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Police: Roads safer than ever, robots to monitor phone and seat belt use

A new law will automatise traffic monitoring next year while police resources dwindle.

Nelostielle ensimmäiset uudet peltipoliisit asennettiin syksyllä 2018.
Robotic traffic monitors can identify whether drivers are wearing their seat belts or not. Image: Markku Lähdetluoma / Yle

The number of officers on patrol in Finland has been falling for a decade, while police and the National Audit Office (VTV) say that Finnish roads have never been safer.

The amount of hours spent by humans on traffic monitoring fell by 17 percent in 2012-2018. Officers now typically respond to emergency calls while robotic sensors take care of the day-to-day road safety business, said Maria Hoikkala from the National Police Board.

A new traffic law will come into effect in June 2020, leading to the wider use of technologies and devices such as drones in traffic monitoring.

"Automatic systems will be able to monitor things like mobile phone and seat belt use for the first time," Hoikkala said.

Safe roads not safe enough

In spite of cuts to traffic monitoring, fewer people relative to the population die in traffic accidents in Finland than the EU average.

Hoikkala said that reasons other than traffic coverage have affected the trend.

"Cars are built to be safer than before and traffic environments in general are safer," she said.

In 2018 a total of 237 people died on Finnish roads, compared to 375 people in 2004. The rate at which deaths dipped was rapid in the early 2000s, but then slowed down; traffic fatalities have stayed virtually the same in Finland for the past ten years.

The VTV report shows that Sweden and the Netherlands have managed to decrease their number of road deaths more than Finland has. These countries had low traffic fatality statistics to begin with.

Hoikkala said she doesn't believe that Finland can reach its target of halving all traffic fatalities by 2020, which in Finland's case would mean 135 deaths by vehicle per year.

"The positive trends are slowing all over Europe," she said.

Traffic police units missed

The biggest recent change in Finnish traffic monitoring came about six years ago, when police management reforms led to the shuttering of the 70-year career of the mobile traffic patrol unit.

Police departments around the country monitor their local traffic with what resources they can muster. The fewer officers, the fewer can be spared to patrol the roads.

"I'd say the situation is pretty good considering, and departments are doing good work. But it's true that there has been a decrease in personnel that also affects the quality of police traffic work," Hoikkala said.

Moottoripyöräpoliisi valvomassa liikennettä maantien varressa.
An old-fashioned traffic cop waiting by the roadside. Image: Liikkuva poliisi

Sergeant Timo Harjaluoma from the Eastern Finland Police Department is the chair for the Association of Mobile Police. He went as far as to say that getting rid of the mobile units was a mistake, and that information used to flow better all around the country.

"Police officers who monitored the roads themselves received responses and instructions very quickly," Harjaluoma said. "The responses were also relayed to units across Finland, so that the same information and methods were used everywhere."

Harjaluoma said that traditional human monitoring increased the "feeling of getting caught" in road users, which dissuades drivers from taking risks and causing accidents.

"If all the different pieces including mobile traffic monitoring were up to scratch, the statistics would be much better."

Fewer cops, more tech

The government allocated about 52 million euros to traffic monitoring this year, which appears to be paying for itself; automatic cameras bring tens of millions of euros into the government coffers, and added automation has improved the productivity of the system as a whole.

One of the most important tasks of traffic monitoring programmes is to prevent the activities of taxis, trucks, and other vehicles related to the grey economy, which VTV said is worth some 500 million euros a year.

The Police Board wants additional technology to pick up the traffic monitoring slack. Hoikkala said that improvements to the big picture of Finnish traffic are on the way.

"The Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Transport and Communications are presently drawing up strategic documents related to traffic safety," Hoikkala said.

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