Fatal Motor Vehicle Accidents in Fayette County Rise 29% in 2011
On the last day of 2011 an article written by Josh Kegley entitled “Lexington Police are Writing Fewer Tickets, Records Show” appeared in the Lexington Herald- Leader. You can still find the article in the Herald- leader’s online archives by clicking on the link below:
The article described how the number of traffic cases handled by Fayette District Court had declined from 46,206 cases handled in FY 2007 to 37,740 cases handled in FY 2011. Mr. Kegley also focused on the amount of revenue that had been lost by state and local government due to this decline.
This decline is not a surprise. The number of citations issued by Lexington police officers has been declining for several years. In 2007, the year that the number of sworn police officers in Lexington peaked at 593, Lexington police officers issued 78,539 traffic citations. By 2010 the number of citations issued had declined to 62,313.
(A point of clarification might be helpful here. Not every citation issued by a police officer results in a traffic case in District Court because many citations are dismissed before the hearing date. For example: If a person is issued a traffic citation for having a burned- out headlight he could fix the headlight prior to his court date, bring in his receipt showing that he replaced the bulb, and the citation would be dismissed. The same thing happens when people have other equipment violations, expired insurance cards, and the like. If a citation is dismissed, then there is no traffic case as far as District Court is concerned.)
While the loss of revenue should not be discounted, contrary to what some people believe the primary purpose of traffic law enforcement is not revenue generation. As with the enforcement and application of every other law on the books, the primary purpose of traffic enforcement is to promote public safety. The fines that are imposed as penalties are a secondary consequence.
If the primary purpose of traffic enforcement is maintain or increase the safety of the public, then a decline in that enforcement should cause the safety of the public to be jeopardized. The overall number of accidents, particularly the overall number of fatal accidents, can be expected to increase. Tragically, this appears to be what is happening in Lexington.
According to figures obtained from the Lexington Police Department, the number of overall collisions in Fayette County during 2011 was statistically even with the number in 2010. It actually fell a statistically insignificant amount, from 14,651 collisions reported in 2010 to 14,615 collisions reported in 2011.
However, the number of collisions in which a fatality occurred increased from 24 reported accidents in 2010 to 31 reported in 2011, an increase of 29.17%. The number of persons who were killed in these collisions increased from 24 in 2010 to 33 in 2011, a percentage increase of 37.5%.
So if the overall number of collisions is roughly the same, why is the number of fatal collisions rising? In order to understand that, we have to examine the underlying causes of the 31 collisions that resulted in a fatality.
The city of Lexington averages just over 14,000 accidents a year and has done so for the last five years. The vast, vast majority of those accidents are minor, resulting in minor property damage and no injuries to any of the parties involved. These are low speed collisions in parking lots, accidents that happen when people are backing up, and the like. They are usually the result of simple driver inattention and there’s little that can be done from an enforcement perspective to prevent them.
Fatal accidents are a different matter. With the exception of accidents involving pedestrians, bicyclists, and other unprotected people, in order for a passenger in a modern car or truck to be killed during a collision one or a combination of several specific factors must be involved. Modern cars are built with active and passive safety features that are designed to protect their occupants from death and serious physical injury when used correctly. That includes operating a vehicle within the parameters that the safety features were designed for.
When a driver engages in behavior that overrides the ability of the vehicle’s safety equipment to protect him, the resulting accident is more likely to be fatal. If you’re driving down a two lane road at 90 mph, lose control for whatever reason, roll your car, and crash upside down into a tree there is little that any vehicle’s safety systems can do to prevent you from receiving serious physical injuries or dying. The only way to avoid these kinds of tragic accidents is to modify the behavior of motorists.
The ultimate goal of traffic enforcement is to achieve this type of behavior modification. People are often notoriously unable to judge the amount of risk a specific behavior might subject them to, particularly when the consequences seem remote. Fear of death or serious physical injury in a car accident due to excessive speed might not seem as “real” to a driver, particularly a young and inexperienced driver, as the fear of getting pulled over and receiving a hefty fine along with a substantial increase in their insurance premiums. Receive enough traffic infractions and your privilege to drive may be revoked, bringing with it a distinct loss of mobility, which results in an awful lot of aggravation and inconvenience waiting for the bus or bumming rides from others. Financial consequences that hit a person square in the pocketbook are more “real” than the theoretical risk of death or serious physical injury in a car accident.
Obviously the police can’t modify every poor driving habit and no one can control for the weather or other “acts of God” that contribute to a motor vehicle accident. But some of the highest risk behaviors that lead to fatal traffic collisions can be influenced at least to some degree with enforcement, particularly when it comes to excessive speed and driving under the influence of alcohol and other intoxicants.
Of the 31 fatal collisions in Fayette County last year 13 of them (41.9%) involved a driver who was under the influence of alcohol and/ or drugs.
Driving under the influence is often one of multiple contributing factors that leads to a fatal accident. The impairment of the driver leads him to engage in higher risk driving behaviors, such as excessive speed. Of the 31 fatal collisions in Fayette County last year 8 (25.8%) of them involved excessive speed.
Finally, one of the simplest things that can be done to prevent a serious wreck from being a fatality is the use of seatbelts or, when riding a motorcycle, a helmet. Last year 6 of the 33 reported fatalities were pedestrians, so the use of seatbelts or helmets doesn’t apply to them. Of the remaining 27 fatalities, 17 of them (62.9%) were of people who were not wearing seatbelts or helmets, as appropriate.
These three behaviors (driving under the influence, speeding, and failure to wear a seatbelt) can be influenced by effective, consistent traffic law enforcement. However, traffic enforcement is largely a proactive endeavor by police officers. Officers need time when they are not responding to dispatched calls for service to observe for traffic violations and make necessary traffic stops in order to issue citations.
Lexington is a large enough jurisdiction to justify having a dedicated Traffic Section, with officers who are assigned specifically to write traffic citations when they are not responding to take collision reports. Over the last year the Traffic Section’s staffing has been severely cut to fill in vacancies in the Bureau of Patrol. These cuts had reduced the number of officers dedicated specifically to traffic enforcement to just 31 as of December 16, 2011.
Despite this cutting of the Traffic Section to supplement patrol, the rate of attrition has kept the shuffling of people from making an impact. Patrol officers can and do write traffic citations, but their time is even more restricted than Traffic officers since their primary responsibility is to respond to all types of dispatched calls, not just vehicle collisions. Reactive police work simply must always take precedence over proactive police work.
No one likes getting a traffic citation. However, dedicated and consistent traffic enforcement is necessary to maintain public safety. In order to do that effectively the Lexington Police department must have the manpower available to allow officers the time necessary to be proactive. Lexington’s elected leaders have failed to hire enough police officers to keep up with attrition, let alone increase the size of the department overall. A 37.5% increase in motor vehicle fatalities in a single year is, like the 9.5% increase in the reported crime rate, proof of the consequences of their failure.