Several years ago I received a phone call from the accreditation manager at my agency. Now some of you have received that phone call and for those of you that have not, it is not always a pleasant experience. Usually the call goes something like this...
“We’re working on accreditation and just found out that your policy / training / curriculum / procedure / etc. is not applicable for what we need, and if you do not revise it by two days ago our agency will cease to exist and the city will break off into the ocean.”
Okay, maybe the phone calls are not that bad but they generally aren’t a bunch of laughs. This particular phone call was not only uncomfortable but it completely changed the way I looked at driver training for law enforcement.
I was asked a simple question. “We need evidence that we train officers how to control and manage traffic and operate on foot in the roadway.”
Here I was, involved in training for more than a decade — working patrol for more than a decade — and I had never thought about this. Despite the fact that I and other officers literally walked on roadways and managed traffic every day, I had never thought about the training or guidelines that should go into that. Apparently no one else had either and it got me to thinking. How many officers around the country are directing traffic, setting up traffic cones, walking around scenes on the roadway with speeding vehicles driving all around them, and they too had never been told how to do it?
My curiosity was all it took for me to look into the issue and while I found some agencies addressing this issue, I found others that didn’t. I also couldn’t help but notice that law enforcement seemed to be behind other professions in this area. A quick cursory look showed that highway workers and even tow truck drivers had a very good grasp on the safety of operating on the roadway. While directing traffic, managing collision scenes and setting up cones may not be as sexy as throwing bad guys in jail, that activity can certainly bring the same element of danger and it just made sense to me that something had to be done.
Apparently the dangers to workers in the roadway made sense to the Federal Highway Administration. On November 24, 2008, they implemented a rule that mandated the wearing of an ANSI Level II or III Vest when workers, including first responders, are working on or around the right-of-way of a federally funded highway. The details of this rule can be located in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 23, Section 634.3. The Federal Highway Administration went on to say that “high visibility is one of the most prominent needs for workers who must perform tasks near moving vehicles or equipment. The need to be seen by those who drive or operate vehicles or equipment is recognized as a critical issue for worker safety.”
This rule was not popular among everyone in law enforcement and I heard some excuses that astounded me. But just like similar idiotic excuses for a lack of seatbelt usage, we must do everything we can to ensure our officers are performing in the safest manner possible. Wearing vests according to this rule must be done and if there was any question on whether to obey it, the International Association of Chiefs of Police utilized a well-known tactic to get the attention of others. In July 2007, they stated that there is “potential for liability for both law enforcement agencies and police officers when officers not wearing high-visibility safety apparel are struck and injured while performing traffic incident management activities.”
It should be noted that this rule does not apply when enforcing criminal laws. As an example, if a law enforcement professional makes a traffic stop, they are not required to put on a safety vest. There are obvious safety concerns if this was the case including taking your attention away from the violator and being seen more easily by a potentially violent criminal.
Move Over Laws
A move over law requires motorists to move over and change lanes in order to give safe clearance to first responders on the roadway. The law is normally triggered when emergency vehicles are on the roadway with their lights activated. Forty-seven states have passed these laws which were created to reduce officer roadside fatalities.
While these laws are very much needed, we still see a lack of compliance among drivers. According to a poll sponsored by the National Safety Commission, 71 percent of Americans have never heard of any such law. This fact alone should direct our attention to what we can control: the actions of our officers in the roadway.
Officer Visibility — Officers must avoid the common tendency to focus intently on their specific duties while on the roadway. Yes, there is work to be done but the biggest risk on the roadway are the hundreds or thousands of vehicles that will pass them by while they are on foot on the road. Officers should never assume that drivers see them and there must be a conscious effort to “be seen” at all times. The wearing of ANSI Level II or III vests must be mandatory on any roadway where traffic management is being conducted.
Location — While we do not dictate where a traffic incident occurs, we can dictate where we position our vehicle or set up flares and cones. The more distance we give citizens to be aware of our actions and to make adjustments in their driving, the safer we will be.
Policy — Department policy should mandate the wearing of high visibility vests and consequences should occur when this is not done. The policy should be detailed and explain exactly when the officer must wear the vest. While the Federal Highway Administration mandated the wearing in federally funded highways only, they did not limit it because other roadways were somehow less dangerous. They were cognizant not to issue an unfunded mandate but common sense should dictate that high visibility vests should be worn on all roadways when conducting traffic incident management duties. Some examples of these duties include directing traffic, investigating collisions, handling lane closures, clearing roadway debris, disasters, etc.
Training — Along with a sound policy, training must be given to ensure that officers are clear about what is required of them. Most high visibility vests have specific instructions on how to properly wear them and there are established guidelines on the proper placement and usage of traffic cones. We can no longer assume that just because our officers wear a uniform, they have the knowledge necessary to conduct traffic management on the roadway.
Supervision — Supervisors must make it a point to respond to traffic incident management scenes on a regular basis for the sole reason to monitor the safety of the officers. An independent eye away from the work at hand can go a long way to ensuring each officer is performing their duties safely.
Color — If you go to the United Kingdom and see an officer walking a beat, you likely will not see the typical blue uniform so prevalent in America. You will see them with high visibility garments and while that is not something I could recommend at all times, we should be cognizant with what we wear on duty. Studies have suggested that a motorist traveling 60 mph needs at least 260 feet to recognize a pedestrian and stop in time.
Unfortunately, what a driver needs and what they actually observe are two different things. A pedestrian wearing the color blue was not noticed until 55 feet. White was the best choice of color with it being noticed at 120 feet but reflective clothing is noticed at 500 feet. This just emphasizes the extreme importance of cones, flares and reflective clothing being used in traffic related incidents.
Cones — Cones shall be orange in color and at least 18 inches in height for daytime and low-speed roadways. For night operations or high-speed highways, cones should be at least 28 inches in height. For low-speed roadways, the initial warning to drivers should take place at least 100 feet from the first emergency vehicle. Distances should then increase to approximately 6 to 8 times the speed limit on higher speed streets. If the speed limit is 65 mph, the initial warning to drivers should occur between 390 feet and 520 feet.
Emergency Equipment — We must be aware that the lights we use at traffic scenes do not ensure that drivers will stay away from us and often the lights we use can make areas more dangerous. More lights do not always equal additional safety. Data does suggest that blue lights are more effective at night while red had a benefit during day time operations. A recent comment on PoliceOne said what many of us have thought:
“There’s a lot of 2,000 lbs. “bullets” blasting by us everyday. In my career, I’ve observed most of these bullets are near-misses at accident scene. I’ve driven upon accident scenes off-duty in my POV and had no idea where to go or what was the safe way out of the area. I’ve always contributed it to “light washout”. At my accident scenes I’ve told officers, fire and EMS that if their vehicles don’t need to be on the street, find a parking lot or get off the road and turn off their lights.”
At the end of the day, working on and around roadways is a dangerous business. Despite a strong emphasis on safety, more than 100 workers from a variety of professions are killed each year standing on roads. The variables are simply too many to stop every one of them but we owe it to our officers to address this issue and do it in an aggressive manner. We know without a doubt that policy and training works and far too many of our nations’ finest encounter roadway management incidents without the appropriate guidelines and training. When our feet exit the friendly confines of our vehicle, the danger lurking is extreme and we must act accordingly.
Struck-by incidents are the second leading cause of accidental deaths to law enforcement (behind vehicle collisions) and there is no doubt that this issue is real for the profession and it is one that we should be vigilant about. In the last decade we have lost an average of one officer each month to struck-by incidents and in the first six months of this year that trend has continued with six officer deaths. Three of those officers worked for the California Highway Patrol with Officer Philip Ortiz and Officer Brett Oswald succumbing to injuries they received after being struck by cars just five days apart in June 2010.
The impact that struck-by incidents have can be summed up by what Shelley Fulmer shared at a recent news conference. Shelley was the wife of Aiken County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Jason Sheppard, who was killed on December 7, 2006 while he was directing traffic at the scene of a fire.
“It completely changed my life. I was 26 years old and a widow. I mean you can’t begin to describe that.”
Shelley is absolutely right. These deaths are tragic and it is difficult to describe the pain to the families, communities, and fellow officers when they occur. Let’s do everything we can to prevent these tragic deaths in the future. That way, we never have to describe them again.