The transport challenge
Maria del Carmen Fernandez Mendez knows a thing or two about traffic on North Rhine-Westphalia's roads - from her own experience. She has been a traffic officer at the Ministry of the Interior since February, having previously held the post on a temporary basis for several months.
Streife editorial team

Interview with Maria del Carmen Fernandez Mendez


You sometimes ride a pedelec from your home town of Cologne to work in Düsseldorf. What is your experience?

That's right, with a rented S-pedelec, which is permitted to travel at up to 45 km/h. With an insurance license plate and mandatory helmet. That was a very powerful experience. I wanted to at least try it out to see if it was an alternative to the bus and train or even the car for my daily commute from Cologne to Düsseldorf.


And, is it an alternative?

Unfortunately, no, I only recently returned the pedelec to the rental company. Even my first ride with it was actually disastrous. With the S-Pedelec, you are only allowed to ride on the road, and you are not allowed to use the cycle path outside of towns. And most of my route takes me along the B9, past many industrial areas between Dormagen and Neuss. You are allowed to drive up to 70 km/h on some sections and up to 100 km/h on others. That morning, it was still dark and it was raining, I was literally honked off the road by truck and car drivers. And believe me, it can be quite frightening when a 40-ton truck honks at you in the dark and overtakes you at 80 km/h. Unfortunately, many road users obviously don't know that I'm not allowed on the cycle path with an S-pedelec and have to use the road. And unfortunately, I didn't have a GoPro camera with me on these rides. I would have liked to document this experience, because I don't think you can imagine it if you haven't experienced it yourself. So: exciting experience, but not recommended for imitation in this form.


What conclusions do you draw from this?

According to my assessment, the dangers are significantly greater when I have to share the road with a 7.5-ton truck than when I use the well-developed pedestrian and cycle path. I naturally bring this experience to my work as a traffic officer. We are currently working on a draft bicycle and local mobility law. We are also involved in this as Department 414.


The number of traffic fatalities has never been as low as it was last year since recording began. Is "Vision Zero", the vision of zero road deaths, realistic?

I'm not so optimistic. According to this vision, 362 fatalities were the target for 2020 in NRW. That would have been 40 percent fewer than ten years previously. We missed this target with 430 fatalities - despite the lower traffic volume due to the pandemic. However, I am hopeful that increasing automation and more and more assistance systems in vehicles will significantly reduce the importance of the "human factor" as the main cause of accidents. Nevertheless, there will still be people in the future who drive completely recklessly on the roads and ignore all the rules, who drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, who are distracted and cause serious accidents.


That sounds pessimistic.

I don't think it should. I'm not a pessimist, I'm more of a realist. On the other hand, cities like Oslo and Helsinki managed to avoid a single cyclist or pedestrian fatality in 2019. I have high hopes for automation, but I believe that this must also go hand in hand with traffic infrastructure measures. In Oslo and Helsinki, 30 km/h zones have been set up across large areas. And vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and children are given more space than cars. It takes a lot of effort to get there. Above all, however, it involves traffic policy decisions in which the police are more in an advisory role.


When we talk about assistance systems, automation, autonomous driving and things like that, the question arises as to whether this will change police work.

Absolutely. It has already changed and it will change even more. We are already noticing that, thanks to the many assistance systems in vehicles, we can hardly find any conventional evidence at the scene of some accidents. The digital lanes often tell us how fast the driver was traveling immediately before the accident, not the missing lane position (e.g. brake blocking lanes) due to brake assistants. And when the vehicles communicate with each other or with the traffic infrastructure and certain driving tasks are no longer performed by the driver themselves, then things will get really exciting. Police work will change significantly.


This means that even more IT specialists will be needed?

Yes. It will no longer be possible without specialized personnel and special technology. We are already seeing this in the area of specialized traffic accident investigation. In particular, road accidents with fatalities and serious injuries must be recorded in such a way that all incriminating and exculpatory factors can be reliably established. This is hardly possible without specialized personnel and special technology.

Or think of commercial passenger and freight transport. It is no longer possible to prove manipulation of digital tachographs without the appropriate technology, which must also be operated by specially trained personnel.


You have been in office for a few months now. What are the most important and urgent tasks that need to be tackled?

It feels more like weeks than months and there are many important issues that we have already tackled and will continue to tackle. Unfortunately, we can't do everything at once, so we have to prioritize. But first of all, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessor in office, Rüdiger Wollgramm. In my opinion, he set the most important course for the future of the Transport Directorate.

Now we need to implement everything that many clever and committed colleagues have developed in various working groups and elsewhere. Let's start with the biggest challenge at the moment: nationwide specialized accident investigation by accident investigation teams. This will be a quantum leap for the Traffic Directorate, but is also urgently needed when you consider the criminal and civil law, but also the psychological consequences for relatives and those involved in a serious traffic accident with fatalities or serious injuries.

In addition, there are the challenges facing police accident investigation due to the increasing digitalization of road traffic. Figuratively speaking, the analog measuring wheel is giving way to the digital 3D scanner and the classic trace image on the road is being supplemented or even replaced by digital accident traces. I am also striving for the same nationwide professionalism in the area of traffic police victim protection - another key topic this year. The sudden death of a loved one in an accident is one of the worst things that can happen in life. And the police deliver this distressing message. We need to do this across the country in a way that does justice to this responsibility. And in doing so, I have both the needs and well-being of the relatives and the colleagues who have to fulfill this difficult task in mind.

So we need to work together to develop standards that ultimately benefit everyone. We are currently working on this. In addition, there are a number of other important issues that we have already tackled: combating illegal motor vehicle racing, piloting the use of virtual reality glasses for traffic accident prevention, the trial extension of checks on commercial passenger and goods traffic to night time, testing nationwide task forces in the traffic directorates, the establishment of nationwide expert groups, such as the traffic service expert group, and many, many more.


Sometimes it seems as if the traffic police do not have the same high external reputation as the criminal investigation department.

I don't even know whether the public actually differentiate between the traffic police and the security police - i.e. Directorate V and GE. Rather between uniformed police and criminal investigation department. Internally, however, it is true that the Traffic Directorate has a reputation for not being quite as attractive as other directorates, especially for younger colleagues. But after a good eight months in my role and some exciting insights into the diverse work of the Traffic Directorate, I'm not too worried about the attractiveness of Directorate V. We have very exciting, varied and diverse tasks, which can also give you a lot of job satisfaction, because in the end it's always about preventing traffic accidents with fatalities and injuries.


What is the diversity about?

From freeway police patrols to puppet shows, road safety advice at schools, heavy goods vehicle groups, motorcycle and bicycle squads in traffic services, accident teams, task forces, road accident victim protection and case handling in the traffic commissioner's offices - there is actually something for everyone. We just need to make this diversity even better known to our young police officers. Especially among those who have a soft spot for the topics in which we then train them to become specialists. Because that is the future of the Traffic Directorate: a highly specialized directorate whose expertise is also used and valued by other directorates

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