I’ve written before about the three Es of road safety, education, engineering and enforcement. The enforcement component was the subject of a comment to me concerning a visible police presence on our highways. The observation was that unmarked cars and what seems like minimal enforcement creates a “I can get away with it” mindset.
The fleet at the last traffic unit that I worked at consisted of seven vehicles: two unmarked, two “clean roof” and three fully marked cars. One of the unmarked cars was only available for enforcement work if the supervisors weren’t working or were otherwise occupied. Policy dictated the percentage of cars that could be anything less than fully marked.
The unmarked cars were popular even though they were relatively easy to identify as police vehicles if you were paying attention. Plain trim, black steel wheels and antennas on the roof tend to stick out.
Even so, you tended to find more bad driving behaviour patrolling in the unmarked car than you would when using a fully marked vehicle. My experience was also that I was able to deal with drivers that I did not see misbehaving otherwise.
Add an unconventional unmarked vehicle to the mix and it got more interesting. We were envious of a neighbouring traffic unit that had an unmarked pickup truck with a canopy. Drivers did all sorts of foolish things around it, probably because they did not associate it with active traffic enforcement.
Our supervisor often expressed his desire to see flashing lights at the roadside. He said that the public couldn’t tell whether we were writing tickets or warnings and the flashing lights served to remind them that if they didn’t behave, the next driver pulled over might be them.
This halo effect could be very short lived however. Occasionally I would entertain myself by leaving the radar running while I wrote a ticket so I was able to keep and eye on what was overtaking us. A vehicle would come into view travelling at a speed in excess of the limit, see the flashing lights and slow down. Sometimes they even slowed to a speed under the limit. After they passed by I would frequently see their speed creep back up to the initial speed over the limit before the vehicle went out of sight.
I wonder whether flashing lights deter bad driving behaviour or if it only discourages it in places where they are seen frequently. After all, it is some other driver that is receiving police attention, not you, so why worry?
My old patrol area consisted of about 350 kilometers of numbered highway. My shift partner and I more often than not were the only dedicated traffic enforcement present save for the overlap with the day or afternoon shift depending on which shift we were working. The chance of running into either one of us was slim and truthfully, became even slimmer the farther away you were from the detachment.
I don’t agree that unmarked cars are part of the visible enforcement deficit, but the scope of the job given the size of our province contributes to a feeling of minimal enforcement and an “I can get away with it” mindset.