Will more traffic enforcement make streets safer, or just feel safer?

And does the difference even matter?
Will more traffic enforcement make streets safer, or just feel safer?
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jul 19, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-19 05:00:15-04

CINCINNATI -- Mackenzie Farmer Low was relieved when the Cincinnati Police Department sent extra traffic enforcement to Montgomery Road in her Pleasant Ridge neighborhood.

"We were hearing good things from our community," she said. "We were hearing that the community was grateful to be getting the enforcement from CPD."

Low sits on the Pleasant Streets Traffic Committee, a subset of the Pleasant Ridge Community Council. The neighborhood has been one of the city's most outspoken when lobbying City Hall to take more action protecting residents walking and bicycling through their streets from speeding or otherwise dangerous drivers.

But she told WCPO that speeding isn't just an issue on the neighborhood's major thoroughfares like Montgomery Road or Ridge Avenue, but on side streets, too -- especially as more and more drivers cut through the smaller streets to avoid traffic or potential enforcement.

"Unfortunately, Pleasant Ridge is really large in footage, and we only got enforcement on a couple of the major roads," she said.

What Low described points to what a WCPO examination of crash data and residents' reports of dangerous street conditions showed: Where most crashes happen might not be where residents feel most at risk walking down the street.

'That mass egress from the city to the suburbs'

Cincinnati's top police officers have made no bones about the recent decline in traffic enforcement, attributing the dip to boosting resources toward fighting violent crime.

"I don't want to say we took our eye off traffic but did focus heavily to reduce violent crime," Assistant Police Chief Paul Neudigate told city council members during a May 8 committee meeting. "Honestly we have to be able to do it all."

During that meeting, Neudigate and Traffic Unit Commander Lt. Brian Norris reported on the department's traffic stop and citation record from 2009 to 2017, confirming a previous WCPO report that traffic enforcement had declined by roughly 60 percent. An uptick in enforcement efforts in 2017 coincided with a decrease in serious crashes, they told council members.

IN DEPTH: Has decline in enforcement made Cincinnati's streets more dangerous?
READ MORE: Is CPD policy hamstringing traffic enforcement?

"We've changed some processes and given traffic crashes some extra focus from the police department, so we've been able to reduce the number of crashes almost 10 percent last year," Neudigate said.

Going forward, Neudigate said one of the department's traffic crash reduction goals will be to re-implement a dedicated traffic officer on each shift to "proactively address" repeat crash locations. Their report identified 27 street segments -- excluding interstate highways -- where the most serious or deadly crashes have occurred during the time period.

To zoom, use the +/- buttons in the bottom left corner of the map. Click or tap a blue pin for details about that segment, including how many crashes have occurred.

The segments identified make up 0.3 percent of the city's streets and were the scenes for more than 1,340 crashes involving injury or death since 2009. That's nearly 10 percent of serious crashes that occurred in city limits, Neudigate said.

As the map shows, most of these segments are on what are known as "major arterial" roads -- that is, roads that serve as primary pathways between home and work for the city's commuters. The 27 segments sit on 14 streets:

  • Colerain Avenue 
  • Hamilton Avenue 
  • Montana Avenue 
  • Reading Road
  • Westwood Avenue
  • Vine Street
  • West Mitchell Avenue
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Drive
  • Westwood Northern Boulevard
  • Queen City Avenue
  • Winton Road
  • Glenway Avenue
  • Harrison Avenue
  • Paddock Road

Neudigate noticed this, saying, "We have a lot of distracted driving, people trying to get home and of course that's one of the areas we will focus our attention is that mass egress from the city to the suburbs."

Crash data vs. reported speeding

But what about streets like Montgomery Road, which doesn't fall within the top sites for serious crashes but clearly sees more than its fair share of speeding and reckless driving -- so much so that CPD dedicated extra enforcement to the area?

The heightened traffic enforcement on Montgomery Road in Pleasant Ridge lasted about 60 days this past spring, Low said, but has since stopped. And it only took place on Montgomery Road -- the neighborhood's primary corridor -- but did not extend out to some of Pleasant Ridge's smaller side streets.

"The community is seeing speeding and reckless driving on some of the side roads like Langdon Farm and Losantiville, Lester Road, Woodford Road," Low told WCPO.

To go beyond crash data, the Department of Transportation and Engineering published an online survey, where residents could report locations where some sort of road hazard exists -- anything from drivers speeding and running red lights to a missing crosswalk or faulty pedestrian signal.

The responses compiled in DOTE's survey confirm Low's sense that residents' concerns over street safety spill off from the major thoroughfares onto the smaller side streets.

The DOTE presented in late March nearly two months' worth of responses from residents, totaling nearly 3,000 submissions during that time period. The survey showed that speeding was residents' top concern, with more than 650 submissions identifying a spot where speeding reportedly occurred or occurs on a regular basis.

READ MORE: As enforcement declines, speeding still residents' top concern

WCPO obtained the raw data derived from DOTE's pedestrian map and isolated the reports of speeding. Here they are mapped, alongside the police department's top crash zones:

WCPO's analysis of the data found that 16 streets were reported as having drivers who were speeding more than 10 times, but only three of those coincided with the top crash zones (indicated in red):


'If people don't feel safe, they won't go there'

The discrepancies between where police are targeting enforcement and where residents don't feel safe might be explained as the difference between observable risk and perceived risk. That's according to retired Mason Police Department Officer Derek Bauman.

"Oftentimes our perceptions and what the reality shows through the actual data can be very different, and I think that's natural to understand that," Bauman told WCPO. "When you're a person standing stationary on the street and a car goes by, oftentimes the sense is that it's going faster than maybe what it is."

But that's not to discount the importance of perceived safety, Bauman said.

"At the same time, a perception of safety is very important," he said. "If people don't feel safe in an area, they tend to not go to that area. And we know today that people want to have walkable neighborhoods, walkable neighborhood business districts where you can push a stroller down to the corner coffee shop and not feel like it's a drag strip."

Part of that perception, Bauman said, is visible law enforcement presence -- including seeing squad cars posted at certain spots throughout the city's neighborhoods.

"I think people want to have that visibility and that sense and that perception, and it absolutely does play a role," he said.

"But it's much more complex than that," he continued, comparing traffic enforcement to putting a finger on a hose. "When an officer is sitting there, it has a compression effect on traffic. It's visible and people see it and when you see an officer, what do you do? You slow down. But as soon as that pressure is relieved, that flow comes back."

This is why, Bauman said, enforcement efforts need to be supplemented with street designs that discourage speeding.

"In Northside with Hamilton Avenue there's a discussion about adding on-street parking. In other neighborhoods it could be bike lanes," he said. "It could be different types of parking; it could be different types of street infrastructure. But all of that tends to naturally slow traffic down."

Still, Low said she would like to see a long-term effort toward more consistent traffic enforcement in her neighborhood and on more streets.

"I think enforcement can't be a short-term solution," she said. "It has to be concerted, long term, to change the culture of drivers around here."