State moves to lower number of traffic deaths

BY SCOTT RAYNOR | JULY 23, 2009 7:15 AM

Programs that drastically increase police presence on specific roadways increase seat-belt use in those areas — though this effect rarely lasts.

Throughout the year, Iowa law enforcement conducts seven such operations, designed to increase patrols in different areas of the state.

On July 17, police participated in Operation I’s, a one-day program on Iowa’s highways designed by the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau to curb Iowa’s driving deaths.

“We lose so many people when single vehicles run off the road,” said Robert Thompson, a program evaluator at the bureau. “The vehicle may go in ditch or roll over, so in many of these cases, people were unbelted, and they died.”

Project coordinator Jim Meyerdirk said Operation I’s works by drastically increasing the police presence in 10 areas of major Iowa highways for one day.

The strategy attempts to curb dangerous driving habits. Iowa City is included in these 10 areas, which were chosen based on the number of driving deaths.

“It absolutely increases public safety in high-risk times,” Thompson said. “It also raises visibility for the rest of motoring public, a general reminder that they need to comply with speed laws and safety belt laws.”

And it seems to be working, at least temporarily.

After a police operation, surveys showed the percentage of Iowans who don’t wear seat belts dropped from 5 percent to 4 percent, Thompson said.

But, Iowa City police Sgt. Mike Lord said, there is a significant “trailing off” effect. That means even though motorists change their behavior, such as slowing down or buckling up, they often forget and lapse into their old habits.

The only way to make a permanent change, he said, is to follow these projects with strict enforcement. He hopes that combination will change people’s driving practices.

Though the change in seat-belt use is only 1 percent, Thompson said, it is more significant when translated to its effect on potential fatalities.

Seven percent of Iowans who choose not to buckle up account for more than 50 percent of fatalities in crashes, Thompson said. Fatal accidents in Iowa during 2008 accounted for 413 deaths, he said, a number that has remained fairly stable over recent years.

Despite fleeting and low-increment changes, overall, he said, any change in driving behavior is a success, no matter how temporary.

“Fifty-six percent of fatalities involve lane departures or [drivers] running off the roads,” Thompson said. “A safety belt would have made all the difference.”

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