Sure, Fairfax County residents suffer through the second-worst traffic congestion in the country, but there's some solace to ponder during the next Beltway logjam: The county's traffic cops are among the nation's best.
For the second time in six years, the Fairfax traffic unit has been honored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) for having the nation's most comprehensive traffic safety program. Fairfax also won the award for best traffic safety among departments of similar size, and the county won the award for best child-passenger safety awareness for the fourth year in a row.
"Really, they're the model for the country," said Robert Rowe, program manager for the IACP. "They're doing it all, and they have the stats to prove it."
Officer Bob Wall, who has received national recognition for his efforts to improve traffic safety, said that receiving the IACP's Clayton J. Hall Memorial Award for the second time "is a pretty big deal. People from all over the country are calling to find out how to do what we do."
His boss, Capt. Tom Bernal, of the traffic division, chimed in, "But we don't give 'em all our secrets."
The awards examine how well a police department trains its officers and then educates and assists drivers in avoiding traffic troubles, rather than simply how many tickets were written or arrests made.
Fairfax consistently is recognized by traffic experts for its highly visible child safety-seat program and for a variety of initiatives such as the "Road Shark" campaign against aggressive driving, frequent sobriety checkpoints and underage alcohol stings, and for helping to found the Washington Regional Child Passenger Safety Team.
The proper use of child safety seats has been a particular crusade for Wall and Fairfax, in part because so many seats are improperly installed. At a typical safety seat checkpoint conducted last year, officers examined 25 seats, and only one was correctly installed. "Bob Wall is regarded as a national expert on child car seats," Rowe said. "He teaches classes all over the country, and he has written the book, literally, on these programs."
Fairfax has trained more than 400 of its officers in proper installation of child seats, the most in the country. "We've had people drive down from Pennsylvania to get their child seat installed here," Bernal said, "because they don't have a program in their area."
And similar to the IACP's "National Chiefs Challenge" contest, Fairfax has instituted an internal contest among its district stations, hoping the competition will create greater traffic involvement among all patrol officers. Stations set up their own sobriety checkpoints or aggressive driving patrols, and "that pushes it further into the fabric of the department," Bernal said.
Results play a part in the contests, too. After conducting a seat-belt awareness campaign, Fairfax found that 78 percent of drivers wore belts before the campaign, and 81 percent after the campaign.
Not all numbers can go up, though, and Wall said it's hard to know definitively whether various traffic programs ultimately save lives.
In fatal accidents, the percentage involving alcohol has risen from 30 to 38 percent, even though "we're doing more sobriety checkpoints this year than ever."
For most departments, just entering the IACP contest forces them to examine their safety programs, look at statistics and try to determine how to improve, Rowe said.
"Those statistics aren't just to win a prize. They're an indicator of the job they're doing," Rowe said. "And in Fairfax's case, it'd be hard to find a department that can put together their sets of statistics."