Spotlight On: Doug Dahl - Writing a Weekly Column for Traffic Safety
Doug Dahl is former deputy for the Whatcom County Sherriff’s office and is currently on his second stint as Target Zero Manager (TZM) in Region 11. He is author of a weekly column in the Bellingham Herald, “Rules of the Road,” and a blog, “The Wise Drive.” We sat down with Doug to get a sense of how we started his column and blog and his thoughts on how it fits in with traffic safety education.
Q: Tell us about how you got your start with the blog and writing a weekly column?
A: I had developed a website for our region the first time I was a Target Zero Manager (TZM). I wrote an article and took it to the Bellingham Herald and asked them if it was something they’d be interested in. And it became a weekly column.
Q: How do you see the column/blog fitting in with your role as a TZM?
A: There’s almost two halves of my job. One half is working with local law enforcement agencies and coordinating HVE patrols. The other piece of it is the education part. The column and blog give me a platform for traffic safety outreach.
Q: What do you see as some of the challenges in getting our messages out?
A: I’m surprised at how often I encounter people that are bright people but don’t have an awareness of some of the risks of driving and how some simple changes to their behavior can have such a huge impact on their exposure to traffic risks.
Q: What’s the most difficult question you’ve had to answer?
A: I don’t know what is the most difficult but I can tell you the least liked answers are the ones advocating for more speeding enforcement.
Q: Your articles are based on questions that readers send in. Was it difficult to get readers to send questions?
A: No. I get more questions than I can answer. Right now, I have 16 pages of unanswered questions. Some questions are redundant or have been addressed before, so I might just send a person a link to something that’s already been answered. But I don’t have a shortage of questions.
Q: Do you have a method for deciding what questions to answer?
A: I might save a question to coincide with something that’s happening. If we know we have a DUI patrol coming up I might hold off on answering a question about impaired driving until it corresponds with the emphasis patrols.
Q: How much time do you spend on the column per week?
A: Depending on how much research I need to do for the article I would say around four hours per week.
Q: Do you do a lot of research?
A: I spend time looking up information in the RCW, and there are a lot of complexities there, so I feel a real responsibility to get it right. I have resources or experts in the traffic safety community, law enforcement, and with traffic engineers, so I can contact some of those folks and tap into their expertise.
Q: You recently published a story about autonomous cars that featured a video of you riding along. How did that come about?
A: It was a semi-autonomous Tesla and was spur of the moment. There was a Tesla at the Traffic Safety Conference and they were giving rides so I made a little video. I keep a little Panasonic micro camera with me, as it’s better to capture something and tell a story. And I thought that was an important story to tell. Autonomous is the direction things are going and we need to be having conversations about what that’s going to look like for traffic safety, and how we’re going to integrate technology into the way we drive.
Q: Are the Herald columns and the content on the blog the same?
A: Mostly the same. But on the blog I sometimes write something nerdier about traffic data. Or I will sometimes highlight traffic safety PSAs, sometimes because they’re really good and sometimes because they’re really terrible.
Q: Do you have a sense for how many people read your blog or column?
A: My website traffic ranges from between 20 or so people to 600 on a good day. The Herald tells me they estimate a few thousand people read it each week. When I started out all my questions came from folks in Whatcom County and now I get questions from people spread out all over the state.
Q: What has it been like working with the Herald?
A: Well, they get their article for free and they like that! But they’re great to work with – they don’t really edit anything I do and give me a lot of latitude to answer whatever I want. So, I think the partnership there works very well.
Q: Is that something you think can be replicated?
A: I think we can find more places where we can have those kinds of partnerships because people are constantly talking about driving. Everyone has a story about getting pulled over or some crappy driving situation they were in, or something they saw. So, it’s a real accessible topic.
Q: In terms of managing your blog, is the technology difficult?
A: Well, my first foray into websites and blogging was back in the 90s and I had to learn HTML, so compared to that today is super easy! Today you basically use templates where so much is already done for you.
Q: What advice or tips would you give to someone else wanting to start a column and/or blog?
A: Try your very best to get a local newspaper to print it in addition to having a blog, because that forces you to have a deadline and it makes you consistent. I think the most important thing you can do is have consistent and regular content. A newspaper column forces you to meet a weekly deadline.
But I think the best thing to do is to do whatever you can get excited about because not everyone’s going to be excited about writing an article. If it’s something you can get excited about you’re going to do it a lot more often than if you feel like it’s a chore. And there are so many different ways to do traffic safety education.
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