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Despite its seemingly obvious denotation, the phrase “traffic police” is far from self-evident. One may see it in the charts describing the structure of national, local or municipal police forces, but the term may as well be never written in the records of organizations where, functionally, a traffic police does exist. In its broadest extension, the phrase denotes the group responsible, within the police organization of a state, for the management of traffic and the safety of individuals – be they drivers, passengers or pedestrians – during their travel and transportation. In turn, “traffic policing” refers to the activity associated with this body of officers. It includes the definition of problems by higher ranking officials or experts, the implementation of technical solutions and the enforcement of the law, up to the procedures for actions taken on the field. The importance of traffic police and traffic policing is evident, given the place of mobility as a major element in contemporary societies: traffic, the structural environment facilitating it, and the formal and informal rules regulating it have a profound impact upon our understanding, use and organization of space. These modes of action thus have become routine aspects of any space, so much so that they are the first phenomena identified by a foreign traveler.
It is then a paradox that the body of scholarly work focusing on this branch of policing as such is very thin. Studies on the matter are diverse in perspective and discipline (history, sociology, political science, criminology, law, psychology), which renders all efforts toward a synthetic work less easy, but also makes it all the more needed and interesting.
A Constructivist History Of Traffic Police
It is commonly claimed that the problem of traffic regulation is as old as traffic itself. The existence of a body of officials specifically appointed to the control of this activity, however, is not that old. For historians studying the matter, a number of assumptions must be questioned. “traffic police,” as defined above, emerged during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in western capital cities. In Paris, for instance, it was linked to two phenomena: on one hand, an increase in trade and exchanges, the idea that a city can be seen as an organism with a healthy circulatory system, and the speeding of the urban pace (going from walk to full gallop); on the other hand, the development of “police” forces in the modern acception of the term, leading to more officers paid by the state, and the cultivation of autonomous knowledge and practices. Commissaires were initially responsible for the enforcement of traffic regulations and the protection of freedom of movement, then a brigade of the newly visible police created in 1829 was appointed to this duty. The same effort is also at play when London’s Metropolitan Police was created that same year. The role of this police and its officers became increasingly important throughout the following century, as traffic became more and more significant, and the road and railroad systems were being developed. The police force took various forms throughout the country, and local regulations vary, leading to a “patchwork of recommendations” (Roche 2008), both precise and varied.
The situation changed in the late nineteenth century, for several reasons: the (slow) establishment of automobile as the dominant form of transportation, leading to changes in the perception of speed; the fear of accidents (numerous early on, and rapidly becoming more frequent); the rising intolerance for traffic congestion, earlier seen as a necessary evil. Changes in political and police response were also numerous: the number and visibility of traffic agents rose, more ambitions laws were drafted (Code de la route in France in 1921–1922, Road Traffic act in the United-Kingdom in the 1930s). Urban landscape and road network underwent transformations that reflected the growing use of both personal and collective motor vehicles. To the ongoing rationalization of streets and roadways (sidewalks, definition of street width and pavement material) were then added roundabouts, one-way streets, and traffic lights – the very first of which was installed in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914, the first Parisian light coming in 1923. In a sense, a new traffic regime was substituted to the old one, with agents of traffic policing taking part to the change. Other transformations took place after 1945, as automobiles became available to the masses, urban population increased, land use planning gained importance, technical innovations appeared, and “traffic safety” is redefined.
This brief historical overview could be written for other locations, following the particulars of each. Three conclusions can be drawn from these works: first, traffic police is not, as it is often noted, a simple adaptation of the police to a linear development of modes of transportation. Rather, one can observe configurations of social, political, technical, legal or cultural issues, within which arise specific problems and solutions. Secondly, each configuration leaves, when being replaced, its imprint on the next – especially visible in the development of roadways, or in the institutional structures owing to police structure. Such layering can explain the complexity of current situations. Lastly, the definition of traffic police is far from self-evident, and is inseparable from a group of phenomena and external influences playing decisive roles in issues of road-works and transportation: elected officials, decision-makers, road-users, engineers… Traffic police is but one element in a larger network, and from it draws its specificity.
Within Police Organization: Between Specialization And Globalization
The place of traffic police within police organizations gained importance in the 1960s and 1970s, when road transportation increased drastically, and developing countries started to catch up. In several industrialized countries, traffic police personnel make up about 10–15% of the police force (Carnis et al. 2004), overall a non negligeable branch of the force.
As can be seen in the rare studies of the organizational aspect of traffic police, it still remains difficult to propose a fixed definition of it. This is chiefly because of the broad spectrum of tasks it is expected to perform, and prevents one single specialization from being pointed out. Those tasks include the safety of individuals on streets and highways, control of vehicle speed, radar surveillance, accident investigations, schoolchildren education, prevention of traffic congestion, direction of traffic, verification of proof of insurance, help to distressed road-users, investigation of auto theft, policing of individuals, surveillance of national security and drug trafficking.
A recurring question, linked to this aspect, is that of the relation of traffic police to other, sometimes more visible or legitimate branches of the police force (such as criminal police). Furthermore, the particulars vary from one corps to another. The very concept of “traffic policing” has its own history, connected to American police officer turned researcher Franklin Kreml (1907–1998). Among the first scholar to identify as a Traffic Safety researcher, Kreml created in 1936 the Northwestern University Traffic Institute (NUTI) and the Traffic Safety Division of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). NUTI defines, and circulates throughout the country, knowledge and training adapted to traffic issues. This could explain the stricter definition of the term in the English-speaking world.
Traffic branches are also diversely integrated within their institutional environment. They may take the form of an autonomous corps devoted to road policing (like the California Highway Patrol, one of the most accomplished forms of traffic police), be a branch only of the whole organization (like in New Zealand), or be an important activity without a specific service (like in France, where the gendarmerie plays a major part). Along the same lines, this police raises with particular sharpness the issue of its relation with other actors of civil society (victims associations, coalitions of contractors or insurers) who participate to some degree in the production of order of the road. Obvious in the United States, this phenomenon can also be observed in Ghana where the private sector is organized into a Transport Union defining the conduct codes and paying wages to guards overseeing drivers. Lastly, this police also bring up with intensity the old debate on the relationship between local and national levels of action, on allocation of road networks, modes of police administration, or inside the kind of State’s organization (federal, centralized, strong or weak). These forms of policing thus appear as an indicator of the complex and layered administrative and political structures marking the action of policing organizations. This raises the issue of the forms of specialization and definition of the traffic policemen’s professional identity. Research on this domain is only in draft form, but suggest that this identity would depend on the existence of a well identified service, the need for training, the wearing of a specific uniform, or the institutional recognition of the specificity of road surveillance.
Paradoxically, while deeply impacted by local and national contexts, this sector is singularly open to the international standardization of methods and techniques. It is far from a new turn of event, as can be exemplified by the internationalization of road signage (McShane 1999): inaugurated in the United States in the mid 1910s and the 1920s, then standardized within various organizations (League of Nations, Institute of Traffic Engineers), traffic lights and street signs are adopted by most industrialized countries after 1945. The exchange and large scale adaptation of signage is organized by more or less formal political, industrial or police networks, with global activities (such as tourism) as an incentive. This also concerns developing countries and former colonies who were confronted to a rise in traffic accidents following the rise, after World War II, of the automobile, and who sought outside help. The Egyptian ministry of interior, for instance, followed in the 1970s the advice of the Overseas Unit of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory (TRRL) to set up the best adapted tools for road policing. The works on this transnational dimension still remain limited in number, and connected to a diffusionist model or to the mere acknowledgment of socio-economic inequalities: matters of adaptation, potential drawbacks, or issues of sovereignty are rarely studied.
The best example of the phenomenon is probably the standardization of training, and the ubiquity of traffic radars and traffic lights, which are systematically integrated even in the less developed countries and those where traffic policing is nearly non-existent. This technical aspect of traffic policing is probably the most globalized. Far from excluding each other, globalization and integration into social and administrative layers specific to a nation rather go hand in hand. As these researches point out, the study of traffic police then seem all the more interesting, for both the field of police studies and that of the sociology of organizations.
Managing The “Public Problem” Of Road Safety
The importance of traffic police also comes from its role in now very sensitive issues, that are all at the same time human, economic and symbolical issues. Road accidents are one of the chief causes of mortality in a number of countries, especially among the younger population – any given year, they are the cause for 1.3 million death and between 20 and 50 million injuries. Traffic accidents also reflect inequalities in development: in 1978, the number of death per 100,000 inhabitants was 238 in Nigeria, 60 in Pakistan, and below 40 in Korea, and below 10 in Western Europe, North America and Japan. This pattern is still current, judging from the figures of death per billion of vehicle kilometer – in 2011, it was 8.5 in the United States and Canada, 39.8 in Romania, 310 in the United Arab Emirates, and 106,6 in Yemen.
Yet these data have to be in relation to the context of the social representations that give them meaning in each country, and that organize the public issue of road safety, as was noted by a well-known study on driving and alcohol intoxication (Gusfield 1981). The emergence of the problem of deadly accidents in late twentieth-century Europe is at first tied to the arrival of motor vehicles than to a real hike in the number of killed – which comes at a later date. Studies of the social representations of automobile traffic and its regulations show the evolution in the points of concern, made obvious in the type of figures chosen, or by the shifting focus of the press: to the insistence on human losses is added the economic toll and the lamentation over the time lost in traffic, before the recurring theme of “road violence” come back with strengh. The media coverage also tends to criminalize irresponsible road behavior. It is significant that most industrialized countries have recently substituted the notion of “traffic lawlessness” to that of “road safety.” These two aspects – number of victims and perception of the issue – go hand in hand: the problems caused by the increased number of motor vehicles after 1945 also reflect mutations within the society, and the transformation of the questions the society adresses to itself. Automotive traffic, as noted by Joseph Gusfield, is thus marked by the social and cultural contexts of the spaces it modifies.
This aspect is in direct relation to the activity and structure of the traffic police: first, it presses for a response to traffic problems, and requires solutions adapted to the type of concerns it raises. Second, traffic policing institutions are also responsible for the production of symbols and discourse. Those may concern legitimation – the choice of insignia, symbols, uniforms, promotion campaigns for the force, for modes of intervention or modes of transportation – but may also be the very instruments of police actions, as can be seen in road traffic safety campaigns striving to leave its mark on the public and target at-risk road users. This symbolic aspect concerns all visible police branches, but the social and global magnitude of these issues give it a particular importance in traffic policing. These efforts draw attention to the relation between traffic policing and its social environment, which takes nothing away from the reality of the issues.
Man Or Machine? Questioning Police Technology
The weight given to solutions to traffic issues, for the sake of economic continuity and the safeguarding of human lives, is easily understood. This aspect of police activity has been the primary focus of several research studies, which have evaluated the efficiency of policing, and tried to provide police intervention with more better performing tools.
The means of public action are varied: the first is the legal aspect – voting of bills, definition of violations and crimes, choice of penalties. The second mean is enforcement, and as such is directly tied to policing: increase in the number of agents, compilation and teaching of adapted policing knowledge, choice of modes and location of intervention (possible mobility, on foot, motorbikes or in cars). Intervention can be of punitive or preventative nature: one important aspect of police action resides in education, as can be seen in the constant work of police officers within the school system. Such educational focus proved a major aspect of the effort to establish the sharing of the road system and the statute of the pedestrian, in the early twentieth century, and is still ongoing.
The fundamental principles of road traffic safety, expressed as early as 1923 by Director of the Kansas City Safety Council Julian Harvey, and never contradicted since then, can be summed up in what is called the 3 “E” rule: Education, Enforcement, Engineering. The latter is important too, and takes on various forms. A number of psychology studies, for example, through the factorial analysis of answers to questionnaires, focus on the identification of social groups that are the most likely to commit infractions, on determining external, involuntary causes (state of the vehicles and roads, presence of driving schools) and the emotional motivations (aggressiveness in young males, irritability caused by the daily experience of traffic congestion). The goal of these studies is to better target police response. Research conducted in two Chinese cities (Beijing and Chengde) concludes for example that potential countermeasures should be sought among young women and thirty-some-things (Xie and Parker 2002). Cognitive psychology, for its part, is more focused on the determination of causes to loss of attentiveness, and on the stimulation of the ability to focus on the road. Lastly, engineers – administrative or urban engineering, transport or computer systems specialists – propose innovations aiming to facilitate vehicle flows and reduce the number of accidents through changes to the external environment – car structure, pavement material, traffic information displays, computerization of data. Undoubtedly one of the most dynamic field today, traffic telematics and the automation of the control/penalty chain lessen the need for police presence. Where police agents stand in this vast social, political and technical arena is a delicate matter. Police often appears as a liaison within a very varied group of modes of intervention, which is understood as typical of new forms of management and governing, raising issues of negotiation, acceptation and reject.
Parallel to these studies concerned with public action, others develop a more critical reflection on the means themselves, and their evolution. A number of them consider the ever-progressing behavior regulation technologies as what Michel Foucault called “bio-power”: they reveal the insertion of always more subtle power relations within bodies and behaviors. This police activity and its extensions are described as the milieu par excellence where these standardizations become accepted, as they are performed on a daily basis and justified by the goal of reducing the loss of human human lives. Other researchers show that an organizational study of police systems raises the question of the efficiency of such programs. Technological and administrative tools are in fact incorporated to the “music” of the organization (Manning 2008) and act according to its criteria and definitions of issues, which are sociological constructs. Following a reasoning at times more philosophical, several authors question the relation between man and machine as it is in place in this form of policing, and the dehumanization of the road simultaneously in process. Cars and roadways are seen as the space for a specific social experience, an experimental field for future evolutions, which in this respect must be studied. The major question is that of the acceptability of these technical and automatized artifacts. While it is an effect of public policies, it is also dependent on habits developed with broader social mutations. Rather than offering an opportunity for the denunciation of the control of the body, the disappearance of the police body and physical interactions, replaced by remote, computerized surveillance, would then invite the questioning of the creation of new forms of social relations, navigating between internalization, adjustments, and resistance.
What Efficiency? Reducing Accidents, Normative Incorporation, Social And Cultural Variations
The last question can be worded as follows: what is the efficiency of this multiform action? Answers are contradictory, and are open to a debate that is not defined as of yet. Criminologists and sociologists have long shown that police action is generally of little influence on the evolution of criminality. Yet, traffic police may be the exception to the rule: it is one of the only field where this impact is established and measurable. It can be seen in the evolution of the figures: the number of death per 100,000 inhabitants within the OECD went from 23.4 in 1970 to 11.4 in 1999, while in some countries such as Israel, the rate of deadly accidents has been divided by ten in the same period. This trend has been confirmed in recent years, as can be seen in the United States, Hungary or Ireland, where the number of death has followed a stronger declined between 2008 and 2011 than it had during the 15 preceding years. Overall, when a variety of road safety measures are massively implemented in coordination, a rise in the number of drivers can be observed, as well as a decline in the number of accidents. This observation, however, is disputed: some researchers think that the decline is not due to police action or law enforcement, but rather to technical progress in vehicles and road environments, as well as the social acceptance of the norms, the real condition to the efficiency of these measures. Other studies focus more on some countries, some but not all of them developing countries, or on a selection of regions within countries, where the trend cannot be observed.
In any case, traffic police action is often considered a field of choice for observation, because of the intense impact of normative pressure, of the repetition of contacts, of the will to make mobility easier, and of the internalization of driving laws and norms. The analysis of the action of traffic police agents (most often at an intersection) is a staple of sociological studies: on the changes in behavior when drivers are faced with an officer (E. Goffman), on the internalization of social order into non-conscious habitus, through the “natural” respect for driving rules (P. Bourdieu), or on the revealed cognitive styles, through a relation to the rule that would be specific to differentiated societies (H. Garfinkel).
This shared observation of an interaction that is continuous or temporary, physical or technical, and that isn’t without its effect son behaviors, is challenged by other forms of studies. Some of them focus on the persistence of inequalities, based on rank, race or gender, and are visible even in traffic policing. Officers in some US states may, consciously or not, tend to be more zealous with younger drivers, as well as females, and Black and Hispanic drivers. The study of “Driving while Black” has led to a number of scholarly works and to a debate on how to observe and analyze the phenomenon. Other researchers, on the contrary, highlight the varying cultural interpretations of these forms of social control. In Indonesia, the law on the compulsory helmet for motorbike users, for example, seems to have little effect on the seriousness of injuries. The frequency and gravity of accidents is not linked to the use of alcohol, as is the case in numerous other countries (religious rules are strictly observed and alcohol plays a very minor part in traffic accidents); rather, accidents are in part due to the very formal interpretation of the law, on the part of drivers and agents. They wear a helmet, and control that a helmet is worn, but pay no attention to how it may prevent injury, as no protection in case of accident is attached to the wearing of helmets. So helmets are worn, but without efficiency. In another area, on the Polynesian island of Niue, 20 % of non-intentional deaths are caused by road accidents, amounting to a cost of 1–2 % of the GDP. An anthropological study shows that this rate is tied to the nature of vehicles, the nature of the road environment, and forms traffic policing, but also to cultural factors such as low sensitivity to risks and a culture of road warriors among the youth, reflecting older Polynesian representations. Social, institutional and cultural imperatives thus constantly intervene in the possible imposition of a norm by the authorities, posing them dreadful problems. Traffic police may at times be in opposition to these imperatives, and sometimes heavily influenced by them: traffic police seems to be at the crossroad of diverging normative domains, making its action and the usual interpretation of its efficiency less mechanical. Future research could study this further.
Traffic police appears as an important, fragmented and stimulating research subject. The state of the research on the topic is tied to the diversity of the forms and the names it takes, and to the relative invisibility of its action, integrated to daily life or gradually disappearing as new forms of control take over. However, it may also be due to the fact that the various academic fields involved are separated by debates over their epistemological foundations, their methods and their conclusions (transport engineering, cognitive psychology, macro-economy, urban history, sociology of organizations.. .) Above all, studies are separated by their intended destinations: there is a rift between research targeting public action and aiming to improve policing, and more reflexive or critical studies aiming to define the stakes and issues of traffic police and policing. The bridging of that rift, while often claimed to be accomplished, is still fragile (Monjardet 1996). Yet, the study of this somewhat neglected branch of policing is of great importance, when mobility in all its forms takes a major place in the experience of daily life as well as in social organization. A lot can be gained through well regulated interdisciplinary research focusing more directly on the aspects mentioned here. In this human and organizational work on mobilities and individuals, are at stake the major challenges to the modes of functioning of law keeping and enforcing institutions, and more broadly the changes in the relation to the law, to the norm, to the freedom move, and to safety within contemporary societies.
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