The Safety Street Q&A series features NCSR partners, industry leaders and other notable transportation organizations who are working towards the collaborative goal of safer roads.
Safety Street welcomes Sheriff Eileen Behr – one of Pennsylvania’s leading public safety experts – as the featured guest in our latest Q&A series. Born and raised outside of Philadelphia, Behr joined the Whitemarsh Police Department at age 19 and rose through the ranks in her 34 years there to become the first female police chief in Montgomery County. In April 2011, she took on her current position as the county’s first female sheriff.
Pennsylvania recently passed a law in July 2012 allowing more municipalities to consider the use of red-light safety cameras at dangerous intersections. In Montgomery County, eight townships are currently eligible to take advantage of this technology. Several of the townships have begun discussing red-light safety cameras at town hall meetings and several local police and traffic safety officials have come out in support of the measure.
Safety Street had the chance to ask Sheriff Behr a few questions and get her thoughts on public safety in Montgomery County, improving safety in intersections, and more:
Safety Street: What are some of the major concerns of Montgomery County residents regarding roadway safety in their communities?
Sheriff Behr: Over the past two decades, Montgomery County has been growing in population and development, in particular retail and office space. With the growth, vehicular traffic has increased on roads that had not been designed for the volume. Many roads are narrow, single lane roads through areas that had previously been mostly residential or open space. With the growth in population, new schools are being built and enrollment is increasing. Pedestrian traffic and school bus transportation has increased. Most roads do not have sidewalks to accommodate the heightened amount of pedestrian traffic.
Safety Street: How has traffic changed over the years as the county’s population has grown?
Sheriff Behr: Traffic volume has increased drastically with growth in population and development. Improvements over the past twenty-five years to limited access highways into Montgomery county – such as 476, the Blue route and the 422 bypass –have greatly impacted the number of drivers on the roadways. We have seen development along these routes and throughout adjacent areas. That being said, many of the roads leading to the limited access highways have not been improved and traffic congestion has increased. Congestion and delays create frustration for local motorists. Frustration leads to speeding, road rage, and disregard for traffic control devices.
Safety Street: In your 30-plus years of experience, what have been the most effective tools for intersection safety? Which have been the least effective?
Sheriff Behr: In my experience, I have seen some traffic improvement projects at intersections that truly increased safety. Many intersections have been improved by providing left turn lanes and left turn signals. This has decreased accidents at some of the major intersections. Installation of pedestrian signals at intersections has also improved safety and reduced injuries. Continual enforcement of signal violations or presence of marked, visible police vehicles near an intersection increases driver awareness of the signals and is a definite deterrent to speeding and red-light violations.
Safety Street: What do you see as a best practice to encourage motorists to be better aware at intersections?
Sheriff Behr: Advanced warning signs of signaled intersections helps to increase awareness, even more so when there are pedestrian signals at the intersection. Safety campaigns such as the “Click-it-or-ticket” programs near intersections provides officers the opportunity to have contact with motorists. Public safety campaigns that focus on specific intersections and incorporate police, local officials, and health officials would be a logical solution to help heighten awareness in communities. Open communication between police departments and local media on current accident and injury data combined with traffic safety recommendations from the officers may also help to reduce crashes.
Safety Street: What is the effect you see in communities where red-light safety cameras are in place? Is there a greater feeling of security for other drivers and pedestrians?
Sheriff Behr: Since Montgomery County doesn’t currently have a program, I haven’t had enough direct experience with red-light cameras. I have attempted to follow the progress of the red-light camera program that is in place in Philadelphia. From media reports on the cameras along Roosevelt Boulevard, it appears that camera installation and continual media messages on the program are reducing serious crashes.
Safety Street: Do you think motorists are more likely to avoid running red lights if fines are involved, i.e., does it change behavior? Why or why not?
Sheriff Behr: Motorists are always concerned with high cost of a traffic fine, regardless of the violation. I am not convinced that high fines are the most effective deterrent. Loss of driving privilege or increased insurance rates are more of a concern to the public. In my career, traffic fines have continued to increase while violations continue to occur. In local areas, motorists are always aware of the intersections and areas that their local police target. More officers to enforce the violations or possibly the use of red-light cameras may decrease violations at intersections and reduce crashes. Successful traffic enforcement is designed to increase safety and reduce crashes.
To learn more about Sheriff Eileen Behr please visit Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department.
For more information on Pennsylvania’s existing red-light safety camera programs, please visit the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
The National Coalition for Safer Roads (NCSR) helps save lives and protect communities by demonstrating how red-light safety cameras can improve driver behavior.