The Police Department received an award of excellence at the recent 7th Annual Traffic Safety Forum and Awards Luncheon in Oklahoma City for “the most improved in enforcement and for exemplary service in the field of traffic safety.” The city of Altus had only one traffic fatality in 2005—a motorcycle accident.
According to Altus Police Chief Mike Patterson, “It goes to show the good people we’ve got working here. Every time anybody has an accident, however minor, it’s $1,000 per incident. When you reduce injuries 50 percent, the program is saving Altus citizens hundreds of thousands of dollars just in medical expenses.”
Master Officer Tony Lee and Capt. Mary Zepeda work together to coordinate the Code 55 Traffic Safety and Project Under 21 grant from the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office. Capt. Keith Spooner is co-coordinator.
According to Assistant Police Chief Mike Howeth, the program began in Altus in 2004 with a $12,500 OHSO grant and is starting the third year with a $43,000 grant. The grant reimburses the city for police officers’ volunteer overtime hours, used to increase enforcement of traffic laws and under-age drinking ordinances; the city pays for vehicles, fuel and insurance.
“More and more people were becoming aware that we needed better enforcement for seatbelt, speed, improper turn and red-light running violations,” Howeth said. “It has been shown that enforcement reduced the number of accidents in any given area, so we needed to devote more time to enforcement.
“The same thing was true as DUI enforcement substantially increased. As we had more and more people looking for DUI’s and getting them off the street, people began making arrangements to get other people to drive their cars so they didn’t drive and cause an accident. I think this grant has really made a difference.”
The Altus City Council passed a seatbelt ordinance, which Lee said helped the city get the grant. After the first grant, the department received extra funds to purchase radar units to begin the Code 55 traffic safety promotion. “Had we not adopted the seatbelt enforcement, we probably would not have received the grant money,” Lee said. “Over the first year, we noticed a rapid increase in seatbelt usage; it was estimated at 40 percent and went up to approximately 70 percent (84 percent statewide).
“Not only did our seatbelt usage go up, but by enforcing safety laws we had 11 percent fewer traffic accidents than we had the previous year. Also, injuries fell to about half because safety infractions were being looked at and people were paying attention to safety laws. The number of accidents and injuries continued to drop the second year. Reduced injuries decrease time spent in hospitals and also affect insurance premiums for all citizens.”
Capt. Zepeda concentrates on Project Under 21, although Zepeda and Lee are both Southwest Oklahoma coordinators. On an overtime basis, they handle the area west of I-35 and south of I-40. “We enforce drinking laws; we go to bars and convenience stores for compliance checks,” Zepeda said. “We send a minor in and have them buy beer for us. If they make a sale, we go in right after them and write a ticket. We’ve been constantly driving down violations.
“We may come out in the day, the night or evening and we go into the bars to make sure they have no minors. If they do, we issue citations to the bar owners. We’ve arrested many, but we’ve gotten a good compliance check record.”
Zepeda solicits the help of restaurant, grocery store and other business owners by distributing “Turn 21 First” lapel buttons for employees to wear on uniforms.
“It’s bad for kids to start drinking earlier, because their brains are not fully developed until 24 or 25 years old. Some adults and parents don’t fully understand that,” Zepeda said. “They try to be a cool parent and let the kids drink in the house but don’t understand what they’re doing.”
The Project Under 21 volunteers do not invade private parties, “but sometimes we’ll send someone in, and once we send someone in, we have more authority,” Zepeda said. “We get calls all the time and then we investigate and maybe go to the door. If the laws get stricter, and we’re hoping they will, we’ll have more 0.”
According to Lee, rollovers in pickups are more dangerous because pickups roll more easily than other vehicles. “A farm tag means a pickup is used for farm-type work, but these farmers can get out on the road and drive without seatbelts. Just because the tag has ‘farm’ on it doesn’t mean it’s less likely to be in an accident.”
Tammy Ryden gave the department a video about pickup rollovers when she visited the Altus Police Department to encourage seatbelt law enforcement. Her daughter Rachel, 16, who was killed in a pickup rollover accident, was not wearing a seatbelt (firstname.lastname@example.org).
“She goes all over the state to meet with police departments,” Lee said. “One of her final themes is, ‘If you don’t do anything else, give one seatbelt citation for Rachel.’”
Zepeda discussed observations while viewing action in a rollover simulator. “A lot of people don’t understand that if you are wearing a seatbelt and the other person isn’t, the person without a seatbelt could hit you in the head and kill you during a collision or rollover accident,” she said.
Lee posts the volunteer duty schedule and officers sign up for overtime from two to five hours at a time. “Officers like it because they can concentrate on traffic violations; when they work a regular shift, they don’t have time to do that; I don’t think the public really understands how important traffic enforcement is,” Zepeda said. “We’re not out there giving tickets because we have nothing else to do; we’re trying to save lives, to save people from getting injured.”
According to Howeth, “The whole purpose is to save lives and reduce injuries as much as possible. To do so, we have to actively enforce this grant and look for violations. I have told the officers, ‘No warning for seatbelt violations.’ If we enforce the speed limits better and slow down the traffic, hopefully the accidents that do occur will cause minor damage instead of major damage and injuries.”