It’s hard to say which is worse: the banged-up, twerp Toyota that cuts you off doing 90 mph, or the narcissistic Navigator that pounces on your tail and rides there demanding the road.
They’re both accidents in the making. And where is the California Highway Patrol when you need it?
That zigzagging runt-mobile driven by a college kid could quickly be compacted if it hit the brakes after darting in front of a heavy-duty pickup towing a 3-ton boat. Behind the truck-boat rig, the tail-gaiting beast of beauty operated by the bully yakking on a cellphone could rapidly wind up in the vessel’s cockpit.
You want the Highway Patrol to haul these idiot-drivers off the road and cite them -- or, at least, scare the bozos into sanity.
But there’s no black-and-white in sight. Didn’t there used to be more around -- lurking on the onramps, writing up tickets on shoulders, patrolling and intimidating?
Sure were. You’re not imagining things if you think the CHP is less active on California’s highways than it was a few years ago.
A new study released by legislative analyst Elizabeth G. Hill confirms that the CHP, since the late 1990s, has been patrolling less while accidents have been climbing. Part of the reason is a Catch-22 dilemma: The more accidents there are, the more officers are bogged down writing reports -- being paper-shuffling clerks. So they have less time to patrol and prevent accidents.
But at its core, this is about much more than just diminished CHP enforcement of traffic laws. It’s another example of government inefficiency. It’s about motorists not getting the best bang for their tax dollars.
“It’s one more thing that’s not functioning well,” says Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “This may be the time to think about reprioritizing the Highway Patrol and to look for efficiencies.”
He intends to hold a hearing on the legislative analyst’s report, probably next month.
The CHP’s budget is $1.4 billion. That money comes mostly from the vehicle registration fee ($40) -- separate from the controversial vehicle license fee -- and the driver’s license fee ($24).
The analyst’s report was prepared by staffer Paul Steenhausen, who not only pored over mounds of data, but rode along on some patrols. “They’re not dogging it,” he says. “They’re frustrated by all the paperwork. Most officers work very hard.”
Among his findings, plus other data gleaned from the CHP and DMV:
* Roughly 70% of the CHP’s overall staff are uniformed personnel (7,200). Only about two-thirds (4,700) of the officers are assigned to road patrol. The rest handle such chores as homeland security (guarding bridges and dams) and protecting the governor and other officeholders. More than 40 do “community outreach,” and a handful even report rush-hour traffic on TV.
* It costs $117,000 to train a uniformed patrolman. Annual pay and benefits run around $100,000.
* Between 1993 and 2003 (the last year available), the number of traffic officers increased by 12%. But accidents within CHP jurisdiction rose by 30%, or 52,000. Accidents particularly jumped after 1998, “reaching unprecedented levels” in 2002.
“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” the report notes, “cites the increased number of motorcycles and sports-utility vehicles operating on state roadways as key factors influencing the overall growth of accidents.... Increased use of cellular phones and other in-vehicle technology by drivers may also contribute.”
Indeed, a recent University of Utah study found that when young motorists talk on cellphones, their reactions slow to the pace of a 70-year-old -- without the veteran driver’s caution.
* “The extent of proactive patrolling by CHP has declined markedly within the last few years,” the analyst says -- about 9% fewer hours. Total miles driven on patrol have dropped by 7%.
* The number of CHP tickets written between 1993 and 2003 fell by 12%. DUI arrests plummeted by 21%.
* Meanwhile, the volume of registered vehicles in California increased by 19%.
* CHP officers -- unlike L.A. police -- are required to investigate and file written reports on every accident, even fender-benders. It takes more than two hours to handle the average non-injury accident. If there’s an injury or death, figure about seven hours. The time spent on these ministerial duties has risen 25% since the late 1990s -- the equivalent of 98 patrol officers. And this doesn’t even include directing traffic at crash sites.
* The CHP technologically hasn’t entered the 21st century, the report continues. It still has a clipboard mentality, tying up officers for hours filling out duplicative time sheets. “Road patrol officers can spend up to one hour per shift filling out various required forms.” By hand.
The legislative analyst recommends assigning cheaper non-uniformed staffers to accident reports, and even skipping the minor, non-injury collisions. These non-officers also could direct traffic and clear debris off roads, the analyst continues.
And the CHP should allow its officers to join the computer age, cutting back paperwork.
Doing all this, Steenhausen calculates, could save enough to hire 100 more patrol officers.
New CHP Commissioner Mike Brown is basically skeptical. “The problem we have is congestion,” he says.
Another problem may be that no objective analyst has taken a hard look at the Highway Patrol until now.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants 2005 to be “the year of reform.” Here’s a candidate.
George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.