Kenyon: The Prize Isn’t Right

While delivering pizzas in Hartford for a local restaurant last spring, 18-year-old Jake Hodgdon became distracted by the GPS on his dashboard and slammed his 2003 Pontiac into the rear of an empty school bus, which had stopped on Bugbee Street to make a turn.

Judging from Hartford police photographs taken at the scene, Hodgdon’s crumpled compact hatchback was a total loss. Fortunately, however, both Hodgdon and the bus driver escaped injury in the May 23 crash.

Now here’s the curve ball.

On Dec. 31, more than seven months later, Hartford police posted a news release and photos on the department’s Facebook page under the headline “Hartford Police Honors Crash Survivor. Seat Belt Saved Hartford Citizen’s Life.”

Attached was a photo of Hodgdon receiving a framed copy of the department’s first-ever “Saved-By-The-Belt” award from a Hartford officer. “While Jake is ultimately at fault for the crash, he can be thankful that he was buckled up,” stated the release. “Jake is a living example that seat belts save lives.”

I’m glad to hear that Hodgdon had the good sense to wear his seat belt, which, by the way, is the law in Vermont. Still, I don’t think it merits a commendation.

Do police really want to heap kudos on a “distracted” driver who they say narrowly avoided a tragedy when he took his eyes off the road to check his GPS?

I wanted to talk with Hodgdon about his award, but couldn’t track him down. (Maybe I need a GPS.)

Last week, I called Ted Minall, who heads up the Vermont Governor’s Highway Safety Program, to ask him what he thought about Hartford’s award choice. “It is kind of strange,” said Minall, a former Vermont police chief. “You have an industrious kid who was delivering pizza, and something bad like this happens. I feel sorry for the kid, but to give him an award doesn’t make sense to me.

“You have to be careful about the awards you give out.”

As it turns out, Minall’s office has no connection with the Saved-By-The-Belt program, but he was familiar with it. Saved-By-The-Belt is the brainchild of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which is based in Alexandria, Va. (Former Hartford Police Chief Joe Estey served as president of the international organization, known in cop lingo as the IACP, in 2004 and 2005.)

Saved-By-The-Belt is part of what the IACP calls its National Law Enforcement Challenge. And what’s that? Basically, a game show — complete with prizes — for cops.

Police departments across the country compete in an annual “awards program that recognizes and rewards law enforcement agencies who have the best overall traffic safety programs,” according to IACP’s website.

In the contest, police departments earn points for coming up with different ways to promote traffic safety. Points are awarded for everything from public education campaigns to enforcement. (I think that means the more traffic tickets a department writes, the better.)

At the end of the year, the departments with the most points win prizes, such as radar guns and video cameras that can be put inside cruisers.

If Hartford cops are serious about collecting some of these big-boy toys, they have their work cut out. In Vermont, the Shelburne Police Department has become the New England Patriots of promoting traffic safety. Shelburne cops have been nearly unbeatable at the state level in recent years, and in 2009 were crowned national champions for a department their size (9 to 16 sworn officers). Shelburne’s prize package included free trips to the IACP convention in Colorado.

Shelburne began selecting a Saved-By-The-Belt winner in 2005. The award is “given to an individual who was involved in a motor vehicle crash in the town of Shelburne, was not at fault in the crash, was wearing his/her seat belt at the time of the crash and obtained minimal or no injury.” (I guess Hartford figures three out of four is good enough.)

On Friday, I called Sgt. Allen Fortin, who is the go-to guy in the Shelburne Police Department when it comes to traffic safety initiatives. Picking a Saved-By-The-Belt award recipient can be a bit tricky, he said. “You don’t want to send the wrong message. You have to ask, ‘How is this going to look to the public, if we give this out.’ ”

In Hartford’s case, I’d argue not very good. But Fortin said he didn’t want to sound critical of another department. A couple of years ago, Shelburne police debated for a while before giving the award to a young driver who had rolled over his vehicle on a dirt road.

“Sometimes, it is hard,” Fortin said. “You don’t have a choice and have to pick the best you’ve got.”

I’m not sure who else — if anyone — was considered for the award in Hartford. I didn’t hear back last week from Capt. Brad Vail, the department’s spokesman.

With their eyes on the prize(s), Hartford cops seem to have overlooked the importance of keeping your eyes on the road.