Sunday, December 28, 2014

Lead, follow, or get out of the way

I have a dissenting view in the debate over Wyoming Highway Patrol performance standards, what was too easily dismissed as “quotas.”

Members of the Wyoming legislature quickly pounced on the Patrol’s plan to hold officers accountable for enforcing traffic laws. The Wyoming legislature has seldom been a reliable partner in highway safety. It’s obviously better politics to provide cover for dangerous drivers than to protect the safety of others.

I first experienced the reticence of legislators to make highways safer as a freshman member of the House of Representatives. It was 1971. The issue then was “implied consent.” In those days drunk drivers simply refused to take a breathalyzer test. Their refusal often deprived law enforcement the critical evidence needed to convict.

Highway safety advocates addressed the game playing with the concept of “implied consent.” An application for a driver’s license “implied” your consent to take a breathalyzer test if the officer had cause to think you were driving drunk. A huge loophole that served the interests of drunk drivers was closed. It seemed apparent that allowing drunk drivers to play that game was not in the best interests of the safety of the public.

Not so fast in Wyoming. Our legislature was among the last in the nation to take this important highway safety step. There were cries of “personal liberties” as though driving drunk was a part of the Bill of Rights.

The Wyoming legislature stood in the way of every major highway safety reform from seat belts to child restraints and open container laws. Legislators still refuse to permit the use of cameras to catch drivers who dangerously ignore red lights and cause innumerable serious accidents. On many occasions, they fought the reasonable efforts of Patrolmen to enforce speed limits. They even made it impossible for insurance companies to deem a chronic speeder a higher risk.

They allow “cat and mouse” games to be used by risky drivers to the detriment of the rest of us.

No amount of hard data demonstrating the number of lives that could be saved with the passages of these measures made any difference. Legislators were prepared to allow those deaths to darken Wyoming highways in order to stand by some ill-conceived, libertarian notion of personal freedom.

Increasing numbers of deaths and severe injuries mattered not. It was the ultimate congressional threat to take away Wyoming’s share of federal highway dollars that always brought legislators to the table, albeit belatedly.

Accordingly, it’s business as usual when the head of the Wyoming Highway Patrol is openly threatened by influential legislators because of efforts to improve highway safety. State Representative Eli Bebout, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, delivered the message that if Col. John Butler persisted in his plan for officer accountability, the legislature would write a new law telling him how to run his department.

The shame is that “never is heard a discouraging word” about the death toll on Wyoming highways. Not a single member of the legislature has championed doing something meaningful to reduce the unnecessary carnage.

More than half of this year’s deaths resulted from a failure to wear seatbelts. Yet the legislature insists on making the enforcement of seatbelt laws as difficult as possible. As usual, a high number of deaths are related to alcohol abuse. Even though this is a chronic Wyoming problem the legislature will not even consider roadside sobriety checks, a strategy that has significantly reduced drunk driving in state after state where legislators are more a part of the solution.

Col. Butler has the responsibility to keep Wyoming highways safe, but the politicians don’t want him to have the authority. The legislature has no such responsibility but they have the ability to interfere with those who have the responsibility.

Now that legislators have forced the WHP to rescind the policy, they should come forward with their own proposals to make Wyoming highways safer.

As the old saying goes, legislators “should either lead, follow or get out of the way.”

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