The topic of traffic safety came up when my wife and I were sharing a table with two senior members of a major police service at a recent charity dinner. Pedestrian deaths have spiked because of traffic congestion, they mentioned, and one made the mistake of asking what I thought. Imagining my wife's eyes rolling, I asked if he was sure he wanted my response. He assured me he did – so I let him have it.
Only police can correct the problem in his city, I curtly told him. He looked surprised and suggested that perhaps more public education, traffic engineering and tougher laws were needed.
The citizenry will never take traffic control seriously if the police don't, I countered. Certainly engineering and education has its place but police enforcement levels must be the first level of attack before anything else is attempted.
I think every police service recognizes the importance traffic enforcement plays in improving traffic safety. A problem arises, however, when the level of enforcement is not kept up or is reduced by changing conditions in society or police priorities. I gauge a community's traffic enforcement level by the number of noisy mufflers, minor infractions, horn honking and junk cars on the road.
Vehicular criminal behaviour becomes more prevalent when the perpetrator is confident they are will not be caught or held accountable for their actions. It is further fortified when it appears society will tolerate such behaviour. A big part of the illusion of societal tolerance comes from the abundance of advertisements promoting the misbehaviour.
Anyone who watches television or goes to the movies is constantly subjected to the propaganda that speed is sexy. Manufacturers appear to have no concern about whether any of this is safe or practical for the average person. Their consciences seem to be cleared by the small text disclaimer that briefly warns the viewer "these pictures are taken using professionals on a closed track."
None of this is rocket science. The entire concept of advertising is to create demand for a product and brand preference plays a big role. Choosing a car, for example, is a careful decision incorporating your needs, compromised by your wants and ability to pay. Most of us are stuck with vehicles which meet our needs and budget but manufacturers count on the 'want' factor to make the big bucks – and they do not shrink from inducements to capitalize on this.
There are many television shows and movies which glorify speed and police chases. One young Texas man in the early '80s was completely overwhelmed by the abilities of Burt Reynold's 1977 Trans Am in the movie series "Smokey and the Bandit," and he enthusiastically purchased one. It wasn't long before he was paralyzed after trying to make it fly through the air – just like in the movies. His parents sued General Motors, Gulf & Western Productions and Burt Reynolds Enterprises for several million dollars, accusing them of creating an atmosphere whereby the fantasy of a flying car became a reality in their son's mind. There was a large out of court settlement; no dollar value was disclosed but the money has been sufficient to care for the victim in a Texas long-term care facility ever since.
Despite many similar cases the lessons which should have been taught in the court of public opinion have not been learned. Cars are still manufactured with speedometers displaying speeds which are not only unattainable by the vehicle but grossly dangerous if even attempted. If manufacturers show speeds of 240 km/h, it's not unreasonable to expect someone in the "Zoom Zoom" generation to try to achieve it.
A legislative answer to this problem could well be found in CRTC regulations prohibiting the glorification of speed in advertising motor vehicles. Such restrictions are in place already for alcohol and tobacco and a responsible industry should be willing to cooperate. Too often, however, new and tougher laws do not change anything except the image of the politician who encourages them.
Regardless of the vagaries of societal mass media attention police should still be able to identify the trends, create a plan of action and engage the problems as they become reality. Instead of casting about for someone else to take responsibility, police must recognize that they are the grassroots level and traffic safety depends on their actions.