Personal pledge

Sheriff’s office working to reduce traffic fatalities after a difficult 2017

Sgt. Ben Veren with the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office, monitors one of Marshall County’s roadways, during a recent patrol effort. In 2017, 12 traffic fatalities occurred within the county. Veren and the rest of the sheriff’s staff, are working to find ways to reduce that number this year and beyond

Sgt. Ben Veren with the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office, monitors one of Marshall County’s roadways, during a recent patrol effort. In 2017, 12 traffic fatalities occurred within the county. Veren and the rest of the sheriff’s staff, are working to find ways to reduce that number this year and beyond

When the Iowa State Patrol unveiled its 2017 traffic “Fatality Count by County” numbers this week, Marshall County was in the top five.

Twelve lives lost on Marshall County roadways last year — tied for third most with Cerro Gordo and Pottawattamie counties, and only behind Polk and Linn counties with 27 and 17 deaths, respectively.

The news, although not a surprise to local law enforcement officials, is frustrating and heartbreaking.

“It’s alarming for us,” said Sgt. Ben Veren with the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office. “People are dying on our roadways. How do we keep people safe?”

Of the 12 fatalities that happened within 11 traffic crashes, six involved alcohol- or drug-impaired drivers. Other contributing factors with eight of the crashes included speed, reckless behavior, multiple traffic infractions and most likely, distracted driving.

“A lot of these were preventable … so what can we do to keep those people from being on the road; or what can we do to change the culture?” asked Veren, who serves as the traffic safety officer for the sheriff’s office.

Those answers have proven elusive.

But he and Marshall County Sheriff Steve Hoffman want to change the numbers; they believe the answers lie somewhere within a three-pronged approach of education, enforcement and engineering.

“This has become a very personal issue for me,” said Hoffman.

“We’re fortunate not to be plagued by violence or the loss of life because of violent crimes here. How lives are lost in Marshall County is often due to their time on our roadways. In most cases, they are preventable, so it’s a priority of the sheriff’s office to have an increased focus on traffic safety and to enhance our collaborations that we already have had on working with multi-disciplinary teams that have studied the “three Es” — education, enforcement and engineering — to look at these events through these different disciplines — to see how we can reduce the occurrences.”

In terms of education, Veren said by now, most drivers know the dangers of impaired- and distracted driving. Programming, visits to schools and community groups illustrating the consequences of drinking and driving or texting while driving, etc., has been going on for years.

“But at some point the community, society if you will, has to have a stake in this. It’s not a matter of whether it’s right or wrong; they already know. People have to choose to make the right choice,” he said.

“And that’s the hard part. It does get discouraging. What more can we do to keep putting those reminders out there, to be proactive? Twelve people died in our county. The public needs to personalize those numbers. What if one of those 12 people who was a victim was a family member or a friend? We have to continuously promote that idea. We have to be very diligent, even though sometimes it seems like a hopeless battle.”

Enforcement is also paramount.

Several years ago, the sheriff’s office established a Traffic Safety Unit — specializing in keeping county roadways safe with dedicated and highly-trained patrol deputies and the use of other resources.

Over time, however, the unit became inactive. After Hoffman was sworn in as sheriff, he said he wanted to bring the unit back to a fully-functioning part of the sheriff’s office. It was and is, he said, a priority.

And in 2017, there were a few things that happened that helped the agency move toward that priority.

“We received a grant that allowed us to purchase a traffic data collector — that enabled us to collect traffic flows and speeds and occurrences on particular roadways, so that we can deploy deputies to high-crash areas or high-complaints areas. We also have data to help us focus on enforcement; we know where the high traffic areas are, the speed occurrences, how many potential violations there are in a given time frame, so we’re not deploying resources at times when there are no problems.”

Additionally, the grant allowed Hoffman’s office to purchase a speed trailer and signage that serves as a “traffic calming device when we’ve identified those areas (both education and enforcement) where we can bring awareness to a particular area by deploying that sign with messaging on it. We can also display the speed, to gain motorist compliance, to bring a driver’s attention to the posted speed limit.”

Another grant was obtained for dedicated overtime money for those officers — $10,000 — to deploy those deputies who had an interest, a passion and a work history in traffic safety.

To be a member of the newly re-energized Traffic Safety Unit, Hoffman said those deputies are expected to be leaders, subject-matter experts and serve as resources for their fellow deputies when it comes to traffic laws, sobriety testing, seat belt and child safety seat issues.

But Hoffman insists that while other deputies and personnel may focus on other areas of the law, be it property crimes, drug crimes, etc., he has made it clear to all deputies that “we have to recognize that lives are being lost on the roads. It’s a priority of mine and it’s an expectation for all patrol deputies to increase their focus on those areas where people are dying.”

Veren agreed, and noted that Marshall County is not alone is trying to identify the best ways to curb traffic deaths.

“Our situation is not unique, it’s statewide. In the Midwest, law enforcement is seeing the same issue,” he said.

And the news isn’t any better thus far in 2018.

After only one month, fatality numbers are up 25 percent across the state compared to this time last year. “We’re not starting off on the right trend,” Veren said.

In terms of engineering, Veren said at no other time have vehicles and roadways been safer, although he and other law enforcement officials continue to offer input to the county engineer, the Iowa Department of Transportation and others about where improvements could be made.

“We’re fortunate at the county level, and as part of our road safety plan, we can work with the county engineer on issues,” Veren said, adding Marshall County has erected bigger chevron signage, yellow reflector stripes down posts along certain roadways, etc., and physical changes have been made to troubled roadways over the years.

However, the accident numbers have not dropped, suggesting it’s still about some drivers not choosing to make the right choices behind the wheel.

“Again, that’s a hard thing to figure out; it’s not a hopeless situation, but it’s an uphill battle,” Veren said.

And while the Iowa State Patrol map illustrates a difficult reminder of the human devastation on roadways throughout the state, Hoffman said the public should realize that numbers reflect all fatalities — whether it was on a county roadway, the highway or a city street.

“I think it may provide a false sense of security when city incidents happen in relatively slow-speed accidents — people do indeed die in town,” he said.

As evidence, among Marshall County’s 12 fatalities in 2017, five of those crashes occurred within Marshalltown proper.

“It’s not just a rural high-speed issue, it’s an issue in town as well,” Hoffman said.

Beyond the numbers, there is support amongst the public for what law enforcement is trying to do.

“Erratic driving complaints and possible impaired-driver complaints are some of our leading calls for service in the county, and that’s great,” the sheriff said. “But I want the public to take away the importance of whether it’s a tired, distracted or impaired driver, if they observe that activity, of course, law enforcement is not always going to be in a position to be able to intercept, but let us worry about that. They still need to make the call, provide us the relevant information and stay online with the communications operator to give us an opportunity to try and intercept that person.”

One example — only a few days ago, a citizen called with an observation of the physical behavior made by a person in a State Center store; the person then moved into his vehicle. The citizen’s call led the sheriff’s office and the State Center Police Department to stop the car, make an arrest and subsequently charge the driver with being drugged while driving.

“Without the cooperation and participation of the public that we serve, undoubtedly that person would have continued down the roadway,” Hoffman said.

“I take all of this personally,” said Veren. “I look at it as my family and friends are driving these same roads, they’re sharing the roads with these drivers. The average person might think if you’re going to be harmed, it’s murders and robberies, but in Marshall County, statistically, it’s traffic crashes that are killing people.”

And for Hoffman, a recent incident reaffirmed his commitment in keeping citizens safe along Marshall County roadways and streets.

“That was demonstrated to me in the fall of 2016 when one of our deputies, who happens to be involved in the Traffic Safety Unit, was driving down the road and stopped a possibly impaired driver,” he said.

Stopping that driver proved a potential lifesaver because just ahead was a family in the bike lane headed for a nearby bike trail.

That family happened to be Hoffman’s wife and children.

“That driver …” he said with a catch in his voice, “could have changed our lives.”

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Contact Jeff Hutton at 641-753-6611 or jhutton@timesrepublican.com