By Hon. Earl G. Penrod | Senior Judge
Indiana Judicial Outreach Liaison | Indiana Criminal Justice Institute
‘Traffic Court’ and traffic offenses sometimes garner less than full respect from the general public. For an amusing example of public opinion regarding Traffic Court, attention is directed to Episode 16 of the third season of “The Big Bang Theory” in which Sheldon Cooper goes to court for running a red light and ends up in jail for contempt, primarily for noting that Traffic Court is the ‘kiddy table’ for judges.
Cooper makes no effort to hide his disdain for the court process, and the judge is not a paragon of patience and professionalism. Comedic exaggeration sometimes provides legitimate, albeit discomforting, insight into the real world.
Unquestionably, the high volume of traffic offenses processed through the courts requires procedural efficiencies, and no one suggests that traffic infractions merit equal time with all other cases. However, the criminal justice system also must not permit all traffic matters to be considered unimportant merely because some of those offenses are adjudicated through the expedited, civil/quasi-criminal traffic case procedure.
Traffic Related Fatalities: Good news and bad news
The importance of traffic safety is clear from the annual carnage on our roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently reported that there were 37,133 traffic fatalities nationwide in 2017, a 1.8% decrease from 2016, following a 5.6% increase from 2015 to 2016 and an 8.4% increase from 2014 to 2015.
Twenty-seven states saw a reduction of total traffic fatalities in 2017, but Indiana had the highest increase of traffic fatalities of all states, with a 10.3% increase. Long term trends and statistics provide a more accurate picture than numbers from a single year, but there is nothing positive in having the largest percentage increase in motor vehicle fatalities for 2017.
The Goal of Traffic Case Adjudication
Traffic crashes may result from equipment problems such as tire or brake failure or from environment-related issues such as slick roads, glare or poor road conditions, but in 94% of crashes, the critical reason for the crash is attributable to drivers. However, because the majority of traffic offenses adjudicated in court do not involve a crash, injury or death, the system must remain mindful that the primary goal of adjudicating traffic offenses is to enhance traffic safety, NOT raise revenue for government or to fund general law enforcement or criminal justice initiatives.
Traffic cases involve many types of dangerous conduct but the courts have a particularly relevant role to play in addressing the long standing problem of alcohol and drug impaired driving. Although there has been a 50% reduction in impaired driving fatalities since 1982, much remains to be done to confront the ongoing problem.
Judicial Role and Resources in Traffic Safety
Too often, society seeks or touts a simple solution to a complex problem, including the cringeworthy suggestion that social ills or undesirable conduct such as impaired driving would go away if judges properly did their jobs and locked up offenders. The misplaced optimism regarding the efficacy of incarceration does not minimize the importance of judges seeking and utilizing resources and educational opportunities to properly perform their duties.
There are a number of excellent traffic related judicial education programs available through the IOCS Education Division and other providers such as the National Judicial College, the American Bar Association, and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
For example, a full day ‘Impaired Driving Topics’ session is being developed for presentation at the 2019 Indiana Spring Judicial College. Other upcoming educational opportunities will be available to judges through the National Judicial College, the National Center for DWI Courts, and the National Conference of Specialized Court Judges of the American Bar Association.
In addition to these judicial branch resources and education programs, a number of private entities and government agencies have resources that may benefit judges. Although there are ethical limitations for judges in communicating or collaborating with non-judicial entities and other criminal justice stakeholders, there are opportunities for the judicial branch to benefit from some of these resources.
For example, the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute serves as Indiana’s Office of Highway Safety with the responsibility of supervising a multitude of government funded highway safety programs.
Most of these programs do not pertain to the judiciary, but some government funds and resources are now being directed to the judicial branch as it is realized that the courts are an important component of an effective, broad-based response to traffic safety and impaired driving.
Indiana Judicial Outreach Liaison
One small court-related initiative is the Judicial Outreach Liaison (JOL) Program through which a judicial officer engages and liaises with other traffic safety professionals while also serving as a resource for the judiciary.
As the present Indiana JOL, I look forward to opportunities to provide resources for judges, including presenting a recurring traffic safety/impaired driving column for the Indiana Court Times.
For additional information on this topic, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.