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Highway Safety Initiatives

Reducing Officers’ Accidental Deaths

By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP

In 2012, 95 law enforcement officers made the supreme sacrifice in the United States, which is the fewest number of officers killed in at least 26 years (1987–2012).1 While reducing line-of-duty deaths is always desirable, each officer’s death still represents the needless and permanent loss of a spouse, parent, child, sibling, neighbor, and coworker.

Despite the advent of improved technologies and much clearer understandings of the risks that officers face daily, historic trends suggest that law enforcement in terms of accidental—as opposed to felonious—deaths is becoming even more treacherous, as Figure 1 depicts. While an average of 6 more law enforcement officers per year were killed accidentally than feloniously over the past 26 years (1987–2012), that annual average doubled to 13 during the past decade (2003–2012). Those officers who were killed accidentally in the decade 2003–2012 were, on average, 38 years old with 11 years’ service, data which remained virtually constant for the past two decades.2

These trends are unacceptable. Police chief executives possess a duty, as well as the authority, to safeguard their officers. Accordingly, they must exert greater responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of their officers and must hold their subordinates accountable for adherence to the safety measures adopted. To this end, this column offers considerations related to mitigating the activities that are contributing to officers’ accidental deaths.

Mandate Seat Belt Use

For 29 years (1980–2008), 42 percent of officers killed in passenger vehicle crashes were not wearing seat belts.3 Only about half of police officers interviewed for the soon-to-be-published Northern California Study wore their seat belts all the time.”4 The failure to buckle up appears to be underreported: only 7 of 213 officers who died between 2004 and 2008 were not wearing their seat belts, yet 28 of them were ejected from their automobiles.5

Ironically, the vast majority of today’s young recruits grew up buckling seat belts. National seat belt use stood at 58 percent in 1994 around the time many of them were born and rose to 86 percent by 2012 when they began applying for law enforcement positions.6 However, many of them have been “untaught” by field training officers or experienced officers or believe that serving as a law enforcement officer is a license to unbuckle. Regrettably, that deadly attitude is tolerated—and even encouraged—by their superiors.

Officers’ not wearing seat belts is at least unethical—and clearly unlawful in many jurisdictions—and is contrary to Article 4, Utilization of Proper Means to Gain Proper Ends, of the Canons of Police Ethics: “Violations of law or disregard for public safety and property on the part of an officer are intrinsically wrong; they are self-defeating in that they instill in the public mind a like disposition . . .” and to the 1956 Law Enforcement Code of Ethics: “I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service.”7

Twenty-two officers died in passenger vehicle crashes in 2012.8 Applying the aforementioned 42 percent to those deaths, nine of them arguably were unbuckled, but their lives might have been spared had they been wearing seat belts. Imagine the number of lives that could be saved and the number of serious injuries that could be avoided if all police chief executives immediately ordered all their officers to wear seat belts all the time and held supervisors and officers fully accountable for compliance with the order.

Those who have not viewed the IACP Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee’s (LESSS’) video Is Today Your Day?, which approaches unbuckled officers’ unnecessary deaths from the perspective of their coworkers and loved ones, need to do so, along with those about whom they care.9 The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training’s (CalPOST’s) SAFE [Situation-Appropriate, Focused, and Educated] Driving Campaign also illustrates this issue in Did You Know? “Choices.”10 It is far more important now than ever before to wear seat belts because today’s technology operates under the assumption that the seat belt is properly buckled when the airbag activates, and in the event it is not, serious injuries can be sustained. A seat belt has made a difference to an officer’s safety only when it was properly worn.

Decrease Speed

By and large, officers responding to emergency calls for service intend to arrive on the scene quickly in order to do good—to apprehend a dangerous felon, to back up a fellow officer in need of assistance, or to render lifesaving aid to a crash or crime victim. They do not anticipate being involved in a crash in which they are seriously injured or killed or seriously injure or kill others, never arriving on the scene to render any assistance whatsoever. Regrettably, excessive speed and unbuckled officers combine far too frequently to trigger a catastrophe. As a matter of fact, “driving too fast for conditions or in excess of posted speed” was the second most common driver-related crash factor for officers over a 27-year period (1982–2008), immediately behind “failure to keep in proper lane or running off road.”11

Police chief executives recognize that bad things will happen from time to time, no matter how many preventive efforts they introduced beforehand in terms of policy, training, and supervision. However, police chief executives need to commit to a culture of safety by creating and institutionalizing policies to regulate the speed and manner of expedited responses, in addition to mandating the wearing of seat belts. They need to ask themselves: At what speeds are their officers capable of safely driving the cruisers to which they are assigned on typical roadways within their jurisdictions?

The top speed of the 2014 police package models evaluated by the Michigan State Police range from 131 miles per hour (mph) to 155 mph.12 The Los Angeles County, California, Sheriff’s Department, which has been evaluating police vehicles since 1974, incorporated into its program in 1997 an urban pursuit course, consisting of multiple city blocks punctuated by the various types of turns normally found in most inner city environments to simulate the conditions encountered by most officers working in typical city streets.13

Like Maryland, most states allow law enforcement officers operating emergency vehicles to “[p]ass a red or stop signal, a stop sign, or a yield sign, but only after slowing down as necessary for safety” and to “[e]xceed any maximum speed limit, but only so long as the driver does not endanger life or property,” but they impose on those officers “the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons.”14 If police chief executives required officers to stop at all intersections and limited the speeds at which they respond, the safety of officers and civilian drivers alike would increase, jurisdictions’ liability would decrease, and officers would actually arrive on the scene of incidents to render assistance. For example, an officer responding 10 miles at 100 mph may arrive 90 seconds sooner than one traveling the same distance at 80 mph; an officer driving five miles at 80 mph may arrive 75 seconds quicker than one traveling the same distance at 60 mph. When has arriving mere seconds earlier actually made a significant difference? However, an officer who drives beyond his capacity and faster than the highway will accommodate may never arrive to benefit anyone. CalPOST’s SAFE Driving Campaign underscores the consequences of speeding in Did You Know? “10-97.”15

Clark County, Nevada, Sheriff Douglas C. Gillespie limited speeds to a maximum of 20 mph over the posted limit (pursuits exempted) for Code 3 (lights and siren) emergency responses to situations that involve imminent danger to citizens where officers’ arrival might save lives, to circumstances in which another officer requires assistance to control a volatile situation, and to conditions where officers are acting on reliable information as to a felony-in-progress.16 Similarly, former Illinois State Police Director Larry G. Trent set the maximum speeds by which troopers were permitted to exceed the posted speed limit in responding to Code 2 and Code 3 calls at 20 mph and 30 mph, respectively, without supervisory permission.17

Wear High-Visibility Vests and Limit Time on Roadways

Between 1987 and 2012, 293 officers were struck and killed by vehicles; this averages out to nearly one officer killed each month. Of these officers, 61 percent were “directing traffic, assisting motorist, etc.,” while the remaining 39 percent were involved in a “traffic stop, roadblock, etc.” The three-to-two ratio of “directing traffic, assisting motorist, etc.” to “traffic stop, roadblock, etc.” held over the past 26 years, as Figure 2 depicts.18

Law enforcement officers directing traffic; investigating crashes; or handling lane closures, obstructed roadways, and disasters on all public roads are mandated to wear high-visibility safety apparel meeting either the Class 2 or 3 ANSI/ISEA 107–2010 standard in the American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear or the ANSI/ISEA 207-2111 standard in the American National Standard for High-Visibility Public Safety Vests.19

Law enforcement officers must maintain situational awareness in terms of the environment in which they operate and, accordingly, must limit the time they actually spend on roadways. For example, they must strive to eliminate the longstanding practice of completing paperwork on the scene of highway incidents and need to be taught to practice traffic incident management. To the degree that law enforcement and other disciplines effectively, efficiently, and safely prepare for—and respond to—the primary traffic incident, congestion, as well as the frequency and seriousness of secondary crashes, will be reduced; and first responders will live to respond to the next call for service.20

Reduce Distractions

Distracted driving is focusing on anything other than driving, while driving; and 10 percent of 2011’s overall fatalities—3,331 deaths—were attributed to crashes involving distracted drivers.21 Law enforcement officers are human and, as such, are not immune to the physiology that affects all human beings.

Quick looks away from the road should be limited to less than two seconds, and there is a statistically significant increase in crash risk with glances that are two seconds or longer.22 Notably, sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road an average of two to three times longer— four to six seconds.23 The duties of a law enforcement officer can involve types of multitasking that divert an officer’s attention away from driving. Of course, attempting to undertake at least two tasks simultaneously often compromises one’s ability to complete either effectively, which is particularly worrisome when one of those tasks is driving.24 The myriad activities that may distract a driving officer include activating emergency equipment; attempting to prevent citations/reports or a briefcase from flying off the passenger seat during a pursuit or an expedited response; entering queries into, acknowledging call-for-service and other dispatches, and monitoring messages on mobile data terminals; acting on radar, lidar (light detection and ranging), and license-plate-reader alerts; and talking on the police radio. Like their civilian counterparts, some officers will be sending personal text messages or talking on cell phones.

Police chief executives need to recognize and address the dangers to their officers posed by distracted driving, which is highlighted in the SAFE Driving Campaign’s Did You Know? “Distracted.”25 A number of agencies already have done so. For example, Washington enacted legislation, effective June 10, 2010, to make texting and handheld cell phone use a primary offense. Even though law enforcement is exempt from this legislation, the Washington State Patrol proactively applied it to its troopers by agency order.26 Additionally, the Florida Highway Patrol’s “Wireless Voice/Data Communications” policy clearly sets forth the overarching principle for the use of a cell phone or another wireless communication device: “Members must be able to maintain both hands on the steering wheel while the vehicle is in motion and using the device.”27 Finally, the City of Cheyenne, Wyoming, enacted an ordinance in 2009 that allows only hands-free cell phone use, a law from which its police officers were not exempted.28

The needless loss of law enforcement officers’ lives in accidental—as opposed to felonious—incidents is ripe for intervention by police chief executives who possess the duty and the authority to mitigate officers’ wearing seat belts or high-visibility vests, speeding, reducing the time they spend on highways, and engaging in distracted driving. Act now to save officers’ lives. ♦

1Federal Bureau of Investigation, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted [LEOKA] 2012, tables 1 and 61, October 2013,, (November 11, 2013); LEOKA 2006, tables 1 and 59, October 2007,, (November 11, 2013); LEOKA 1996, Tables 3 and 23, (November 11, 2013).
2LEOKA 2012, table 57, (accessed November 13, 2013).
3Eun Yong Noh, Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes (January 2011), DOT HS 811 411, 24, (accessed November 13, 2013).
4Dr. Kevin Wehr made this point during his summary of his “Northern California Study” at the November 19, 2013, meeting of the SAFE Driving Campaign in San Diego, California.
5Leslie Underwood, of the LEOKA Program Development Group’s Crime Statistics Management Unit, emailed these data to the author on April 9, 2009.
6“Seat Belt Use in 2012—Overall Results,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Traffic Safety Facts (November 2012): DOT HS 811 691, 1, (accessed November 14, 2013).
7International Association of Chiefs of Police, “Training Key #15: Professional Police Ethics,” (1964): 1, 3.
8LEOKA 2012, table 61.
9IACP LESSS, Is Today Your Day? 22:47 (2010), (accessed November 23, 2013).
10California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (CalPOST), “Choices,” Did You Know? SAFE Driving Videos, 1:35, (accessed November 21, 2013).
11Noh, Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes, 22.
12Michigan State Police, Police Vehicle Evaluation: Preliminary Summary of 2014 Vehicle Acceleration and Top Speed Testing (October 2013), (accessed November 13, 2013).
13Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, 38th Annual Law Enforcement Vehicle Test and Evaluation Program: Model Year 2013 (May 2013): 3, (accessed November 23, 2013).
14Maryland Transportation Code Ann § 21-106 (b) (2) and (3), (d) (2013), (accessed November 23, 2013).
15CalPOST, “10-97,” Did You Know? SAFE Driving Videos, 1:45, (accessed November 23, 2013).
16Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, “GO-35-09, Safe Driving Policy” (December 5, 2009): 3–5.
17According to “Illinois State Police Directive OPS-081, Emergency Response Driving,” a code 3 response is for an “emergency call,” which is defined as “an incident or call in which the possibility of death, great personal injury, or the prevention or apprehension of forcible felons exists and a rapid response by a law enforcement may reduce the seriousness of the incident.” A code 2 response is for an incident not qualifying as an emergency call, but still warranting an expedited response; Illinois State Police, “ISP Announces Monumental Policy Changes Which Address Emergency Response Procedures,” news release, November 21, 2008, (accessed November 18, 2013).
18LEOKA 2012, table 61; LEOKA 2006, table 59; LEOKA 1996, table 23.
19Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), “Control of Traffic Through Traffic Incident Management Areas,” chap. 6I in Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (2009): 564, 566, (accessed November 23, 2013). FHWA, Official Rulings: Details for Request 6(09)-4,; Details for Request 6(09)-12, (accessed November 23, 2013).
20For additional information, see Richard J. Ashton, “10 TIM Concepts for Reducing Crash Frequency and Seriousness,” The Police Chief 79 (July 2012): 48–52, (accessed November 23, 2013).
21“Distracted Driving 2011,” NHTSA Traffic Safety Facts, April 2013, DOT HS 811 737, 1-2, (accessed November 20, 2013).
22National Transportation Safety Board, “Attentive Driving—Countermeasures for Distraction Forum” transcript (March 27, 2012), 63–64, (accessed November 21, 2013).
23U.S. Department of Transportation, NHTSA, Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving, 4, (accessed November 21, 2013).
24NTSB, “Attentive Driving—Countermeasures for Distraction Forum” transcript, 55. National Safety Council (NSC), Understanding the Distracted Brain: Why Driving while Using Hands-Free Cell Phones Is Risky Behavior, white paper, March 2010, 5, (accessed November 21, 2013).
25CalPOST, SAFE Driving Videos, (accessed November 21, 2013).
26IACP Highway Safety Committee, “Midyear Meeting Minutes, June 16-19, 2010,” Branson, MO, 1, (accessed November 21, 2013).
27Florida Highway Patrol, “Policy Number 7.10, Wireless Voice/Data Communications,” October 4, 2010 (revised 05/01/12), (accessed November 20, 2013).
28Cheyenne, Wyoming, Municipal Code, “10.24.170 Driving while Using Cellular Telephone Prohibited—Exceptions,” (accessed November 20, 2013).

Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, “Reducing Officers’ Accidental Deaths,” Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 81 (January 2014): 62–64.



From The Police Chief, vol. 81, no. 1, January 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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