By Dave Kinaan
Motorcycle escorts have been used by law enforcement for as long as motorcycles have been used in law enforcement. A motorcycle escort is designed to assist someone or something to get moved safely and quickly from one location to another. The motorcycle escort officer needs to be concerned with the safe movement of the vehicle (or vehicles) being escorted, the safety of the motoring public, and the safety of the other officers providing the escort.
The escort could be as simple as placing one or two motorcycles in front of a vehicle, or as complicated as escorting a 100+ vehicle funeral procession. Some escorts will flow with the normal traffic, obeying all traffic laws. At other times, roadways will be closed down while the escort passes at high speeds.
Many times, escort duties are assigned and carried out with little or no training. Many times, these duties are handled as part of a shift, and motorcycle officers will perform normal patrol duties before and after the event.
In reality, escorts can be a physically and mentally demanding event, and they need to be thoroughly planned and coordinated well in advance of the event. According to statistics culled from ODMP, of the 57 motorcycle officers who have lost their lives in on-duty motorcycle collisions in the past ten years, 21 were performing some type of escort duty.
That’s more than one-third of on-duty law enforcement motorcycle deaths.
Identifying and Taming Dangers
One or two motorcycles from the same agency can surely get together and escort one or two vehicles to an event while obeying all traffic laws. This type of escort can be easily accomplished by briefing the motorcycle officers and vehicle drivers together, prior to the event. I recommend giving the motorcycle officers and vehicle drivers a chance to drive the route, and scout out the arrival and departure sites, prior to the event.
It is also a good idea to make this scouting run at a similar time of day as the actual event. This will give those responsible for the escort a more accurate picture of the traffic conditions and obstacles that they may encounter. If an escort is going to occur during the hours of darkness, for example, the route should be scouted after dark.
When more than one agency performs the escort, serious officer safety issues arise. Furthermore, as the number of vehicles to be escorted increases, the number of escort motorcycles required to safely move the motorcade increases, and the danger to the motorcycle officers compounds.
Bringing together vehicle drivers from different backgrounds also adds to the danger for the motorcycle officers. The issue of controlling traffic, even when the intent of the escort detail is to obey all traffic laws, becomes a major concern for motorcycle officers as the escort detail grows in size and complexity.
Challenges of Mixed-Agency Escorts
If at all possible, use only motorcycle officers from one agency to perform the escort. Generally, these officers have worked together and have a similar training background. If you need to mix motorcycle officers from various agencies, plan well in advance of operations for the motorcycle officers to hold joint training specific to escort duty.
When multiple agencies are involved, determine which agency is in charge of the escort operation. The officers from the other agencies must be fully prepared to carry out directions from the lead agency. If at all possible, all motorcycles involved in the escort should have simple radio communication capabilities among themselves.
A large operation should have a command vehicle with the ability to communicate directly with all motorcycles and coordinate with other agencies. Call signs and commands should be standardized among the escort motorcycles. This can be challenging when combining multiple agencies, but is essential to the safety of the escort operation.
Standardize Your Language
An obstacle that seems to occur regularly when mixing various agencies is different use of similar terms. One agency may refer to a “Lead Motor” as the first motorcycle in an escort. Another agency recognizes the term “Lead Motor” as the motorcycle officer in charge of the detail, not necessarily their position in the escort. Simple miscommunications such as this can lead to confusing and hazardous situations during an event.
I recommend a standard set of terms and definitions be distributed among all participating agencies well in advance of an escort operation. As an example, the United States Secret Service utilizes a standardized set of terms for escort operations that can identify vehicles in a motorcade, as well as some assignments in the escort operation.
The same terms are used in Florida as in California, so that an agent from one field office can seamlessly work with agents from another field office in a motorcade operation. These terms are recognized throughout the nation by the USSS, the Department of State, and most dignitary protection units. By using a standard set of terms, regardless of the reason for the escort, one level of confusion can be eliminated.
Set Traffic Rules
Early on in the planning of an event, the agency in charge needs to decide whether the escort will travel with the flow of traffic, obeying all traffic laws, or if the escort will need to control traffic. Sometimes, just by the sheer size of an escort, it is clearly impossible to obey all traffic laws, and a plan to control traffic must be developed.
Whether your escort operation will travel with the flow of traffic or control traffic along the route, very specific rules that cannot be compromised must be laid down prior to an escort operation.
One such rule is: A motorcycle shall never cross, or cut through, the motorcade. Another rule is: An escort motorcycle shall never pass another escort motorcycle while leapfrogging. Other rules, such as lane position for the escorted vehicles, transitioning on and off freeways, locations for traffic control, and specific use of emergency lights must be reinforced with the escort motorcycle officers, as well as the drivers of all the vehicles being escorted, prior to the escort operation.
In order to gain compliance with their traffic control directions, escort motorcycle officers will want to attract the attention of other vehicle operators as quickly as possible. As such, the use of a high-visibility vest during an escort operation will assist the motorcycle officer in being quickly recognizable, thus allowing the officer to direct traffic to a safe location while the motorcade passes.
High visibility will also help other drivers in the motorcade to quickly pick out other escort motorcycle officers. After all, the most common comment heard after a motorcycle officer-involved collision is, “I never saw them.”
Escort operations are impressive events and provide an opportunity to show off the professionalism of motorcycle officers — reflecting positively on an agency.
With preplanning, standardization of basic functions, and cooperative training, escorts can be accomplished while providing the utmost safety to the parties being escorted, the motoring public, and especially the escort motorcycle officers.
About the Author
Sergeant David Kinaan retired in 2012 as the supervisor of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) Academy Motorcycle Training Unit. Sergeant Kinaan was an active member of the CHP for nearly 29 years and started riding enforcement motorcycles for the CHP in 1989. Sergeant Kinaan served in the Central Los Angeles, South Los Angeles, Westminster and North Sacramento Areas before coming to the Academy’s Motorcycle Training Unit in 2008. The opinions expressed by Sergeant Kinaan are based on his experience and knowledge as a patrol officer, Academy Instructor and supervisor and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or procedures of the CHP. Sergeant Kinaan currently consults with various entities throughout the nation, and also provides expert witness testimony, on all matters related to motorcycle operations in enforcement and emergency services. Sergeant Kinaan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.