By CHEYNA ROTH
Capital News Service
LANSING — The controversial May ballot proposal that would raise the sales tax and fix Michigan roads could have an unexpected side effect: safer working conditions for police officers.
Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death among police officers, said Terry Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. Through March 26, 12 officers across the country died in traffic accidents this year, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
Michigan recently experienced this first hand when Ingham County Sheriff’s Deputy Grant Whitaker was killed in an automobile accident while chasing a suspect last December.
“Our workplace is the highway,” Jungel said. “We need to do everything we can in our power to make their workplace as safe as everybody else’s workplace, and frankly right now it’s not.”
The sheriffs’ association is on record supporting Proposal 1, which if passed by voters May 5 would raise Michigan’s sales tax to 7 cents on the dollar as part of a way to fix roads, increase funding for schools and raise money for local governments.
The Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police also supports the proposal, said Executive Director Robert Stevenson. Potholes are more than a nuisance for officers, he said.
“It’s one thing to be driving along at 40 miles an hour and hit a big pothole,” Stevenson said. “But it’s a totally different thing to be maybe driving at 80 miles an hour responding to a medical emergency or some type of police situation…and then to hit a big pothole.”
Many, like Sen. Coleman Young, D-Detroit, are unhappy that it is taking a constitutional amendment and sales tax increase to fix the roads. However, Jungel said the sheriffs’ association isn’t concerned with how the roads are fixed — just as long as they are.
“Conceptually our roads are trash,” he said. “Right now this is a valid proposal that would work effectively and efficiently and we get our roads fixed. Anything we can do to fix our roads, we should be considering.”
Debate over the proposal is intensifying as the annual spring assessment of how Michigan roads fared during the winter begins. This year the Michigan Department of Transportation plans to spend about $26 million in road repairs and reconstruction in the northern 24 counties that include Traverse City, Leelanau, Lake, Charlevoix and Manistee.
Although it’s still too early to know the extent of winter damage, the roads in northern Michigan are a little better than the state average, said James Lake, north region communication representative for the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Potholes alone can bend rims, blow tires and damage suspension or steering parts, Lake said. When it comes to high-speed chases, bad roads increase the likelihood that the officer will lose the suspect or have to abandon the pursuit for public safety.
If an officer is responding to a call and his patrol car breaks down due to a flat tire or damaged suspension, the person asking for help will have to wait longer, Stevenson said.
Jungel added: “One of the most dangerous things we do as police officers is drive fast. And if we’re driving fast, on bad roads, it just makes it much more dangerous than if we’re driving fast on good roads.“