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September 30, 2013
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Travis Yates Police Driving:
Safety Behind the Wheel

with Travis Yates

3 words we must eliminate from 'officer down' reports

There is a terrible history with these three words, but we do not have to continue down the path of tragedy

When I received the news that Okfuskee County Deputy David Allford was the 71st officer killed in 2013, it was personal. You see, Oklahoma is where I call home. For close to 20 years I’ve been working with — and training with — those who wear the badge in the Sooner state. 

I did not know David, but I couldn’t help but notice a familiar trend in the details of his line of duty death. There were three deadly words on the screen: 

1.) “single”
2.) “responding” 
3.) “ejected”

I first discussed this troubling trend in 2008, and sadly the story continues to be told today. 

Our profession has a clear choice to make. We can continue dying in ways that do not have to be or we can correct it. I think we would all agree that the lessons we are writing in blood have to be learned and applied immediately.

1.) Single
“Single-vehicle collision” is too common a phrase. So far this year, half of all officers killed behind the wheel were in single-vehicle collisions. 

Sebastian County Sheriff’s Corporal Terry Johnson was the 20th hero killed in 2013, but we have no idea why. His patrol car was found overturned in a ditch in the middle of the night. The “why” of it should really bother us all. There is no bad guy to blame, and all we have to think about is a single-vehicle collision and what may have happened.

I’ve asked many traffic collision investigators what they think of when they respond to single-vehicle crashes and one word continually comes up: speed. 

Indeed, driving fast takes away all variables, but when you really analyze it, how much of a difference does it make? The difference between 80 mph and 100 mph over 10 miles is just 90 seconds. 

We should ask ourselves: When has 90 seconds really made a difference? 

I’m not saying there are not times that we as first responders must drive over the speed limit to situations, but we must always recognize the inherent danger of doing that. 

The phrase “single-vehicle collision” is a tragic reminder.

2.) Responding
In addition to “single vehicle collision” we also see accompanying that the word “responding.”

The largest fraternity in the world, we as law enforcement professionals will do whatever it takes to take care of one another. When we hear that radio transmission of a brother or sister in need, we will get there and we will get there quick. I’ve done it many times, and I’ve heard those beautiful sounds of sirens coming to me — and this is what I believe our lights and sirens are made for — but we must do everything we can to make sure the need is real. 

DeKalb County (Georgia) Officer Ivorie Klusmann was the 64th officer killed this year, and he died while going to assist another officer. Officer Klusmann had taken the information from a suspect when that suspect drove off. The pursuit was terminated by department policy, but another officer saw the car and Officer Klusmann responded to the area. He would never arrive, as he succumbed to injuries in a single-vehicle crash.

I will never tell anyone to not do what they can to help another officer, but knowing that we lose a lot of heroes behind the badge in this fashion, we owe it to those responding to us to be very specific on our needs. If at all possible, don’t just scream in the radio for help but explain what you have. If the situation at the scene has become less urgent, then tell those responding. 

A simple “Everyone can slow down ¬— the situation is under control” could be just the phrase to save a life.

3.) Ejected
NHTSA tells us that from 1980 to 2008, 19 percent of the officers killed behind the wheel were ejected. It’s the same way that Vernon Parish (La.) Deputy Steven Netherland was killed when his vehicle left the roadway. 

He was the 52nd officer killed this year. The lack of seatbelt use in our profession has been well documented. In another PoliceOne column I wrote about this topic, citing a 50 percent failure to wear rate among our officers. 

I fear it is much higher, and I regularly find myself at an agency talking about this issue because an administrator found out the wear rate was very low. I recently was told that a large agency that you would all recognize had just a five percent wear rate among their officers. 

Let me be clear. There will be many buried in that agency if they do not address the issue immediately.

Changing Course
There is a terrible history with these three words, but we do not have to continue down the path of tragedy. We must honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice by training those here now. I was never told in my academy or subsequent training about these issues. We owe it to today’s crime fighters to tell them about these dangers. 

A recent message I received after the loss of our 74th officer this year, Orange Beach (Ala.) Investigator Michael Stockwell, says it all:

“Mike Stockwell was ejected from his vehicle and was not wearing his seatbelt. The crash and [damage to] his vehicle was not incredibly severe. He likely would’ve lived even though the vehicle rolled over. It crushed him after ejecting him. It pisses me off that he wasn’t buckled up...I’m sick of the senseless loss.”

Indeed we should all be “pissed” about the death of Mike Stockwell and countless others. It is time to turn that righteous anger into action. As a profession, it is time to learn these blood lessons immediately. 

In honor of Stockwell, Netherland, Klusmann, Johnson, and many others, let us learn now.


About the author

Captain Travis Yates commands the Precision Driver Training Unit with the Tulsa, Okla. Police Department. He is a nationally recognized driving instructor and a certified instructor in tire deflation devices and the pursuit intervention technique. Capt. Yates has a Master of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Northeastern State University and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy. He is the owner of www.policedriving.com, a website dedicated to law enforcement driving issues and the Director of Ten-Four Ministries, dedicated to providing practical and spiritual support to the law enforcement community. You may contact Travis at Policedriving@yahoo.com.





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