Sharing the roadway with other motorists posed a greater threat to American peace officers’ than facing armed criminals during the first half of 2007. This conclusion was drawn from the results of a recent report published by the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund and Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS). According to this report, 45 officers died in traffic-related incidents during the first six months of 2007, an increase of 36 % from last year’s figures. The 2007 total includes 35 officers killed in automobile crashes, 6 who were hit by vehicles while outside their patrol cars and 4 who died in motorcycle wrecks. Meanwhile, 39 officers were shot to death during the first half of 2007, an increase of 44 % over the fatal shootings during the first six months of 2006.
The facts are inescapable: more officers were killed in traffic-related incidents than from gunfire or any other cause of death during the first half of 2007. These results are a continuation of a 9-year trend in which the leading cause of death for on-duty law enforcement officers has been traffic-related incidents, including car crashes, motorcycle and bicycle wrecks and officers being struck by vehicles while outside their law enforcement vehicle, on or near the roadway. The figures also confirm a fact of life expressed by more than a few administrators: “My officers are less likely to be gunned down by a violent criminal than they are to be killed by a drunk or inattentive driver.”
These cold statistics are as unacceptable as they are sobering. As we constantly preach to the American public, traffic fatalities can be prevented. A number of common sense safety tips must be employed to help prevent traffic-related injuries and deaths. They include the following:
1) Perform a careful inspection of your vehicle before you hit the streets. Make sure the horn, lights, brakes and emergency equipment are functioning. Check the tires for proper inflation and uneven or excessive wear. Have any problems fixed. Don’t go into service with a defective vehicle.
2) Always wear your lap and shoulder belts while the vehicle is in motion. When used in conjunction with a properly functioning airbag, they can save your life in a collision. They may also help relieve driving fatigue by keeping you properly positioned behind the steering wheel. Seat belts can also stabilze your body during extreme driving maneuvers resulting from pursuits or other emergencies.
3) Don’t operate your vehicle if you are drowsy, ill or taking medications that could impair your ability to drive and react safely. If you are not physically up-to-speed, take sick leave. If you are simply too tired to drive, request another temporary assignment.
4) Expect the unexpected while driving or operating near a highway. Expect the oncoming driver to be inattentive, and be prepared to react. Keep in mind that people often drive while talking on cell phones, etc.
5) Leave yourself an escape route while approaching a vehicle on foot. It’s not too different from thinking about cover when you are approaching a contact. Think about where you could move to quickly to escape imminent danger.
6) Remain supremely alert to threats from the moment you stop a vehicle until you re-enter your car and leave the scene. Stay in a position so that you can periodically scan traffic approaching from behind. Listen for anything out of the ordinary, such as braking tires and be prepared to move quickly out of harm’s way.
7) There is no law, written or otherwise, that says you have to approach a vehicle from the driver’s side. Particularly on a heavily-traveled or narrow roadway, consider approaching from the passenger’s side of the vehicle. You may surprise the driver, but you’ll probably be safer!
8) Slow Down! Most law enforcement officers drive fast because they are in a legitimate hurry to get somewhere. If traffic or weather conditions are bad, slow down more. The same advice holds true for emergency runs. As many a grizzled sergeant has lectured: “You help nobody and only make the situation worse if you never get there.”
9) Talk to your passenger or partner without taking your eyes off the road. Even a momentary distraction can prove disastrous, especially if you are speeding.
10) Slow down at night and don’t overdrive the “seeing” distance of your headlights. The same advice holds true for snow, rain and fog.
11) Use extra caution when backing up. A large number of police vehicle accidents occur while the car is in reverse. Knowing this, many veteran officers try to park so that they can leave by driving forward, not backward.
12) Watch for driving hazards to develop as far down the roadway as you can see. Slow down and prepare to evade if you notice intersecting traffic, pedestrians or oddly-behaving vehicles.
13) Even while responding to an emergency, slow down or stop at intersections, especially if the traffic sign or light is against you. Remain calm, and realize that your emergency lights and sirens have limitations. Because many drivers are focused on sounds within their own vehicles, some will not hear the siren or be unable to pinpoint its direction until it’s too late.
14) Speaking of limitations, know the limitations of your vehicle and your driving skills. Your law enforcement vehicle is most likely a sedan with a special paint job and lights on top. It simply won’t perform like a high-performance race car. And most cops are not skilled race car drivers, either.
15) While on an emergency run, don’t pass another moving emergency vehicle unless you have direct communication with them and your move is anticipated. And, remember that other drivers are told to pull to the right when approached by an emergency vehicle. If you choose to pass on the right side of a moving vehicle, you stand a good chance of being hit if the driver suddenly reacts to your presence.
16) Most police uniforms are not easily seen in the midst of moving traffic, especially at night. Wear a bright reflective vest when you are directing traffic or spending time on the roadway. Use a bright flashlight to aid you in directing traffic. Realize that some drivers will be confused or will simply not see you. Be prepared to jump to safety. Shout a warning to other emergency personnel in the area. Do not stay with your vehicle if it is about to be hit. Sheet metal can be fixed a lot easier than you can.
17) If you’re working a very quiet tour alone, exit your vehicle and walk around from time to time. (Let your dispatcher know what you’re doing.) It’s a good way to check buildings and carry out some community-oriented policing contacts. Short breaks from driving can greatly increase your level of alertness.
18) Stay out of other drivers’ blind spots. If you cannot see his face, either directly or through his mirrors, he may not be able to see you. Positioning your moving vehicle behind another driver’s left shoulder for an extended period of time is a bad idea.
19) Don’t get too focused on your radio, computer or anything else while you are driving. Don’t get too fixated on a “police problem” outside of your vehicle, either. Bring the vehicle to a stop, and stare to your heart’s content.
20) If a crash is unavoidable, try to avoid a head-on collision or one that hits your driver’s door. Although there is no safe place to be hit, the right rear of your vehicle is preferable, assuming you‘re not carrying a passenger in that position. Drive defensively so that you don’t get hit in the first place.
This article didn’t cover high-speed pursuits, as those require supervised practice on a driving track. Suffice it to say that, of all of the results high-speed chases can produce, the majority are bad. Avoid them if possible.
“The disturbing trend of more officers being killed on our roadways appears to continue unabated,” said Craig W. Floyd, Chairman and CEO of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
"The law enforcement profession and the community as a whole–in particular, the motoring public–need to do everything possible to reverse these numbers and protect our men and women in blue.”
Floyd’s advice appears to be on target. We must all remain alert to the presence of our brothers of the badge on the streets around us, whether we are on-duty or off. Perhaps even more important, we must keep safety foremost in mind as we carry out our duties near highways. Besides being safe ourselves, we must act as role models for the general public. After all, safety is contagious.
About the Author
Gerald W. Garner is Chief of the Greeley, Colorado Police Department. A 38-year veteran of law enforcement, he has authored six books and over 200 magazine articles on law enforcement topics. He writes and teaches frequently on officer safety issues. Garner holds a Master’s Degree in Administration of Justice.