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Solutions for Safer Traffic Stops

By Richard J. Ashton, Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP

Traffic stops are essential to effective traffic law enforcement. But stopping on or near the roadway is one of the most dangerous facets of police work.

According to Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2002, in the 10-year period between 1993 and 2002, a total of 681 officers were killed accidentally.1 Of these deaths, 381-or 55.9 percent-resulted from automobile crashes, and another 111 occurred after being struck by vehicles, 73 of them while directing traffic or assisting motorists, and the remaining 38 while effecting traffic stops or participating in roadblocks. At least 15 officers have been killed during the past decade in fiery rear-end collisions involving their patrol vehicles.

Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee Mission

  • Explore and examine the causes, circumstances, commonalities, and preventability of high-speed, high energy rear-end collisions resulting in the death and injury of officers during traffic stops and other roadside contacts
  • Develop and recommend appropriate mitigation strategies relative to those issues studied by the three primary working groups

  • Create and market to law enforcement executives best practices and procedures for conducting professional and safe traffic stops and other roadside contacts

Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee Working Groups Focus

  • Vehicle Working Group: Study the design, manufacture, and use of police vehicles, including fleet composition, crash data collection and evaluation, effectiveness of bladders and onboard fire suppressant systems, installation of aftermarket equipment, conspicuity (lighting and markings), and whether there is a need for federal standards relating to public safety vehicles
  • Policy and Procedure Working Group: Ensure the manner of conducting professional and safe traffic stops and other roadside contacts becomes a nationally recognized officer safety issue; research, develop, and evaluate technology which limits police officer exposure, as well as the time expended, on traffic stops and other roadside contacts; and identify risk management practices to evaluate or to limit that exposure
  • Highway Environment and Design Working Group:Identify the data elements required to determine the magnitude of such problems as congestion, shoulder sufficiency, traffic, and weather; and analyze those data to ascertain appropriate engineering countermeasures, making recommendations to American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and Federal Highway Administration about appropriate countermeasures

Despite efforts to improve officers' operating environment, safety of officers during traffic stops and other roadside contacts remains in jeopardy. Rapid technological advances, including component shielding, onboard fire-suppressant systems, and vehicle conspicuity, may make police vehicles safer, but the driving population has changed and now includes more drunk drivers, more aggressive drivers, and more violent criminals. The vehicle mix also has been steadily transformed, with more heavy trucks and SUVs on the roads. Combined with higher speeds, these factors continue to make improving officer safety during roadside contacts a challenging task.

The IACP Highway Safety Committee (HSC), along with police agencies across the country, recognizes this dilemma and seeks to improve the working environment of police officers. In 2003, in cooperation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the HSC established the Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee (LESSS) to address officer safety during traffic stops and other roadside contacts.

LESSS's membership includes 24 experienced safety experts drawn from the federal government, vehicle manufacturers, police labor organizations, state and provincial highway patrols or state police departments, and local and county law enforcement agencies.2 Three working groups have been formed and are tasked with studying diverse aspects of officer safety during traffic stops and other roadside contacts.

During the HSC 2004 midyear meeting, LESSS's working groups presented a status report that included findings, recommendations, and a PowerPoint presentation; they are available on the LESSS Web site, (

This article reports to the law enforcement community the findings and recommendations of LESSS to date.

Highway Environment
and Design Group

When not properly designed, the highways and streets that officers patrol, the uniforms they wear, and the vehicles they drive can contribute to hazardous situations when officers are taking enforcement actions, investigating traffic crashes, or assisting stranded motorists. Problem areas can include roadway design, existence and width of shoulders and lanes, exceptions to design standards, enforcement platforms, collision reporting and pullout investigation sites, median barriers, officer visibility, and vehicle conspicuity. All of these factors can contribute to-or detract from-a safe working environment.

Highway Engineering: Traditionally, law enforcement has not been engaged during the highway design planning. Even though most officers are not engineers, they are stakeholders in highway design planning. Their practical experience enables them to identify hazards and to recommend improvements. The subcommittee encourages law enforcement executives to become active with their highway planning and design units to incorporate necessary safety features in initial design plans.

Congested highways and freeways require traffic engineers to seek solutions. The unfortunate recent experience has been that traffic engineers' often have chosen to expedite ever greater numbers of vehicles on existing congested freeways, especially those in areas with high-density populations, by converting emergency breakdown lanes into much needed traffic lanes.

Other solutions have been reducing the width of shoulders, leaving insufficient space for handling emergencies and enforcing traffic laws. The reduction or loss of shoulder or emergency parking lanes has led to the elimination of traffic enforcement in many instances. The engineering solution to eliminate the emergency lane poses a significantly higher risk to officers' safety, compromises their ability to conduct proper investigations and appropriate enforcement activities, delays their arrival, as well as that of other first responders, at incidents requiring their presence, and increases the risk of secondary crashes.

One engineering feature that can help is the emergency turnout or pulloff areas. Emergency pulloffs, pullouts, turnouts, or enforcement platforms are areas that are away from the traffic flow, that should accommodate at least two emergency vehicles, that are spaced periodically along controlled access highways lacking continuous shoulders wide enough for enforcement and other activities, and that allow officers more safely to investigate crashes, undertake enforcement actions, and assist motorists.

These wide areas beside traffic lanes should be included in the design plans both of freeways that will undergo major renovations and of new multilane roadways.

Sonic nap alert patterns (SNAPs)-better known as run-off-road rumble strips-are another engineering feature that should be used consistently on highways and freeways. SNAPs can reduce the possibility of a high-speed, rear-end crash by alerting inattentive or impaired drivers who encroach on shoulders or who have become visibly fixed on a stopped police vehicle that they are approaching on the shoulder. The U.S. Department of Transportation and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) support the SNAPs strategy.

Visibility of Officers: Performing their myriad responsibilities on highways that have shrunken shoulders, in inclement weather, or under reduced lighting requires high visibility of officers for safety. The immediate identification of officers (and of others who must work on highways) is critical to their survival, for the quicker they are recognized, the more time motorists have to react appropriately. The American National Standards Institute Inc. recognized the need for performance specifications for high-visibility safety apparel and issued them in June 1999, ANSI/ISEA 107-1999.3 Garments that meet this standard, including traffic vests and raincoats, are vital to ensuring the safety and visibility of officers working on or near highways in emergency situations.

Consideration must be given to visibility of the incident, as well as to its location, if officers are engaged in tasks requiring prolonged exposure on high-speed highways. Equipment needs to be deployed to signal motorists of the presence of emergency and law enforcement vehicles occupying a lane of traffic or shoulder. Low-cost, temporary measures, such as traffic cones, to protect officers and vehicles for brief periods often prove ineffective; rather, the guidelines of an up-to-date incident management system (IMS) should be followed for the extended closure of a traffic lane or shoulder on a high-volume, high-speed highway.

Incident Management System: Statewide and regional incident management systems-encompassing all of the myriad agencies typically involved in detecting, responding to, handling, and clearing highway incidents-mitigate the problems that can arise from even a minor crash. The development and implementation of such comprehensive management strategies can organize these occurrences and can reduce the potential for injury to those on-the-scene workers responsible for resolving them. The Model Procedures Guide for Highway Incidents, developed by the National Fire Service Incident Management System Consortium, serves as an excellent resource upon which to build an all-inclusive IMS.4

Legislative Action: Legislation is another means by which states have attempted to ensure the safety of law enforcement officers and other first responders. Twenty-four states have enacted so-called move-over laws that require motorists to move into the middle or left lane as they approach a police vehicle or officer on the shoulder. These laws vary in terms of their provisions and penalties, but their underlying impetus is to enforce safety as a matter of law, not as a matter of courtesy.

LESSS is also investigating the inclusion of law enforcement in Give 'Em a Brake campaigns, as well as the effectiveness of doubling fines for certain hazardous violations. A strong educational component accompanying new legislature can heighten the awareness of motorists to the hazards of stopped vehicles on high-speed roadways.

Policy and Procedure Group
The Policy and Procedure Group of LESSS is studying collision prevention strategies and identifying best practices for safe traffic stops and other roadside contacts. Accurate information concerning vehicle and officer placement during traffic stops, as well as the resultant crash outcomes, is essential to evaluating their effectiveness. Currently, both the NHTSA Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and the FBI reports of officers killed and assaulted can provide only limited data concerning officer deaths in traffic incidents. Concrete information about specific roadside locations; vehicle, highway, and officer characteristics; and the precise circumstances of reported deaths, injuries, near misses, and property damage will be required before definitive solutions can be recommended.

LESSS collected from 25 law enforcement agencies in different parts of the country with varying sworn strengths and service characteristics traffic stop policies and procedures and is studying the variations and commonalities among them.5 Vehicle positioning in a traffic stop is basically a tactical decision that is influenced by highway design and traffic volume. However, there are common denominators with respect to the determination of suitable enforcement locations, the orientation of police and suspect vehicles, and the approach by the pedestrian officer. LESSS intends to develop a roll-call video demonstrating the consequences of standard traffic stops, relying on physics rather than on agencies' changing policies and training which LESSS believes rightly should be determined by law enforcement executives and instructors.

Generally, all agencies studied stress the importance of selecting a safe location at which to make a stop. The exact location is influenced by numerous conditions, such as terrain, traffic volume and congestion, visibility and sight distance, available protection, weather conditions, violation severity, and violator behavior. Most agencies recommend stopping police vehicles 10-15 feet behind the violators' vehicles. As a matter of fact, for a right shoulder stop, the Arizona CVPI Blue Ribbon Panel6 and the New York State Police7 both recommend allowing 15 feet between the police and violator's vehicles, parking the police vehicle parallel to the roadway, offsetting the police vehicle 50 percent of its width to the left of the violator's, and turning its wheels to the right.

Some agencies expect violators to remain inside their vehicles, while others prefer that violators stand with officers. In all cases, however, officers and violators should avoid standing directly between vehicles. This procedure, however, creates difficulties for departments using in-car video cameras to record traffic stops, especially the administration of standard field sobriety tests in connection with suspected DUI stops.

Certain philosophical differences also exist between these agencies' policies and procedures in terms of police vehicle placement and orientation: distance between vehicles, setting the parking brake, wheel alignment (front wheels turned left or right), vehicle offset, approaching the violator's vehicle (driver or passenger side), and in-vehicle citation writing.

The blue ribbon panel conducted a national survey in 2002 and found that 75 percent of officers parked their police vehicles offset left of the violators' vehicles, that 72.5 percent of them parked behind the violators' vehicles, that 65 percent of them approached stopped vehicles on the driver's side, and that 46.2 percent of them reported turning their vehicles' front wheels to the left when stopped on the right shoulder.8

LESSS suggests that officers minimize their exposure to passing traffic, as well as their time in cruisers, and prepare citations and other documents outside their vehicles whenever feasible. LESSS recommends that traffic stops take place as far away from traffic as possible; and that driveways, parking lots, rest areas, pulloffs, and other areas beyond the right shoulder be used whenever available.

LESSS recently conducted computer simulations employing Engineering Dynamics Corporation's Human, Vehicle, and Environment (HVE) software and concurs with the so-called safer zone concept identified during earlier simulations undertaken by the blue ribbon panel and Ford. The safer zone on right shoulder stops extends about six feet straight out from the police vehicle's front passenger door. Safer zones for officers and other pedestrians, however, do not exist from the front of police vehicles forward and beyond violators' vehicles when police vehicles are rear-ended at high speeds. This finding underscores the danger in approaching violators' vehicles from either the right or the left side.

Rigorous training, retraining, and supervision are crucial to ensuring officer safety. Standard policies and procedures for conducting traffic stops and for effecting other roadside contacts should be emphasized during entrance-level training and should be reinforced during in-service and remedial training courses. LESSS has identified two basic approaches:

  • After analyzing the videos of 111 traffic stops, the New York State Police believes that its troopers initially should be taught a one-configuration-fits-all procedure for low-risk stops and, once mastered, should be exposed to alternative approaches to specific situations.9
  • Agencies should teach their officers the fundamental procedures relative to location selection, vehicle placement and orientation, officer position, and violator approach. However, because each traffic encounter is unique and dynamic, and since uncertainty always is present, one size may not fit all. Consequently, such training should include "when" and "what if" cognitive decision-making skills, so risks that might be encountered may be balanced against appropriate in-policy responses, and so the basic procedures may be safely adapted to varying circumstances and conditions.

Regardless of the approach selected, LESSS emphasizes that supervisors must actively ensure that their subordinates constantly adhere to the policies and procedures, so the inherent danger and the threat to officer safety in traffic encounters are minimized.

Vehicle Group
Keeping with LESSS's mission to create a safer working environment for law enforcement in highway safety and traffic-related activities, law enforcement certainly needs to convey to police vehicle manufacturers its safety expectations relating to the vehicles that officers drive. This includes working with aftermarket vendors on the types of accessories, equipment, and conspicuity that law enforcement desires, as well as on the safest locations for such items to be mounted.

The Vehicle: In 2002, at the blue ribbon panel's request, Ford committed to rear-impact, vehicle-to-vehicle crash testing of its CVPI at 75 miles per hour. LESSS expects that testing at that speed will continue since at least 75 miles per hour reflects the work environment of officers on high-speed highways. General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, and the North Company are aware of LESSS's expectation that the police vehicles they produce be tested at that speed.

Ford studied vehicles involved in high-speed, high-impact rear-end crashes to identify potential sources of fuel tank punctures from vehicle parts, including the rear axle components, differential bolts, fuel tank straps, and emissions canister bolts. Ford then developed shields to protect the fuel tank. It evaluated these shields in crash simulations and in two 75-mile-per-hour vehicle-to-vehicle crash tests and confirmed the effectiveness of the shields in reducing the risk of fuel tank punctures, reporting no tank punctures during the second test. Today, approximately 356,000-or 90 percent of active-duty-CVPIs have been equipped with fuel tank shields. The results of actual high-speed rear-end crashes involving CVPIs equipped with the shielding have been mixed. An Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) cruiser was struck from behind at 65 miles per hour and experienced no tank punctures and no fire. A Nevada Highway Patrol car was rear-ended by an SUV and experienced no punctures and no fire. However, a Missouri State Highway Patrol officer was killed in May 2003 when his shield-equipped CVPI was rear-ended and burned; NHTSA reported that the fuel tank was not responsible for that tragedy. Nonetheless, the incident clearly indicates that much more work remains to be done to protect officers.

Aftermarket Equipment: Eighty-five percent of those agencies surveyed by the blue ribbon panel in 2002 never had developed procedures for packing cruisers' trunks with equipment and tools.10 Agencies have experienced fuel tank punctures from floor jacks, pry bars, lug wrenches, metal boxes, crow bars, and other similar items. Ford developed its Trunk Pack and trunk equipment mounting guide to address this issue.11 Ford conducted five 75-mile-per-hour vehicle-to-vehicle crash tests of the Trunk Pack filled, in accordance with its trunk packing considerations, with 200 pounds in equipment and tools and had no punctures of the Trunk Pack. LESSS believes that the Trunk Pack, the trunk equipment mounting guide, and the trunk packing considerations can improve officer safety and provide flexibility in the transport of necessary equipment and tools; and that all police vehicle manufacturers should make them available. LESSS also supports consistent supervisory inspections to identify what officers actually are transporting in their vehicles, as well as the manner in which they are carrying it. To this end, the Florida Highway Patrol's newly revised monthly safety inspection report is available at (

The CVPI has been tested in 75-mile-per-hour vehicle-to-vehicle rear-end collisions without any fuel system punctures, but actual crashes resulting in fires have not been eliminated. Ford evaluated military, race car, and aftermarket fire suppression systems and found that none was acceptable for use in law enforcement vehicles. However, Ford has announced that onboard fire suppression technology will be available for its 2005 model year based on the following tenets: any such system must activate automatically at the location where the cruiser stops, which in a 75-mile-per-hour crash could be in excess of 100 feet from the point of impact, and must prevent the fire from reigniting. LESSS believes that although Ford's technology will allow officers additional time to exit their vehicles, it is not a panacea; LESSS will continue to explore this issue with Ford and the other vehicle manufacturers.

Ford still is evaluating fuel tank bladders. However, it has found thus far no evidence that bladders would reduce the likelihood of fuel leakage, in the event of fuel tank punctures. Ford's testing tends to indicate that bladders have short lives, require high maintenance over a vehicle's life, and are unsuitable for mass production.

Visual Conspicuity: The goal of visual conspicuity essentially is to enhance motorists' ability to detect lighting displays and vehicle markings and to react appropriately to them. Simply put, conspicuity aims to convey an officer's message to motorists: I am present; I am stopped; slow down and stay away from me. A number of law enforcement agencies have exerted considerable effort in this realm:

  • The Arizona DPS hosted in 2002 a demonstration of advanced conspicuity concepts in which Dr. Stephen S. Solomon, an ophthalmologist from Owego, New York, assisted. Observers indicated that LEDs (light emitting diodes) appeared to provide a fairly narrow focus and were too bright; that strobes were too bright and could confuse approaching drivers; that rotating halogens were the most acceptable; and that red and blue lights-in combination with amber lights-were preferred.

  • The Florida Highway Patrol concluded in March 2004 its prototype lighting evaluation in which three lightbar manufacturers participated. Each prototype included two different lighting patterns to assist approaching motorists in determining whether the police vehicle was moving or stopped. Only LEDs were used to reduce both the electrical load and the required maintenance.

Moreover, LEDs allowed for the optimization of color output (only while stopped) in accordance with the amount of ambient light. When the vehicle was parked, the lightbar displayed a simpler warning pattern that still provided approaching motorists with ample warning that was less distracting and that assisted motorists in perceiving the location of the vehicle and its size.

On the one hand, red was more easily perceived during daylight hours and produced more output to assist with daylight perception. On the other hand, blue was more easily perceived at night, so output was reduced to decrease the risk of night blindness without any loss of its ability to warn motorists. A photocell determined the color displayed by virtue of the amount of ambient light.

A red override was provided for impaired visibility situations, such as smoke, fog, and haze. The arrow function was removed from the lightbar and relocated inside the rear window; the new large rectangle was more easily seen. Turning the red and blue LEDs on simultaneously produced the takedown lights, which covered the entire width of the lightbar and were much brighter than the current halogen bulbs.

  • The Arizona DPS revised the markings on its fleet. Taking cues from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, a reflectorized and angled blue and white stripe was added to its vehicles' rear bumpers. The size of the letters composing the words "highway patrol" was increased to command greater attention and to identify more clearly the vehicle. Reflective markings outline each vehicle's body, aiding both in recognition and in depth perception. The Pennsylvania State Police also is experimenting with reflectorized rear bumper chevrons and other markings.

The Florida Highway Patrol is exploring the feasibility of developing a supplementary siren that would use a low-frequency signal (just above that of the car stereos one easily hears at traffic lights with all windows closed) to warn motorists of approaching emergency vehicles. Siren prototypes were included in its recent lighting evaluations.

LESSS's membership has exerted a tremendous effort, but its accomplishments must be viewed as preliminary findings in an ongoing challenge to enhance the safety of law enforcement officers in all aspects of traffic stops and other roadside contacts. LESSS's membership would be remiss, indeed, if it did not recognize and thank members of the IACP and NHTSA for their commitments to become working partners in this effort to overcome these tragedies.

1 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2002 (2003), (, May 4, 2004.
2 Participating federal agencies are the FBI, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and NHTSA; the vehicle manufacturers involved are DaimlerChrysler, the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and the North Company; and participating state and provincial police agencies include those from Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.
3 International Safety Equipment Association, ANSI /ISEA 107-1999 American National Standard for High Visibility Safety Apparel, (, June 16, 2004.
4 National Fire Service Incident Management System Consortium, Model Procedures Guide for Highway Incidents (2004) (, June 16, 2004.
5 Five from state highway patrols and state police agencies, five from county sheriff's offices, and 15 from three categories of local police departments-small, midsize, and large
6 Director Dennis A. Garrett, "Crown Victoria Police Interceptor Blue Ribbon Panel," March 2003 Update [PowerPoint presentation], Arizona Department of Public Safety, 28.
7 New York State Police, Patrol Vehicle Protocol and Safety Committee, "Safe Stops: An Analysis of Collisions, Practices, and Patrol Vehicle Positioning During Traffic Stops (Draft Report)" (2003), 61.
8 Garrett, 25.
9 Patrol Vehicle Protocol and Safety Committee, 60-61.
10 Ford Motor Company, "CVPI Blue Ribbon Panel: Panel Topics-Updated" (2002), (, May 5, 2004.
11 Ford Motor Company, "CVPI Blue Ribbon Panel: Panel Topics-Police Interceptor Trunk Pack Now Available" (2002), (, May 5, 2004; Ford Motor Company, "CVPI Blue Ribbon Panel: Panel Topics-Police Interceptor Trunk Equipment Mounting Guide" (2002), (, May 5, 2004.



From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 7, July 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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