Utilizing Data and Science to Reduce Serious Injury and Fatality Crashes on Rural Roadways

By Captain Ken Clary
Iowa State Patrol

This article was reprinted from Translational Criminology Magazine (Fall, 2018), with the permission of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.

As commanders within state police and patrol organizations, we are charged with protecting the citizenry traveling on our roadways. Although some might view violations of traffic laws as lesser offenses, those infractions can often lead to death and/ or serious injury if not corrected. In 2016, a total of 37,461 people lost their lives on U.S. roadways,1 while, in comparison, 16,250 people were reported by the FBI’s Uniformed Crime Report as murdered that same year. Traffic crashes result in an enormous loss of life annually and are consistently a leading cause of nonhealth related deaths in the United States.

Law enforcement agencies throughout the nation have attempted to deploy analysis and technology to enhance their operational effectiveness when combating traffic crashes. Often this is done by using historical crash data and targeting enforcement efforts focused in areas where there is a higher propensity for crashes to occur (i.e., Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety, or DDACTS). However, such approaches may be less useful for many areas of the country where crashes occur—rural roadways. More than 4.1 million miles of roadway in the United States are in rural areas, and approximately 70 percent of fatality crashes occur on these rural roadways each year.2 Additionally, these crashes may not regularly cluster at locations small enough to identify and target.

Take, for example, my home state of Iowa. There are currently 350 troopers in the Iowa State Patrol (ISP), of which there are 260 whose primary daily responsibility is traffic safety throughout the 56,273 square miles in the state. Annually, 370 people die in traffic crashes in Iowa, somewhere along the state’s more than 92,000 miles of roadway.2 In Iowa, 76 percent of fatality crashes occur on rural roadways.3 Due to the number of square miles, along with the thousands and thousands of miles of rural roadways where the majority of these crashes occur, it is sometimes difficult to determine patterns with data. This is espe- cially true if you are only using data from the most recent past.

In order to identify patterns in rural areas, we must often take a larger snapshot of time for patterns to emerge. The research evidence on crime concentrations provides important clues to tackling crashes on rural roadways. Specifically, crime and accidents often happen because of underlying opportunity structures that contribute to them. Although the exact place for future fatality crashes to occur may be difficult to pinpoint, we can identify with some certainty the causation of these crashes year after year. Leading causes include distracted driving, operating under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, not wearing a seatbelt, and speeding. As an example, more than 92 percent of Iowans wear their seatbelts, but the remaining 8 percent who don’t wear their seatbelts make up more than 42 percent of those killed in traffic crashes.4 If we could simply get the remaining 8 percent to buckle their belts before they begin the journey that leads to the crash site, we could dramatically drive down traffic fatalities. Identifying law enforcement activities that work to deter and prevent accidents would have profound effects on traffic safety and may be useful in places where events are more spread out. Indeed, “hot spots,” where people who engage in risky behavior start their journeys, may be more identifiable than where their crashes occur in rural environments.

This year the ISP and George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy partnered to develop an innovative, targeted, place-based, proactive, and tailored problem-oriented strategy, with the goal of increasing the perception of law enforcement presence and thus significantly reducing traffic crashes, injuries, and fatalities in Iowa. Unlike other strategies that focus on where crashes might cluster, ISP and Mason analyzed 10 years of crash data in order to identify potential “hot towns” near crash sites as likely origin points for drivers involved in fatality crashes along Iowa’s rural roadways. With this data, they were able to identify two hot towns within each county (for a total of 56 towns), as well as one specific roadway section for each county (an additional 28 hot roadways), that are likely linked to the routine activities and opportunity structures of serious vehicle crashes. Analysis of data and crash reports suggests that victims of serious injury and fatality crashes appear to be visiting these towns, becoming intoxicated with drugs or alcohol, and then unsafely operating their vehicles (e.g., speeding, violating seat- belt laws, dangerously operating a motor vehicle).

Perception of police presence is as importance as presence itself.5 Impaired drivers take a calculated risk of driving their vehicle intoxi- cated, believing they will not meet law enforcement presence. To combat this perception, tailored interventions have been developed to target both the hot spot road segments for crashes and the activity hot spots within the nearby localities that serve as likely origin points for the drivers. Troopers are assigned two or three counties each shift and perform targeted patrols at designated crash and origin hot spots within those counties randomly and intermittently. While in the hot spots, troopers have high profile, (often somewhat unexpected) interactions with citizens. These interactions can be as simple as a conversation or traffic stop, but they are meant to leave a lasting and reverberating impression on the community. Many of these interactions are nonpunitive and serve a dual function of creating a deterrence effect and improving the perceptions of the state police amongst the community.

In our initiative, night shift troopers (working between 3 p.m. and 1 a.m.) make 10-to-20-minute visits to each hot town, engaging in highly visible citizen interactions at specific locations such as bars, gas stations, and convenience stores, and then moving to the next hot spot. In addition to the evidence for problem-solving, this timing strategy is grounded in research by Koper showing that periodic and unexpected short visits to hot spots are an effective and efficient means of controlling crime and disorder.6 Troopers are asked to engage in nonpunitive interactions with bar owners, bartenders, and patrons in a positive manner. The interactions revolve around serving patrons responsibly, ensuring everyone has made arrangements to get home safely, and providing patrons with safety messages, including the importance of wearing seatbelts. Troopers also leave behind literature in convenience stores and other high-volume citizen areas (specifically, literature regarding the leading causes of fatality crashes, which include distracted driving, operating under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, seatbelt usage, and speeding). Troopers might also position themselves along highly traveled roadways to increase their visibility and presence. Based on the deterrence literature, all of these approaches are intended to create a “media” presence so that word spreads in these places of increased police interest and presence in reducing serious and fatal vehicle crashes.7

To provide some actual examples, a state trooper might enter a bar, sit at a table with a patron, and strike up a conversation about hoping the patron is having a good time and has a safe way to get home. That patron may not have seen a trooper in their town for months, and especially not inside a local bar. Such interactions are unusual, and if done politely and respectfully, may become something that the patron and others recount in the days ahead, even if that officer is not able to visit that particular bar again for some time. Yet this small gesture could create an impression on patrons to at least focus on the consequences of their behaviors or perhaps believe there is greater police presence in the area if they do choose to drive while intoxicated.

Or, perhaps a trooper often sees an elderly farmer every day, driving through town without wearing his seatbelt to go have his morning coffee with his buddies. The trooper stops the farmer, not to write a ticket, but to have a conversation about a recent fatality wreck that he handled because the driver wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. The trooper expresses concern about the farmer’s safety, without necessarily being punitive. That farmer is still going to go have coffee that morning, but he might tell his friends about the stop, what the officer told him, and how he was treated. Again, such efforts may have more of a lasting impression on the farmer (and his friends).

These approaches, in addition to enforcement activities, may provide an extra problem-solving layer to getting at the root of fatality crashes. Using analysis to identify strategic locations of the origins and pathways to crash sites to implement these tactics is also a key component of such strategies. All of these interactions are intended to get people to see and talk about trooper actions with others, thus increasing their perceptions of law enforcement presence, even though hot origin locations might only be visited by troopers for short periods of time. Increasing the perception of police presence may also have a preventative impact on other crimes. Also important is educating officers on different ways that they can engage with the public at these places.

This is a unique approach to traffic enforcement, as it is proactive and preventative—not reactive, as most traffic enforcement efforts tend to be. The ISP and researchers at George Mason University are working together to collect a variety of performance measures for this multi-year project to ultimately conduct a quasi-experimental evaluation of the intervention. Although we are just over halfway through the first year of the project, and data has not yet been analyzed in the aggregate, there are strong early indicators that the intervention is having success.

Officers have been willing to try a new approach and have successfully completed almost 5,000 extra visits to these locations in the first half of 2018. It is hoped that a long-term evaluation will show this effort can not only make a difference in fatality crashes, but also be an example of research-practitioner teams working together to address problems in rural communities. I also hope that this work empowers others to think creatively about how science and data can be applied to their specific concerns and to better law enforcement as a whole.

I believe that by combining our police experience (or our craft) with the use of valid scientific methods, we can foster innovation and professionalism in policing.

The appetite for practitioner-led policing research is high. A number of societies of evidence-based policing have been formed around the world, starting with the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the United States, and Spain. The mission of these societies is to develop, disseminate, and advocate for police to use scientific research to guide best practices in all aspects of policing. They are collectives of individuals mutually committed to evidence-based policing. They have been created to advocate for and support research and to promulgate new knowledge. Membership, numbering in the thousands, primarily comprises police officers. Perhaps this level of uptake further demonstrates the desire of police officers to embrace research and question historical practice. It also is an attempt by police officers and their respective agencies to take ownership of the profession of policing or the science of the profession.

Ken Clary is a captain with the Iowa State Patrol, currently serving as an area commander responsible for four district offices encompassing 28 counties in Northeast Iowa. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy (269th session), a National Institute of Justice LEADS Scholar, and an executive fellow for the National Police Foundation. For more information about all of the inductees in the Hall of Fame, visit cebcp.org/hall-of-fame.

End Notes
1 U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2018). Traffic safety facts: 2016 data. Retrieved from https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812521.
2 Ibid.
3 Iowa Department of Transportation. (2017). Fatal crashes in Iowa—
1988-2016. Retrieved from https://iowadot.gov/mvd/stats/fatalcrashes. pdf.
4 Ibid. See also Iowa Department of Transportation. (2017). Facts and Stats 2017. Retrieved from https://iowadot.gov/mvd/factsandstats.
5 Nagin, D. S., Solow, R. M., and Lum, C. (2015). Deterrence, criminal opportunities, and police. Criminology: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 53(1), 74–100.
6 Koper, C. S. (1995). Just enough police presence: Reducing crime and disorderly behavior by optimizing patrol time in crime hot spots. Justice Quarterly, 12(4), 649–72.
7 Sherman, L. W. (1990). Police crackdowns: Initial and residual deterrence. Crime and Justice, 12, 1-48.

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