen Burnie wrote me in response to a recent column about driver and pedestrian interactions around crosswalks. I thought his email was worth sharing, and he generously allowed me to do so. I'll save my rant until the end of his message: 

Subject: Your article on crosswalks, etc.

First, I applaud your articles. I have spent a lot of time in Las Vegas, mostly as part of my Air Force duties attending Operation Red Flag at nearby Nellis AFB. I do not recall anything specific about Las Vegans being especially good with pedestrians. However, I grew up in California, where laws have always been pedestrian-friendly and strongly enforced.

I have lived in several states, due to my USAF assignments and post-USAF career.

I agree with the recent rating of DC and Baltimore having some of the worst drivers in the country. I believe the top issue is failure of law enforcement to pull people over for the most-obvious law-breaking. The law-enforcers themselves are among the worst offenders, and perhaps that's one reason why they don't pull over others.

For example, what does the law say about starting and finishing turns? How many people do you regularly see (including law enforcement) who make left turns into the left-most lane and right turns into the right-most lane. Nobody seems to know about the rule, and that includes the police.

I'd say the place to start is making the police follow their own rules, then start rigorously applying them to others. Only after that, should new rules be applied.

Thanks for letting me vent.

Roger Martin

I'm all for rigorous new rules, but Martin has a good point. The state of police driving in Maryland is fairly abysmal, and a good place to start with any crackdown on highway offenses is with a rigorous review of the driving practices within the state's police departments.

Like it or not, citizens look to the police to be examples as drivers. Certainly, the apologists for bad driving -- and there are many -- are quick to point to the conduct of officers as an excuse for their own behavior.

All too often they have a point about how police drive, though I don't buy the argument that it justifies their own bad driving.  If you're a regular speeder, you're a bad driver. Not super-skilled. Not a free spirit. Just a menace.

But that's true whether a driver carries a badge or not, and there is a sub-group of officers who appear to believe their profession gives them a pass from the laws of physics as well as the law of the state of Maryland. And it's an open secret that many  bad drivers with badges are protected by a code of "professional courtesy" under which officers let other officers off the hook for even serious traffic offenses.

That really has to stop. It undermines respect for traffic law and compromises highway safety.

It's really up to the police chiefs to turn it around. It won't be easy. A culture has developed over decades under which some law enforcement officers believe the laws don't apply  to them. And it's been known to carry over into how seriously they take their traffic enforcement responsibilities. My guess is that part of it  has  to do with a police recruiting pool that draws heavily on the same population of young men -- and to a lesser extent women -- who are fascinated with fast cars.

But the chiefs really do need to change that culture. It might just make sense for departments -- or parts of departments -- to stand down for a time to address the full spectrum of issues involved in enforcing traffic laws. That would include:

1. A zero-tolerance policy for any extension of "professional courtesy" toward law enforcement officers or other favored groups.

2. Perceptions that traffic enforcement is a low-prestige assignment that impedes career progress. Would it be presumptuous to suggest that all officer should pull at least  an occasional traffic enforcement shift and that command of a traffic patrol would be one of the expected career steps for any officer who aspires to top command. For citizens, it is a priority right up there with violent crime. Most of us face a greater risk to life and health from bad driving than from handguns.

3. A reinforcement of the message that it is every officer's job to be a model for other drivers both on-duty and off-duty. Officers should be proud of enforcing traffic laws well and should be professionally recognized for doing so.

4. A determined effort to overcome any "front-seat" bias under which officers see issues from the point of drivers at the expense of bicyclists and pedestrians.

5. Clean and consistent standards on when a warning is appropriate and when a citation is called for. Leaving it solely to the officer's discretion is an invitation for bias to seep in.

6. A clear and consistent message that even in an emergency, an officer must take care to protect his or her own life and that of people along the route -- even if that means taking a few extra seconds to get there. Also part of that is to ensure that emergencies that have been defused are called off just as quickly as they are called.

7. Transparent, unsparing and timely investigations of police-involved crashes.

8. Improved training for police in acting as witnesses in traffic cases.

Those are just some  of the ideas I'd throw on the  table. I'd be interested in hearing from the public -- especially police officers -- to see what you think.


Posted by Michael Dresser at 1:47 PM | | Comments (5)


Nice. Please, please, please get this in the print edition!

How about some kind of reward or bonus for any officer who, in the absence of an emergency, tickets another officer (on or off-duty) for a traffic violation AND has indisputable evidence that the violation occurred. Without a dashboard cam video or something, it would be too easy to abuse. But this could work on the problem from both sides.

Thanks for the article. SO TRUE. I can't tell you the last time I saw an officer use a turn signal, let alone drive the speed limit. It's a constant problem, and the media tends to give them a free pass when problems/accidents do happen. In yesterdays Washington Post this story:
The writer says the officers car slid off the road...NOT that the office DROVE his car off the road. It says a wet road was the cause of the accident...NOT that it was a FACTOR or that other factors were probably more of a cause, like speeding or improper handling of the vehicle. When a pedestrian is hit, it seems like we blame the pedestrian. When a motorist is in an accident we say that "A CAR" collided/veered out of control/slid off etc. etc.

This sounds like a rediculous waste of time. Aren't there a lot bigger problems than cops using their turn signals and speeding. I'm not a cop but I think they are trained professional drivers who have to pass high speed driving tests on tracks and courses. And what are we talking about, a cop car going 70 or something. Big deal! They can't possibly do their job cruising around at the speed limit. They have to get to calls and how can they enoforce traffic laws driving behind the same car for miles on end. Did you ever think that as they are passing thru traffic that they are seeing multiple cars and the more cars they see, the more violations they are going to find like bad tags or drunk drivers or aggressive drivers. I absolutely want them out there doing what they do. I don't want them in the slow land going 55 so you can be happy.

Mr. February 3, 2011 11:13 AM, apparently you are another member of this community's problem. What percentage of the time do you think police officers are responding to an emergency? 99% of the time? I would believe that patrolling would be a larger percentage. While patrolling, there is no reason why a police officer can not be setting a good example.

Thanks to Michael Dresser for addressing this important issue. Traffic safety is a serious problem in Baltimore. It will only get better when we decide that unsafe driving is unacceptable.

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.

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