We spoke with Dr. Christine Wickens, a Senior Scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, who is working with the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals, about a recent two-phase study they have jointly initiated with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, with the support of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. This study explores traffic enforcement attitudes and behaviours among police officers in Ontario to better understand how police leaders view the value of traffic enforcement to road safety, what barriers to traffic enforcement these leaders may encounter, as well as how police officers’ attitudes and beliefs about traffic enforcement are associated with officers’ engagement in traffic enforcement activities. This research helps fill a gap in data within the Canadian context in an effort to identify potential strategies to encourage stronger traffic enforcement efforts in Ontario, which will support Vision Zero.
Please tell us about your research? Who was involved, who were your funders and what was your process?
Traffic enforcement is an effective means to deter risky driving. Identifying factors that increase enforcement activities by police officers is, therefore, a valuable strategy to improve safety on our roads and highways. Results of a recent survey of police officers in the U.S. (Otto et al., 2019) suggested that improvements to officer training, changes in how police leadership address traffic enforcement and establishing expectations around enforcement activities that are considered in formal performance review would increase officers’ commitment to traffic enforcement activities and, ultimately, improve road safety.
The Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals (CARSP) and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), with the support of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP), have jointly initiated a two-phase study to explore traffic enforcement attitudes and behaviours among police officers in Ontario. By conducting 20 individual semi-structured interviews with police leaders working for Ontario provincial/municipal police departments, the first phase focuses on expanding our understanding of how police leaders (i.e., police chiefs and/or sergeants) in Ontario 1) view the value of traffic enforcement to road safety, and 2) what barriers to traffic enforcement these leaders may encounter. This first phase of the project is partially completed. All interviews have been conducted and a qualitative analysis of the interviews is currently in progress.
In the second phase of the project, we will be surveying police officers in Ontario. We will assess officers’ perceptions of road safety and attitudes toward traffic enforcement and explore potential associations between these perceptions and attitudes and officers’ self-reported engagement in traffic enforcement activities. This phase of the project is funded by the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario through the Road Safety Research Partnership Program (RSRPP). Preparations for the survey are currently underway.
Once the project has been successfully completed in Ontario, CARSP and CAMH would welcome the opportunity to bring this research methodology to other provinces and territories across Canada.
Why did you feel this study was important and relevant to road safety and our collective efforts around Vision Zero?
Enforcement has long been recognized as an essential component of a successful road safety strategy. Effective enforcement of traffic laws is one of the original three pillars of road safety, that is the three Es of road safety, the other two being Education and Engineering. Traffic laws and their enforcement are also included in the Safe Systems Approach, a key framework used in pursuing zero fatalities and injuries. Research has demonstrated that enforcement substantially mitigates speeding and impaired driving, which are significant contributors to motor vehicle collisions and associated injuries and deaths. In Canada, traffic enforcement (i.e., policing of traffic laws) is predominantly conducted by frontline police officers. We know that attitudes and beliefs can influence behaviour and have seen evidence from other jurisdictions that police officers’ attitudes and beliefs about traffic enforcement are associated with officers’ engagement in traffic enforcement activities. Yet, there is little data available from the Canadian context. We we are conducting this research in an effort to understand how frontline officers’ attitudes and beliefs about traffic enforcement may influence their engagement in traffic enforcement activities, and to identify potential strategies to encourage stronger traffic enforcement efforts in Ontario, which will ultimately support Vision Zero.
What did your research tell you? (cite any major findings, concerns, surprises)
Although analysis of the Phase 1 interviews with police leaders is not yet complete, preliminary analysis suggests that about two thirds of the 20 police leaders interviewed considered traffic enforcement to be a top priority for their organization. On a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all effective) to 5 (very effective), on average, police leaders ranked the efficacy of traffic enforcement in improving traffic safety as 4 out of 5, suggesting perceived value but room for improvement in traffic enforcement activities by policing services. Most police leaders (approximately 80 per cent) believed that traffic enforcement activities were supported by police officers and external stakeholders (e.g., the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario and the general public). More than 80 per cent of police leaders identified lack of staff (i.e., frontline officers) and lack of time as the common obstacles to frontline officers proactively engaging in traffic enforcement. More than 90 per cent of the leaders found their current internal collision reporting systems to be useful and satisfactory in helping them to stay informed about collisions in their jurisdiction.
What are the next steps with your research?
We are currently finalizing the qualitative analysis of the Phase 1 police leader interviews and will be consulting with MTO and other stakeholders about the content of our online survey of frontline officers ahead of its launch. Once available, results of both the qualitative analysis of police leader interviews and the quantitative analyses of the online survey of frontline officers will be reviewed with research partners and stakeholders to ensure the utility and applicability of recommendations derived from the work. As part of the project’s knowledge translation efforts, the results will be presented to our police partners, including the OACP, and at the next CARSP conference. Results will also be shared at one of CARSP’s monthly webinars and through other suitable venues and distribution methods. If funding can be secured, the project team would welcome the opportunity to expand this research initiative to other regions of Canada.