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Study: How cops are dying in vehicles

Understanding NHTSA's findings on police vehicle crashes

Earlier this year, a report was issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) titled, “Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes.” The report was issued without fanfare and for the most part was unknown to most officers, trainers, and administrators.

Statistics are not exactly the most interesting topic of discussion but the information in this unassuming report should be discussed at every squad meeting that takes place in law enforcement. Why does that need to happen? The first paragraph of the report explains it explicitly: “...the recent trend shows that motor vehicle crashes have become the major cause of fatality of law enforcement officers.”

While I am by no means a statistician (or even a researcher!), few years ago I saw a trend that I could not ignore: 60 percent of the fatality collisions in law enforcement in a 12 month period died in one vehicle collisions with the majority of those collisions being with a fixed object. Longtime readers of PoliceOne will recall that I wrote about this more than three years ago in an article entitled How we die — the untold story

It was a myth that our officers were dying in vehicles at the hands of others. While that does happen, it is a small portion and not even close to the majority of the time. I was concerned when I wrote the article. How would our profession take these facts especially when I was placing blame on our profession for many of these deaths? While some didn’t like what I said, most were thankful and renewed their resolve to turn this epidemic around. I can remember going through multiple Internet searches and studying over documents to be as accurate as I could on the data from just one year. It was a massive and exhaustive effort. That effort was nothing compared to what NHTSA has given us in this report.

The Data
Unlike my feeble efforts three years ago, this report not only pulled data from the Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted report published by the FBI each year, it dug into the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) which is maintained by NHTSA and is the only database that contains detailed information on fatality collisions. One of the portions of information gathered by FARS is whether the vehicle involved was a law enforcement vehicle.

This data provides an insight like we have never seen before. The data was analyzed from 1980 to 2008 and a huge benefit was the breaking down of three time periods within this three decade span. Many categories showed what many of you already know. The last decade has revealed that the trend of fatalities in a vehicle has grown and our actions behind the wheel have become more reckless and not less during the 30 year span the data was analyzed.

Fixed Objects
I first discussed this troubling trend in that article a few years ago and this document supports what I saw then. In the 1980s, fatal collisions with fixed objects such as a guard rail, bridge, tree or traffic barrier was 29 percent. In the 1990s that jumped to 37 percent. In this most recent decade it is 41 percent. I’ve asked dozens of traffic investigators what they would think if they were tasked with investigating a citizen that ran off the roadway or struck a fixed object and all of them have told me they would likely see a driver that drove too fast for the conditions they were under. It appears that is exactly what we are doing in regards to driving and it is getting worse, not better.

I have often said this is a good thing and then I get some very perplexed looks. It is a good thing because we can stop this. We can make the decision to not drive too fast for conditions, to be more cautious and there is no doubt that officer lives would be saved. If you don’t think this is possible just ask yourself when was the last time you arrived in time to actually “prevent” a crime or when was the last time you caught the suspect because you drove way too fast? My experience is that it is very rare that a few minutes made a difference. Those few minutes, driving at a more reasonable speed, could save your life.

It does not matter if you work in a busy city or a rural location. 46 percent of the fatalities occurred in urban environments and 54 percent occurred in rural environments. I often tell others that our officers that work in rural areas are more at risk because they have to cover more area and encounter more locations they are not familiar with. This data is split and it doesn’t matter where you work, your risks remain the same.

We often think that most fatalities occur on curved roads with wet or icy conditions. The data shows that most officer involved fatalities occurred on straight roads (70 percent) with no precipitation (85 percent) on the roadway. There is no driving route that we can take for granted. The conditions could be perfect and tragedy can still occur.

The report list a variety of causes for the fatalities but the top two should be no surprise — 22 percent ran off the roadway and 22 percent were going too fast for conditions. Of course there are often multiple causes but the data input asks for just one. By far from this report and my own experience through many years of looking at this topic there are two actions that kill officers more than anything else. The first is speed and the second is not wearing a seatbelt.

By far the most troubling aspect of this report was the lack of seatbelt usage in those officers that died behind the wheel. In the 1980s we would expect a high number and it was — 53 percent of the officers killed were not wearing seatbelts. The advocacy and benefits of seatbelt usage would surely decrease this number in future years, but it is disappointing that the impact was not greater. Ff those killed in the 1990s, 31 percent were not using seatbelts. Worse, it is unbelievable to think that number actually went up since the year 2000. Incredibly, 42 percent of the officers killed from 2000-2008 were not wearing seatbelts! Additionally, it is unknown since 2000 what eight percent of the officers had done in regards to seatbelts.

This gives a possible failure to wear rate of 50 percent today. This is a shameful figure and one all of us must take ownership of. Consider the reality that hundreds of officers would be alive today if every officer would simply click their seatbelt on. There are kids growing up without parents and spouses without their loved one simply because the most basic of all safety devices were not worn. As a profession this is our problem and we must do something now.

Officers At Risk
While I would be remiss to not acknowledge that vehicle fatalities do not discriminate between agency, time, age and activity, it is important to know who is at the most risk and this report clearly defines that throughout the pages.

• On average, 44 officers died a year in collisions in the 1980s — that number was 45 in the 1990s, but since 2000 that number jumped to an average of 62 per year with 48 percent of all officer fatalities being from vehicle collisions
• Officers in California (107) and Texas (81) had the most fatalities behind the wheel
• Officers between the ages of 30-39 years of age were at the highest risk, making up 36 percent of the fatalities
• The majority of the fatality collisions occurred at night — between 2000 hours and 0459 hours, with the most dangerous times being between 2300and 0200 (if you work evenings, and especially graveyard, take note and be vigilant — less traffic means we have the opportunity to drive faster but we must do that responsibly!)
• May is the most dangerous month for law enforcement behind the wheel with 11 percent of the fatalities occurring in this month (December was the safest)
• Responding to locations with high speeds places us at the most risk — a full 42 percent of fatalities occurred while the officer was responding to a location with lights and siren in operation (lights and siren will trigger a stress response and we must do everything we can to not let those stressors affect our judgment)

Don’t be a Characteristic
Let me close by giving each of you a challenge. What will you do with this information? Will you read it, consider it a bunch of numbers and move on with your day or will you see it for what it is? A tragic picture of how our profession has missed the mark or how we have failed in being vigilant and taking the issue of driving serious enough to reverse this trend. The work ahead is not for the faint of heart. We must look in the mirror at our own actions and our own agencies. We must take a look at our policies, revise training and work in a tireless manner to make a difference. It can happen and this report can serve as a framework to begin your mission.

Let me encourage you to launch that mission so the next decade looks vastly different than this one.

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