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Wanted: More Officers, Fewer Unsafe Drivers

September 27, 2006|Jean Guccione and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

Michael L. Brown, commissioner of the California Highway Patrol since 2004, was in Los Angeles last week to encourage people ages 20 to 35 to join his department. He is hiring 510 additional officers to patrol the state's roadways, increasing his current staff of 6,700 uniformed officers. Over the last two years, the state budget has provided funding for 240 new officers and authorized the CHP to fill 270 vacancies.

Improving public safety is his primary concern. Seat belt compliance in California has reached nearly 93%, but since 2003 the number of deaths caused by drunk drivers has been edging upward -- a trend Brown wants reversed.

During a wide-ranging hourlong interview with The Times, Brown, 51, talked about traffic enforcement and how the CHP can help improve the quality of life in urban areas by working to ease traffic congestion.

What follows are excepts from the conversation by topic.

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Traffic jams:

Most of our congestion, as we all know in Los Angeles, is nonrecurring. It's not capacity driven. It's the ladder in the roadway. It's the crash.... Those are the kind of things that [the CHP] can have an impact on because people do behave when they are around a black-and-white patrol car. We call it voluntary compliance, pure and simple.

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Traffic management:

Our role has changed dramatically over the last three decades, where instead of just writing tickets and slowing people down, we are also trying to get people to move and get them mobile.... I truly believe if everyone plays well with each other on the roadway, we could have a lot better quality of life in terms of congestion.

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Road rage:

Driving behavior or misbehavior can occur at any place, at any time, done by anybody. It's amazing. You will find schoolteachers, attorneys, even other cops, well-respected members of the community, who for whatever reason at a particular time decide to behave badly.

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Cellphones:

I've always maintained that cellphones in and of themselves are not problematic. Cellphones present one more distraction if someone is talking and loses focus on what they are doing.

The law that was signed by the governor [SB 1613, which mandates that drivers use only hands-free headsets and goes into effect in 2008] is an incremental step to try and reduce the distractions, if nothing else, put two hands on the wheel.... The real purpose of this is to keep the focus.

There is a lot of inconclusive evidence on hands-free. Part of this law is to actually do some evaluation ... [so that] we will be able to kind of put this [improved safety question] to rest. But at the very least, anything that's going to promote traffic safety I am willing to look at, as long as it is fair and reasonable.

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Other distractions:

We have people brushing their teeth. We still have people putting on makeup. We have people shaving. I remember, back in the '70s ... writing a ticket to an individual on the 101 Freeway who was reading "Gone With the Wind" in heavy traffic.

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Overhead freeway signs:

We work closely with Caltrans to come up with consistent messages that inform but do not distract. There are times when we shut them down. You will notice that you won't see an Amber Alert in the metropolitan areas here during the major commute hours because we don't want people distracted to the extent where [the signs] become part of the [traffic] problem.

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Seat belt compliance:

We were able to increase the seat belt compliance rate in just one year almost a full percent. You may think that seems trivial. But given the number of drivers we have in California and the number of drivers in proportion to what we have across this country, a 1% or almost 1% increase is huge....

Half the people that die in California, seat belts or child safety seats -- and a lack of wearing them -- is a contributing, if not a direct factor, in the deaths.

So I'm hoping that, if you were to extrapolate that out, we save some lives.

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Drunk drivers:

DUI has been creeping up in the last three years. A third of the people that got killed on the roadways in California have some relationship to DUI.

We just kicked off a campaign this year about calling 911 for DUI.... I want to get the drunk driver off the road. And if the citizen can see that and calls 911 and lets us know and we take that person off the road, we have saved a life.

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Traffic tickets:

We want people to behave. If you behave and you voluntarily comply with the law, then there is no need for us to have any interaction. Then there is no need for you to get the verbal warning or the ticket.

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Photo radar:

I have some philosophical concerns about photo radar because it is enforcing the basic speed law. The basic speed law in California, as we all know, says one shall not go faster than is reasonable and prudent.

Anyone who has testified in a speeding citation in court, including me, knows that you are going to talk about the time of day, the roadway condition, the lighting condition, the weather condition, what's the speed limit.... All those come into determining what is considered reasonable and prudent.

The thing that I don't want to do is just put a camera out there, take a picture of somebody and send it to the owner because that does not, in my opinion, change driving behavior.

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Ticket quotas:

We don't give out toasters for [writing] the most tickets. There is not a free trip to Hawaii.... We don't have a quota despite popular belief. The reality is that ... there is no shortage of observations of violations and there is no shortage of opportunities for people to get the citation.

I wish we didn't write any tickets. Then again, I wish we also didn't kill 4,000 people a year [in traffic collisions on California highways].

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jean.guccione@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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