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How police can set up a safe work zone at roadway incidents

Setting up a safer work zone begins with the proper placement of the first-arriving vehicle and expands from there


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By James Careless, P1 Contributor

No roadside work site is ever truly safe, due to the number of distracted, impaired and/or incompetent drivers on the road. Officers can help reduce risks through proper procedures, constant situational awareness and having an escape route ready if things go south.

Assess the scene first

No roadside work site is ever truly safe, due to the number of distracted, impaired and/or incompetent drivers on the road. (Photo/PoliceOne)
No roadside work site is ever truly safe, due to the number of distracted, impaired and/or incompetent drivers on the road. (Photo/PoliceOne)

As soon as an officer has stopped for a roadway incident – be it a vehicle check or traffic accident – they need to visually assess the scene in all directions before doing anything else.

In particular, the officer must determine the safest way to get around the incident scene, to minimize their chances of being hit by passing cars. They also need to judge the “lay of the land” to ensure they have “escape routes” planned out if an inattentive motorist careens into their car and/or the vehicle(s) parked on the roadside.

Block the scene smartly

According to Sergeant Brad Sprague of the Illinois State Police, who teaches safe Traffic Incident Management (TIM) to officers nationwide through ResponderSafety.com, a patrol car should be parked 50'-100' behind the first “incident vehicle” on the roadside in order to block the scene for safety reasons. If possible, the patrol car should be well off the road, and angled to direct traffic to go around the incident scene.

“The goal is to provide effective visual and physical cover, but not be so close that your patrol car will strike the incident vehicle if a passing driver hits you,” said Sprague. “On slow roads, you can turn your wheels so that the car will steer away from the scene if shoved forward by an impact. However, if the car is hit by a loaded dump truck on a highway, it will get pushed straightforward regardless.”

Reduce the lights

To keep from blinding drivers and first responders on location, keep the rear lights going on the blocking patrol car, but reduce forward facing emergency lighting and headlights. New emergency lighting technology enables the reduction of the intensity of rear-facing lights. Some older lighting controls have high power/low power switches while newer light heads have ambient light sensors that adjust lighting intensity automatically. Slower flash rates can also be enabled with newer lighting setups. All other vehicles should reduce their lighting as well. The goal is to clearly define the incident scene and steer cars around it, but not blind or confuse drivers in the process.

Wear a reflective vest

In a world of distracted drivers, anything that catches their eyes can reduce the chance of an officer being hit. “This is why you should always put on your reflective vest as soon as you leave the car,” said Sprague. (There are exceptions to wearing a high-visibility vest, such as on felony traffic stops. Check your department’s policy).

Set down cones, flares and emergency lights

Once the patrol car has been parked to block the scene and redirect traffic, exit the vehicle and set down traffic cones, flares and emergency lights behind its rear. Ideally, these should taper away from the car back to the curb. This will give drivers a clear visual message that they have to go around an upcoming accident scene.

If the accident has occurred on or past a blind curve, up a hill, or anywhere else that cannot be seen by distant oncoming traffic, place some flares and/or lights on the nearest clear stretch of road before the curve or hill. This will give drivers advance warning and enhance safety at the roadside work site.

Create a buffer lane

If at all possible, lay out flares, emergency lights and backup patrol cars with rear lights flashing to block off the lane next to the incident scene. This will create a “buffer lane” where first responders can move around more safely, as opposed to them squeezing past incident vehicles and passing cars.

Choose your path carefully

When working on the roadside, it is natural for officers to stay away from passing traffic. This is why many will walk between incident vehicles and medians/guard rails, rather than walk on the other side next to passing cars.

“It makes sense to avoid traffic whenever you can,” said Sprague. “But the space between an incident vehicle and median/guard rail is a potential death zone. If a passing car hits the incident vehicle, you could be crushed with no place to escape to. So sometimes walking close to traffic is the better alternative.”

Interview people safely

When interviewing an accident victim – or doing a DUI evaluation – an officer should not stand between the police car and the incident. Moving to a safer location will prevent the officer being sandwiched between the two vehicles if one of them is struck from behind.

Always be vigilant

The most reliable form of roadside safety is constant vigilance. Officers who scan the scene in general – and passing traffic in particular – have the best chances of spotting danger before it kills them. They may only get a split-second’s notice that a car is about to hit their location, but that split second can give them enough time to escape.

“You will never be safe working on the roadside, but you can make yourself and the people around you safer,” said Sprague. “Above all, never become complacent on the roadside. When you stop paying attention is when you put yourself most at risk.”


About the author
James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering law enforcement topics.

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