On a spring-like afternoon in February, Columbia police officer Lyn Woolford sits in a patrol car off Business Loop 70, watching traffic stream out of the Hickman High School parking lot.
A woman picking up her daughter in a white station wagon pulls into the street and, directly in front of a sign that reads “No U-Turn,” makes a U-turn. Woolford pulls out behind the woman and waits for her to make a left onto Providence Road before firing up his lights. After running the woman’s driver license through a computerized database using a laptop mounted on the patrol car’s dashboard, Woolford issues a citation for the violation.
“You don’t usually get the parents,” he says as he climbs back into his patrol car.
Woolford is the senior member of the Columbia Police Department’s traffic enforcement unit. When he joined the department in 1987, Woolford was one of seven officers in the unit. By 1995, however, the traffic unit consisted of Woolford and another officer, who had been placed under different supervisors. Though a third officer was added four years ago, it wasn’t until after complaints about traffic-related problems that the department was officially re-created in October. It is under Sgt. Timothy Moriarity, who supervises three traffic officers and two motorcycle officers.
“The basic idea is that we work for the citizens,” Moriarity said. “That’s what the citizens want. They might not want the ticket that results from that, but they wanted the traffic enforcement.”
The goal of the traffic unit is simple: reduce the number of fatal and serious-injury accidents. Along with enforcing traffic laws, the unit investigates accidents to determine the causes and come up with ways to prevent them.
There were nearly 200 more accidents in 2003 than 2002. Typically, there are six to 10 fatal crashes a year, Woolford said. Last year, however, Columbia saw a record number of traffic deaths — 18 people died in 15 separate accidents.
“I think it was just an anomaly, just a spike that was kind of unusual,” Moriarity said. “I don’t think it’s a trend.”
Among the unit’s strategies is to focus on problem spots, which is why you can often find Woolford parked near Hickman High School about the time classes end. Such locations are determined by accident statistics or complaints. Officers monitor the traffic until motorists get the hint and stop violating traffic laws at that spot. The officers then move on to other problem areas.
“It’s a little bit frustrating, but I think it’s more rewarding,” said Scott Sergent, a traffic officer with the unit. “I’d rather sit out on the side of the road for two hours and have no violators to stop. That means that we’re obviously having an effect.”
Shelly Jones, who patrols the city’s streets on a 100th Anniversary Edition Harley Davidson Road King, said the ideal for the unit would be to never write another ticket. But tickets are one way to achieve the voluntary compliance of Columbia drivers, she said, which would in turn reduce accidents.
“I don’t enjoy writing tickets to people,” Jones said, “but that’s the nature of the beast.”
Most of last year’s fatal crashes were attributed to speeding, alcohol or a combination of the two, Woolford said. But most accidents are caused by drivers who choose to do whatever is convenient for them instead of following local traffic laws.
“If everyone does it only occasionally, still that’s everyone doing it, and it creates a problem,” Woolford said.
Jones and Jeff Forck, the unit’s other motorcycle officer, have more maneuverability and are therefore especially suited to the task of enforcement. At busy intersections like Stadium and Bernadette, near Columbia Mall, patrol cars are caught in the same traffic as everyone else and often can’t respond to violations.
“I don’t care if you have lights and sirens, you just can’t do it,” Sergent said. “But these guys on the motorcycles can zip out and stop the violator a lot more easily.”
The bikes are also good for catching traffic violators unaware, Forck said.
“On more than one occasion, I’ve had somebody pull up to me at a stoplight or going down the highway, smoking on a joint right next to me and they don’t recognize that it’s an officer on a motorcycle,” he said. “They’ll speed right past you, fly right past you and not even pay attention to what they’re doing.”
The patrol officers — Woolford, Sergent and Alan Hulett — are in charge of investigating the scenes of accidents, often with Moriarity’s assistance.
On March 5, the traffic unit went to an accident at I-70 and Stadium Boulevard. Forck and Jones, their Harleys parked beside them, stood above the wreck on the overpass, directing traffic. Below and several yards east lay two semitrailers sprawled over the median, chalky skid marks leading away from a smashed concrete barrier.
The pavement beyond the wreck was a parking lot, stretching into the distance, while police officers, firefighters and tow-truck workers milled about the four closed lanes of the highway. Woolford marked off where the trucks skidded to a stop and other points of interest with bright pink spray paint. Meanwhile, Hulett and Moriarity snapped pictures of the two demolished truck cabs and a fuel tank that was leaking diesel onto pavement.
Later, using a laser-surveying device, officers would measure the positions marked off by Woolford. Hulett, who was in charge of this particular investigation, would take the measurements and the photographs back to the station and try to piece together how the wreck happened. While no one was seriously injured, such information might help police figure out how a similar wrecks can be avoided in the future.
“We expect that as Columbia grows, the number of accidents and fatalities will increase. That’s why upper management pushed for it ,” Hulett said.