How Miami-Dade Schools Improved Traffic Safety
This school district police department’s dedicated traffic safety unit and motorist education efforts have put the brakes on bad driver behavior.
During a typical school day, 350,000 Miami-Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS) students are scheduled to arrive safely at their respective campuses. Unfortunately, things do not always go as planned. Because of the large student population and dense traffic congestion around many of the campuses, there is an increased likelihood that a child will be injured traveling to or from school. For the police officers of the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department (M-DSPD), or any agency for that matter, one of the most disconcerting calls for service involves a child injured by a vehicle.
The M-DSPD embraces a moral responsibility to provide the safest environment for all of its students, at all times throughout the school day. This concept is not limited to activities on school grounds. As a child steps out of the house, there is an obligation to ensure the streets are safe for passage. During their travels to and from school, students inevitably go through school speed zones. Unfortunately, these areas are not sanctuaries devoid of drivers reading the newspaper, applying makeup or sending text messages. These distractions have an indisputable effect on stopping distances and driver reaction time. This unfortunate phenomenon is never more apparent than during the morning rush hour, which is the time that most students are heading to school.
According to the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), collisions involving bicyclists and pedestrians account for 40 percent of the traffic fatalities in Miami-Dade County each year. In direct response to these alarming numbers, the M-DSPD has focused resources to reduce speeding, and careless and reckless driving in and around public school safety zones.
Experience and statistics illustrate that all vehicle crashes are in some way preventable. That is, the actions of at least one of the concerned parties involves some form of violation, which contributed, either directly or indirectly, to the crash. For this reason, pedestrian safety during school hours, particularly when children are arriving in the morning and at dismissal, is an obvious concern.
Here are the four steps M-DSPD has taken to improve traffic safety as Miami-Dade K-12 students go to and from school:
1. Partner with other stakeholders:
Meaningful partnerships, in support of proactive traffic enforcement, are necessary to improve the overall safety of the community. Departments should affiliate themselves with interested stakeholders, including hometown sports teams, rotary clubs and non-profit corporations. Local school boards are one such resource that is seldom used by law enforcement in general. By gathering support for traffic safety programs, a valuable ally can be added in the fight to reduce student injuries and save lives.
This need to develop partnerships was not lost on the M-DCPS school board, which recognized the seriousness of pedestrian, bicycle and traffic safety issues. In some cases, one member has become a partner and devoted sponsor of the Walk Safe Program, and chairs the committee behind the MPO.
Recently, the district’s Community Traffic Safety Team recognized a trend in student pedestrian accidents in high school areas not normally provided with school speed safety signs. As a result, new, dynamic, solar powered, speed reduction signs were installed, effectively reducing traffic accidents and speeding incidents by more than half in the first two months of operation.
2. Dedicate a unit for enforcement:
A policy was implemented, making use of quantifiable data to assign officers to targeted locations near schools, at specific times, to meticulously enforce traffic violations. In accordance with this new policy, the Aggressive Driving Unit (ADU) was established in March 2009. The ADU is comprised of a group of diverse police officers dedicated to enforcing laws by addressing school community traffic safety challenges.
When traffic concerns are identified, ADU personnel are positioned in high-visibility locations, such as school zones and adjoining streets with high-volume pedestrian traffic. The officers employ the latest equipment and techniques, such as radar and laser, to target drivers that pose the biggest threat to the school community. Extra emphasis is placed on identifying and stopping extreme speeders who regularly drive 20 mph above the posted 15 mph speed limit. In order to minimize the risk to children, enforcement in these areas becomes the urgent priority, with a strict, zero-tolerance policy for violators.
ADU’s results are impressive. During the six months prior to the unit’s inception, M-DSPD handled or assisted in 10 traffic crashes involving student pedestrians hit by motor vehicles around schools. This figure was virtually cut in half after the first year of ADU operation. Since its inception, ADU has yielded tremendous results, issuing 2,244 citations and affecting 41 traffic arrests. The ultimate success of any ADU will be determined by compliance, which will result in the increased safety of parents and children in the targeted school zone areas.
3. Educate motorists:
In conjunction with the issuance of the appropriate citations, traffic violators are always encouraged to take corrective action and remain vigilant when they are behind the wheel. ADU members are trained to conduct professional, courteous traffic stops, ensuring that the motorist understands the reason for the stop. With this understanding, corrective behavior can be achieved. A principal objective of the ADU, therefore, is to increase driver awareness of the proactive traffic enforcement occurring within school zones. To support this initiative, ADU members regularly conduct driver safety presentations for students and parents.
4. Don’t ease up on enforcement:
In line with a nationwide trend, ADU vehicles have been returned to a more traditional, and readily recognizable, black and white configuration. Saturation of targeted areas, coupled with unyielding enforcement, is an obvious technique to promote respect for the laws of the road. The tactics employed by the ADU are intentionally dual-purposed. Although primarily designed as a high-visibility deterrent to traffic violators, they are also intended to discourage any potential criminal activity around the school site. Thus, the unit actually augments the enforcement actions of patrol and school resource officers. In this regard, the importance of partnerships cannot be overstated. The expectation is that intensive enforcement action, coupled with high visibility ad campaigns and dissemination of information to the public at large, will produce a condition where, in effect, the community helps to police itself. Prominence of such coverage, including press conferences and television or radio advertisements, will increase community awareness and therefore, compliance.
The safety of children, faculty, and surrounding communities should always be the primary mission of any law enforcement agency tasked with school policing, which has been described as “the final frontier of police work.” Full appreciation of this task cannot be realized unless safety is equally sought outside the doors of the school, and into the surrounding streets. The establishment of an ADU is a fundamental requirement to support the overall educational goals of any school district. When planning for such a unit, it is essential to include personnel with specific areas of expertise that can contribute to the overall success.
Charles J. Hurley is the chief of police of the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department.