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Does war on terror have a hidden toll?

Citations are dropping -- and fatalities rising -- as more officers are assigned to homeland security jobs.

May 28, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

Drivers are getting fewer tickets, despite the greater number of miles being traveled on roads and the growing number of fatal accidents. The drop reflects a change from the philosophy that routine traffic patrols make a big difference in highway safety.

In 1998, the California Highway Patrol, the nation's largest law enforcement organization dedicated to road safety, issued 2.23 million citations. By 2001, the figure had dropped 7% to 2.07 million. The CHP is still gathering data for 2002, and another drop is quite possible.

The CHP says it is not going soft on speeders, aggressive drivers and drunks. The problem is the agency has been assigned other duties related to the growing burden of homeland defense. In a sense, the war on terrorism may be driving up the number of fatalities on the highway.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the CHP has been assigned such duties as inspecting and protecting bridges, aqueducts and state buildings. At the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Los Angeles, for example, the CHP has several officers routinely patrolling the halls and sidewalks. When the federal government raises the terrorism alert to a higher level, traffic enforcement in particular suffers, according to Jonathan Adkins, communications director for the Governors Highway Safety Assn. Typically, traffic cops are pulled off the road all over the nation and assigned to other duties.

"So many of the National Guard and reservists are police who have been called to active duty," Adkins said. "It is a real issue in places like Minnesota and North Dakota. They are being pulled off the road to guard nuclear power plants and water systems. But we can catch a lot of terrorists in routine traffic stops. That's how we got Timothy McVeigh."

McVeigh, who was convicted of bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City, was apprehended during a routine stop for a vehicle equipment violation.

Under federal policy, communities can obtain grants to pay for overtime related to traffic patrols, but in many communities police are already working more overtime than they want, Adkins said. The money is going unspent. Indeed, the war on terrorism is being waged not so much by increasing police forces but by taking them away from traditional duties.

CHP spokesman Tom Marshall said the agency has the same 7,000 uniformed officers that it had way back in 1969. Although the number of officers on the road has not increased, the number of miles driven in the state has more than doubled.

It might be expected that fewer patrols result in more dangerous driving, such as speeding, and more fatalities, which seems to be confirmed by the data. In 2001, the state recorded 1.26 fatalities for every million miles driven, the first increase in many years. In 2000 and in 1999, the rate was 1.19.

Nationwide, after many years of highway death totals dropping, they began going up in 1998. In 2002, driving fatalities reached 42,850 in the U.S., up from 42,116 the year before.

The big increases in recent years are in crashes involving sober drivers who are speeding, behaving aggressively or are drowsy, experts say. Deaths related to drunk driving have been flat or have increased slightly.

To be sure, improved technology and training have helped CHP officers do more than their counterparts could in the late 1960s. License plate and fugitive checks are done quickly from computer keyboards in patrol cars, instead of having to call a dispatcher, for example.

But police also are spending more time on things such as community outreach and education programs, in which they make appearances at parks and other public events to encourage safe driving. Marshall says the activities are important for public education.

Some critics say this is a waste of time and the police should be spending less time on public relations and more time nabbing violators.

"Local police are doing fewer traffic patrols," said Lisa Sheikh of the Partnership for Safe Driving. Her group advocates greater government emphasis on the problems that cause the majority of deaths: speeding, distraction, drowsiness and aggression. Those are the areas most affected by cutbacks in patrols, she said.

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Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.

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