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Clearwater police win traffic award

For the third year in a row, the Clearwater Police Department's traffic unit has been recognized as one of the state's best.

Noting the department's traffic team has stepped up seat-belt enforcement, targeted red-light runners and clipped traffic fatalities, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Institute of Police Technology Management have named the department's traffic safety efforts the second best in Florida.

Clearwater placed first in the statewide competition last year and second the year before, the first year the award was given out. The winners are chosen by traffic safety experts from around the country.

"This validates our efforts and shows we are on the right track," said Lt. Steve Burch, commander of the agency's traffic unit.

Competition organizers encourage police chiefs across the state and the country to submit applications for the award that highlight the department's traffic safety efforts.

Because surveys in recent years have shown traffic is a leading concern among residents, Clearwater police have stepped up their initiative to keep the streets and highways safe.

Those efforts have paid off.

While seat belt tickets written by officers have increased 22 percent, the rate of motorists buckling up in Clearwater has bulged to 78 percent. It had been less than 70 percent, Burch said.

Clearwater police also have equipped three traffic signals along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard with blinking lights that tell officers watching from any angle whether the light has turned red. The technique, which has helped officers nab dozens of red light runners, is now catching on statewide, Burch said.

The judges also noted officers were targeting speeding in specific neighborhoods and providing translators for people pulled over who don't speak fluent English.

The ultimate test, however, may have been the number of crashes and people killed in traffic accidents.

Clearwater's crashes dipped last year by 1 percent to about 5,000, while the 15 traffic deaths on city streets was the second-lowest fatality rate in the last decade. The year before, when 12 people died in Clearwater crashes, was the lowest.

"The results were remarkable," the judges wrote in their review.

The competition was particularly stiff this year because Clearwater was placed in a bracket of champions composed of eight departments, including Tampa, that also had won previous awards.

Even with the tougher competition, Clearwater placed second behind only the Port Orange Police Department. Clearwater did not place in the national competition, however.

Judges not only look at enforcement efforts, but also public education and officer training programs.

For their efforts, the department received $7,500 worth of traffic enforcement equipment, including cones, barricades and portable breath-testing devices. The department has garnered more than $30,000 in prize equipment since the competition started three years ago, Burch said.

"It certainly means that we have gone the extra mile for our citizens to try to improve traffic safety in the city of Clearwater," Burch said.

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