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updated: 9/1/2011 9:17 PM

Safety, money play roles in holiday traffic crackdowns

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  • Lombard police check drivers for alcohol impairment and other violations during a roadside safety check funded by a grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation. Lombard received a $6,579 grant this year to conduct a traffic safety enforcement campaign around Labor Day weekend.

      Lombard police check drivers for alcohol impairment and other violations during a roadside safety check funded by a grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation. Lombard received a $6,579 grant this year to conduct a traffic safety enforcement campaign around Labor Day weekend.
    Courtesy of Lombard Police

  • Carol Stream police shine flashlights into vehicles to check seat-belt compliance and driver's licenses during a traffic crackdown funded by a grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation. Carol Stream received a $7,342.80 grant this year to conduct a traffic safety enforcement campaign around Labor Day weekend.

      Carol Stream police shine flashlights into vehicles to check seat-belt compliance and driver's licenses during a traffic crackdown funded by a grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation. Carol Stream received a $7,342.80 grant this year to conduct a traffic safety enforcement campaign around Labor Day weekend.
    Courtesy of Carol Stream Police

 
 

Booze, buckling up and speeding.

Police say those three things are the focus of virtually every holiday traffic patrol they conduct, from Christmas to Labor Day.

But while cops hope to reduce accidents and increase safety by cracking down on violations involving alcohol, seat belts and speeding, there's a fourth aspect of the campaign that seldom gets mentioned: Money.

Most holiday traffic crackdowns are funded by federal grants funneled through the Illinois Department of Transportation, and to make sure the money is well-spent, IDOT provides participating departments with guidelines about how many citations officers should write. Departments are asked to issue at least one citation for seat-belt violations per officer for every hour of holiday enforcement, said Daniel Kent a law enforcement liaison for IDOT. For DUIs, they're aiming to arrest at least one driver for every 10 hours of patrol.

"I wouldn't say you have to reach it, but there is something you're striving for," Addison police officer Megan Freeman said about IDOT's performance standards. "They don't want to give you the money for people to be on overtime and not do anything."

In most towns, finding one seat-belt violator every hour isn't a challenge, Des Plaines traffic Cmdr. Tim Veit said.

"I think if any department goes out there and gives a half effort to do some enforcement, they'll be able to meet the benchmarks no problem," Veit said.

Officers working as part of such crackdowns usually know they're aiming to write citations, not give warnings.

"When you're working a grant, there's definitely an emphasis on the enforcement aspect because that's why we're out there," Wood Dale Sgt. Paul Wyse said.

Getting a ticket can be the best education against driving impaired or not bothering to buckle up, police said.

"We've found that nothing impacts our target audience greater than enforcement does," said Kent, who's retired from Illinois State Police. "Getting a ticket will impact their attitudes more than anything."

The performance standards are intended to make sure departments use the grant money to catch drunken and unbuckled drivers. All DUI enforcement and at least half seat-belt enforcement is required to take place between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., Kent said.

Night is the best time for traffic enforcement because it's when the seat-belt compliance rate (92.6 percent statewide in 2010) decreases and the fatal crash rate increases, he said.

"We try to focus our seat-belt and alcohol enforcement in the times of the day when we think we can impact those numbers," Kent said.

Years of grant-funded roadside safety checks, seat-belt enforcement zones and extra patrols seem to be working, police said.

"It's a lot harder to find seat-belt violations. Some people would think that would frustrate us, but to me, that's a huge indicator that we've made a difference," Lombard traffic officer Joe Grage said. "That means more people are wearing their seat belts."

IDOT requires departments that receive holiday grants to report the number of seat-belt citations they write and DUI arrests they make.

But successes in encouraging people to buckle up do not necessarily show up in the statistics because of variables such as the number of hours officers work on grant-funded patrols.

In the 2008-09 grant year, which began Oct. 1 and ended Sept. 30, Gurnee police wrote 360 seat-belt citations. In the 2009-10 grant year, that number dropped to 235.

But in 2009-10, the department worked fewer hours on grant-funded holiday traffic patrols -- 454, compared with 953 hours in 2008-09.

Still, Gurnee crime analyst Tom Agos said the village's seat-belt compliance rate has increased, a trend he attributes partially to the grant-funded holiday campaigns.

"The department would do increased (holiday) traffic enforcement, but perhaps not on the same scale that we do with the grant," Agos said.

The grant money helps because many police departments are working with smaller staffs than in the past, Carol Stream Sgt. Brian Cooper said.

"It will free up our regular on-duty officers so they can focus their attention on other things while we bring in extra officers that can focus just on the traffic-related issues," Cooper said.

And even if the exact results of the grant-funded campaigns are hard to measure, anything police can do to keep drivers safe is beneficial, said Freeman, of Addison.

"If you can get one person off the road who is driving under the influence in the course of that grant period, you're doing your job," Freeman said. "Without a doubt, it's worth it."

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