Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland, and Grant/Technical Management Manager, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Alexandria, Virginia
egrettably, public safety officers regularly have relied only upon their authority to shield them from vehicles they are attempting to direct around or through highway incidents. Objectively, this practice has not been a safe one. In the decade 1996–2005, 121 U.S. law enforcement officers—an average of one per month—were struck and killed by vehicles. 1 Firefighters fared no better: in the past 10 years over 225 firefighters were killed in the line of duty while responding to or returning from emergency scenes, mostly due to vehicle crashes—approximately 25 percent of all on-duty firefighter deaths.2
A University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) study found that in a simulated work zone, drivers detected a pedestrian dressed in typical, nonretroreflective clothing at 125 feet and one wearing a retroreflective vest or jacket at 891 feet, but they required 159 feet to stop when driving at 35 miles per hour and 425 feet to stop when driving at 65 miles per hour.3 Figure 1 illustrates the impossibility of a vehicle traveling at either 35 or 65 miles per hour stopping before striking a police officer attired in a classic, nonretroreflective uniform.4
Police officers typically have resisted wearing fluorescent and retroreflective materials, ironically because of officer safety concerns; firefighters, especially volunteers, have experienced considerable difficulty selecting what’s right for them and, like police officers, do not want to wear anything that makes them appear as highway workers.
The National Traffic Incident Management Coalition (NTIMC) advocates that public safety officers wear garments that make them highly visible. NTIMC believes that there should be a public safety vest capable of visually signaling the presence of public safety officers by contrasting the color and brightness of the vest against the ambient background of the officers’ work environment and incorporating, as well, the requirements of its users: firefighters need a vest that will fit over their turnout gear; emergency medical technicians and police officers need side access to reach such items as scissors, pistols, handcuffs, and walkie-talkies; and they all may need breakaway shoulders, adjustable waists, pen/penlight openings, badge holders, and microphone tabs.
Under the NTIMC umbrella, representatives of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association’s Emergency Responder Safety Institute, the I-95 Corridor Coalition, the American Traffic Safety Services Association, and the IACP Highway Safety Committee’s Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee (LESSS) met in October 2005 with the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA) and outlined their vision for the conspicuity of public safety officers, as well as their other needs. The ISEA invited those representatives to present the issues facing the public safety community at its High Visibility Group meeting in November 2005.
Once the ISEA’s High Visibility Group heard NTIMC’s presentation, it voted immediately and unanimously to develop a standard to ensure public safety officers’ conspicuity, day and night, under all lighting conditions via fluorescent and retroreflective materials. The American National Standard for High-Visibility Public Safety Vests5 evolved from this effort. Released in December 2006 and designated ANSI/ISEA 207-2006, this voluntary industry consensus standard specifies the requirements for public safety vests. The standard includes performance criteria for the properties of the background materials, color (fluorescent yellow-green, fluorescent orange-red, or fluorescent red), retroreflection, minimum areas of coverage, suggested configuration, and required specific features. The requirements also include standards against which an independent, accredited, third-party laboratory is able to test and certify a garment, so that a manufacturer of a public safety vest ultimately can verify that an item sold to a public safety agency complies with all of the requirements established in the ANSI/ISEA 207-2006 standard. This standard permits—but does not mandate—the inclusion of discipline identification (blue for law enforcement, green for emergency medical services, and red for firefighters) and the incorporation of adjustable sides and breakaway shoulders. Figure 2 shows the prototype of the public safety vest for police officers.6
In a related development, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sought public comment between April and June 2006 on a proposed “Worker Visibility” rule7 that Section 1402 of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) required the secretary of transportation to promulgate.8 FHWA acknowledged “the multiple roles and responsibilities of law enforcement officers on the public right-of-way of Federal-aid highways” and specifically noted its desire “to fully assess the impact on safety and security of law enforcement officers should high visibility garments be required for use in all situations.”9 Of the 175 responses specifically relating to the ramifications of the proposed rule on law enforcement officers that FHWA received,
[o]verarching comments from State and local police, national police organizations, and State DOTs indicated a strong need for recognizing the many roles that law enforcement personnel serve when working on highways. In particular, the commenters were concerned about law enforcement officers wearing high-visibility clothing while performing duties (such as routine traffic stops or searches and manhunts) that often place them in an adversarial or confrontational role, such as apprehending suspects, stolen vehicles, illicit drugs, or a vehicle occupant who turns out to be wanted for a serious felony and is armed and dangerous. . . . Their primary concern was that a highly-reflective garment would make them a better target if a gunfight develops, especially in nighttime conditions.10
At their midyear meetings in June 2006, the members of the IACP Highway Safety Committee (HSC) and LESSS discussed the FHWA’s proposal, recognizing its positive intent “to improve the visibility of all workers on or in close proximity to Federal-aid highways in all circumstances including, but not limited to, . . . traffic incident management,”11 but nevertheless emphasized to the FHWA that requiring police officers to wear high-visibility safety apparel at all times on federal-aid highways realistically could jeopardize officers’ safety in certain circumstances. The HSC’s response stressed that the diverse responsibilities of police officers separate them from all others who work on highways; that their safety is better assured in non–traffic-related situations occurring on highways, such as high-risk felony stops and checks of suspicious persons/vehicles, by furtiveness as opposed to conspicuity; and that police officers should be required to wear high-visibility safety apparel on Federal-aid highways only when they are engaged in “traffic incident management,” i.e., in such traditional duties as traffic direction, traffic incident resolution (crash investigations, roadway closures, and highway obstructions), and work zone assignments. The FHWA did indeed listen to the HSC, recognizing police officers’ multiple and divergent duties, and promulgated on November 22, 2006, Title 23, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Section 634.3, to wit: “All workers within the right-of-way of a Federal-aid highway who are exposed either to traffic (vehicles using the highway for purposes of travel) or to construction equipment within the work area shall wear high-visibility safety apparel.”12
“Workers” are “people on foot whose duties place them within the right-of-way of a Federal-aid highway, such as . . . law enforcement personnel when directing traffic, investigating crashes, and handling lane closures, obstructed roadways, and disasters within the right-of-way of a Federal-aid highway.”13 This definition closely mirrors the language of one of the alternatives that the HSC proposed to the FHWA.
Unfortunately, the new rule, which will become effective November 24, 2008, comes with several caveats. Inasmuch as the ANSI/ISEA 207-2006 standard was still under development when Section 634.3 was issued, it could not be included in the final rule, although the FHWA suggested that it “might consider revising this rule once these standards [ANSI/ISEA 207-2006] go into effect. . . .”14 Currently, however, “high-visibility safety apparel” includes only apparel meeting the Class 2 or 3 ANSI/ISEA 107-2004 standard.15 Police chief executives need to monitor closely any action the FHWA may initiate in this realm before purchasing high-visibility safety apparel to ensure its compliance with Section 634.3.
Additionally, police chief executives must be ever mindful of the potential for liability for both law enforcement agencies and police officers when officers not wearing high-visibility safety apparel are struck and injured while performing traffic incident management activities. The new rule will apply to all law enforcement officers working on federal-aid highways, so officers not wearing high-visibility safety apparel who are struck and injured while diverting traffic away from a roadway under water—and a supervisor arriving at a crash scene only to be struck by a vehicle before being able to retrieve high-visibility safety apparel from the trunk—could experience workers’ compensation or Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) issues.
Since the “Worker Visibility” rule will not become effective for 16 months, state and local public safety agencies should determine whether funding for the purchase of high-visibility safety apparel is available as part of an eligible Section 402 highway safety project included in their state’s approved highway safety plan.16
The responsive efforts of the ISEA, coupled with the recent actions of the FHWA, should improve considerably the conspicuity—and thus the physical safety—of public safety officers performing their duties on highways. The fact that an average of one on-duty law enforcement officer is struck and killed by a vehicle each month clearly demonstrates the need for—and underscores the importance of—this new rule.■
1Federal Bureau of Investigation, table 61 in Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2005, October 2006, www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2005/table61.htm, April 10, 2007.
2U.S. Fire Administration, “Emergency Vehicle Safety Partnerships with National Fire Groups to Reduce Firefighter Fatalities,” www.usfa.dhs.gov/fireservice/research/safety/vehicle.shtm#a, April 10, 2007.
3University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), “Illustration of Seeing Distances and Required Stopping Distances,” www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/research/SAEpedslide.pdf, April 10, 2007.
5Copies of this standard may be ordered from the ISEA at www.safetyequipment.org/orderform0307.pdf.
6Janice Comer Bradley, technical director of the ISEA, provided the author in a March 27, 2006, e-mail the image of the police prototype in figure 2, as well as other information relating to the development of the public safety vest.
7Federal Highway Administration, “Worker Visibility: Notice of Proposed Rulemaking; Request for Comments,” 23 CFR Part 634, Federal Register 71, no. 78 (April 24, 2006): 20925–20930, http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/01jan20061800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2006/E6-6025.htm, April 10, 2007.
8Public Law 109-59, 109th Cong. (August 10, 2005), Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=109_cong_public_laws&docid=f:publ059.109, April 10, 2007.
9Federal Highway Administration, “Worker Visibility: Notice of Proposed Rulemaking; Request for Comments,” 20927.
10Federal Highway Administration, “Worker Visibility: Final Rule,” 23 CFR Part 634, Federal Register 71, no. 226 (November 24, 2006): 67797, http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/01jan20061800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2006/pdf/E6-19910.pdf, April 10, 2007.
11Federal Highway Administration, “Worker Visibility: Notice of Proposed Rulemaking; Request for Comments,” 20927.
12Federal Highway Administration, “Worker Visibility: Final Rule,” 67800.