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Guest Commentary

Political promises: On collision course with reality?

6/17/2015

On the sidewalks of New York, longtime mayor Ed Koch, would ask passersby “How’m I doin’?”

Iowa legislators would be ill advised to ask that, given the awful record of the 86th General Assembly. Sadly, in Iowa government, promises seem to outnumber progress and production — that’s certainly so in the wake of the legislative session.

And if Gov. Terry Branstad echoed the Koch line, we might say, “Well in your 2010 campaign you promised to add 200,000 new jobs in Iowa.”

We might also point out, “A year ago, governor, you announced a program to reduce traffic fatalities in Iowa to zero.” The Zero Traffic Fatality program merits an update — if only because it’s a harmless reflection of the more infuriating instances of governing by pronouncements.

At a press conference last June, Branstad declared, “Having no traffic fatalities on Iowa’s roads may sound like an unobtainable goal, but when you think about the goal you have for your family, it’s always going to be zero fatalities… If each of us adopts a zero-fatality goal for our own families, we can make zero a reality for the state.”

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Nothing wrong with that in political-speak — doubletalk, wishful thinking is everyday fare on the campaign trail.

At what point, however, do such comments become public policy, as though they are real accomplishments, serving the people of the state? Instead of questioning such pronouncements, our response too often is “Well, who could be against that?” or “What’s wrong with having lofty goals?”

So, “How’m I doin’?” when it comes to zero fatalities? Because like it or not, Zero Traffic Fatalities (ZTF) is a matter of public policy.

For example, the ZTF goal of Iowa — as enunciated by the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau — is to reduce traffic fatalities by 15 percent by the year 2020, en route to our goal of Zero, barring a collision with reality.

Funds for highway safety and education programs total several million dollars a year, roughly more than 10 percent of the separate $60-million budget of the State Patrol.  Likely most of the millions for safety and education would be spent anyway, but the ZTF label suggests it is money well spent.

How are we doing in the make-believe world of reaching zero?

In the two years before the program was hyped — June 2012-May 2013 and June 2013-May 2014 — Iowa counted 317 and 320 traffic deaths.  The last 12 months, June 2014-May 2015, we had a few more, 322.

Three other states — Utah, Arizona and Nevada — had adopted a ZTF program before Iowa. For 2013 Utah reported 220 traffic deaths, for 2014 it’s 256. Same two years, Nevada went from 259 to 285. Arizona, having logged traffic deaths of 827, 821 and 849 in the three preceding years, did drop to 774 in 2014. But its number of injury crashes, 34,451, was the highest in five years.

Even as Iowa aimed for Zero Traffic Fatalities, many state legislators this year wanted to raise the speed limit on Iowa highways from 70 to 75 mph. Happily, the “speed kills” legislation failed, and the State Patrol budget was increased, apparently without argument that the ZTF program meant the patrol budget should be cut. It’s a wonder that in the push to legalize fireworks in Iowa, a legislator didn’t advocate a Zero Eyes Lost program to show how safe fireworks can be.

With regard to budgets, traffic deaths and staffing, a state patrol sergeant advised, “Obviously numbers matter because you need a sufficient amount of State Troopers to be able to respond to events and proactive patrols. But the numbers are not the only thing to consider.” [We also must have] “smarter policing and better equipment [and] directed patrols that are evidence-based and data driven projects in the problem areas of the state.”

That makes more sense than substituting wishful thinking for public policy. For example: It would be a joke if the state policy on, say, combating the pollution of our waterways amounted to pronouncing, “If each of us adopts a pure-water goal for our own families, we can make zero pollution a reality for the state.”

Oops, that already is public policy. And, “How’m I doing” on that score? CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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