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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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WSP idea good, execution isn’t

The Spokesman-Review

The Washington State Patrol has unveiled a strange strategy to catch motorists who aren’t using seat belts. Well, “unveiled” isn’t the right word, since the whole idea is for troopers to hide their identity by pretending they’re panhandlers.

“Click it or Ticket” is a good idea, but “Trick-it and Ticket”? Not so good.

In the past month or so, troopers in Clark and Pierce counties have worn plain clothes and hung out in high traffic areas with cardboard signs. In Pierce County, the sign said, “Happy Holidays Buckle Up.” When troopers spotted somebody not wearing a seat belt, they radioed nearby officers who pulled offenders over and gave them tickets.

A Vancouver-based trooper summed up the point of such an operation in a Seattle Times article: “What we’re doing is trying to promote the use of seat belts. If they (motorists) took the time to read the sign, it basically told them why we were there.”

Not really. If the troopers were in uniform and held up signs that said, “Buckle Up or Pay Up,” then motorists would know the real reason they were there.

The point of the disguise is lost on us. A uniformed trooper can just as readily peer into a car and call ahead. If motorists buckle up when seeing the trooper, that’s a positive step. Hiding the identity of troopers makes it seem like the goal is to raise money.

Ticketing people one by one is an inefficient way to spread the word and it builds ill will. Like it or not, many people believe traffic sting operations are focused on fund raising, not public safety. (“So this is how they’re going to make up for those $30 license tabs!”) Ignoring that perception will reinforce the cynicism and turn people against the seat-belt law.

WSP isn’t that far off in making this a more effective operation. A uniformed trooper holding a clearly stated sign that carries the threat of punishment is going to reach more people than an undercover trooper playing “Gotcha!”

After all, what is more effective in stopping speeders: a patrol officer hiding behind a billboard or a clearly marked car out in the open? The former nets more tickets and anger; the latter gets more people to slow down. Nobody likes the feeling that law enforcement is out to get them.

A transparent seat-belt operation coupled with public service announcements and media events is more efficient and won’t damage public relations. If WSP wants to persuade the public it’s more interested in public safety than writing tickets, it will drop the subterfuge while enforcing a worthwhile law.

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