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SAFE Driving—The Role of the Chief

Bryon G. Gustafson, Senior Law Enforcement Consultant, California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, and Director, SAFE Driving Research Team, Denver, Colorado; and Paul A. Cappitelli, Executive Director, California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, and Founder, SAFE Driving Campaign, Sacramento, California

(above) Authors Bryon G. Gustafson and Paul A. Cappitelli
Photographs courtesy of Bryon G. Gustafson

raffic collisions take more lives and end more careers for law enforcement officers than any other event—felonious or accidental. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), 2009 was a “good” traffic year: Law enforcement trafficrelated fatalities declined more than 20 percent from 2008.1 Sadly, however, traffic remains the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers nationwide. Traffic consistently claims more officer lives than firearms and, in most years, all felonious assaults combined. This has been the trend for more than a decade.2

Law enforcement officer population and fatality data
compiled from FBI UCR reports 1998–2008,

The surprising reality is that the greatest threat law enforcement officers face today is their own patrol vehicles. While felonious officer deaths (especially those involving firearms) have generally been on the decline, traffic-related deaths overall have not.3 The nation’s leading advocacy and reporting agencies identify and announce this trend year after year. Still, until recently, little has been done to actively understand and address the problem. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the NLEOMF have each taken significant steps to raise awareness, and the IACP has instituted a number of intervention programs, such as two videos: Your Vest Won’t Stop This Bullet (promoting greater awareness of the perils inherent in traffic stops and other roadside contacts) and P.U.R.S.U.E. (providing guidance to officers to improve decision making during pursuits) and publications, including Highway Safety Desk Book and Manual of Police Traffic Services Policies and Procedures. Still, more needs to be done to help officers stay safe on the road.

Safe driving for law enforcement officers is, ultimately, a local responsibility. Chiefs of police have the enormous task of maintaining a safe working environment for officers in communities and conditions that cannot always be made safe. Still, national attention on law enforcement’s most dangerous environment can facilitate the support chiefs need to follow through with new safety efforts. Just as standards for use of body armor and retention holsters have reduced officer deaths from gunshot wounds, attention to a number of key driving practices can change the tragic realities of on-duty traffic collisions. While saving officer lives is of paramount concern, the added benefit is that these practices can also save money. Reduced costs resulting from civil liability, workers compensation, and property damage make the policies and practices that follow logical options for any chief.

Nationally, 306 officers lost their lives in traffic-related incidents between 2004 and 2008.4 The losses to families, friends, and the communities these officers served are immeasurable. In addition to these tremendous emotional costs, significant monetary costs are incurred by the various government entities involved. According to compiled cost estimates and benefits data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), these 306 officer fatalities are estimated to have cost the federal, state, and local governments nearly $500 million dollars.

Figures estimated based on (a) NHTSA The Economic Impact
of Motor Vehicle Crashes 2000 (DOT HS 809 446),;
(b) calculated increases of 4.8 percent annually to adjust
for 2009 dollars; (c) addition of Public Safety Officers’
Benefits; and (d) cost averaging of law enforcement officer
fatalities 2004–2008.

Still, these estimatesd only consider fatal collisions. In California, for example, data compiled by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (CalPOST) show that on a statewide annual basis, there are frequently more than 100 officer injury collisions for each fatal collision. While the costs of these collisions vary significantly depending on the severity of injuries, they are unquestionably substantial.

Causes and Consequences

Every reporting and advocacy organization involved in the law enforcement field is aware of law enforcement collision rates. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), NHTSA, NIOSH, NLEOMF, and IACP, among others, have published reports or initiated programs identifying traffic collisions as a primary job risk for law enforcement officers. But far too little is known about the causes and consequences of these collisions across the county.

At the Annual IACP Conference held in Denver in October 2009, Charles E. Miller III, who oversees the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed or Assaulted (LEOKA) program, spent nearly an hour focused on the problem of on-duty traffic collisions. Miller noted that even though LEOKA researchers know that collisions are the most prevalent risk, they don’t know a lot about why this is the case. As a result, they created a new survey instrument to gather far more detailed information on law enforcement officer deaths as a result of traffic collisions to better ascertain how and why they occur. Unfortunately, it will take some years and many more lost lives for these new data to be collected and analyzed to a level where they will be helpful.

At the Association of Law Enforcement Response Trainers (ALERT) International Conference held in Daytona Beach in September 2009, NHTSA’s James Bean reported on the alarming and well-documented trend of officer deaths resulting from collisions as evidenced by decades of data in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS, formerly called Fatal Accident Reporting System) database. Bean presented fatal collision data from as far back as 1975 that dispelled two common myths: first, that the majority of law enforcement officers killed in collisions are between the ages of 30 and 39—not “young” or “rookie” officers as is often assumed; and second, that even when population increases are taken into account, officer traffic fatalities still have been increasing.

Training and Studies

Courtesy of CalPOST; reflects 7,117 California law enforcement
officer–involved injury collisions 1997–2007.

CalPOST first directed its attention to fatal and career-ending officer collisions in late 2007 after it realized that California’s law enforcement traffic fatalities were outpacing the national average. It initially focused on training and labeled its inquiry the “Driver Training Study.” The logic followed that if law enforcement officers continue to crash at increasing rates, the training program must be inadequate. An early investigation into this issue paired Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) collision reports with CalPOST training records to examine whether or not different training programs were associated with higher or lower collision rates. This research design had the appearance of simplicity. However, the first finding was that the officers with the most driver training also had the most collisions. The reason for this relates to the industry practice of sending officers to in-service refresher and remedial training immediately following an on-duty collision.

After addressing this sequencing issue, common statistical analyses were used to test the hypothesis that different types of training before a collision were associated with higher or lower collision rates over time. “Training” was generically grouped into three categories: behind-the-wheel, simulator, and blended (a combination of behindthe-wheel and simulator training). This relatively simple and limited analysis, while challenged by a number of methodological issues, revealed that as much as a 10 percent reduction in collision rates could be realized from blended training.6

Other early findings from the CalPOST study show that (a) many training programs don’t adequately prepare officers for the kind of emergency driving they are expected to perform, (b) unsafe speed is the most common primary collision factor (PCF) in injury and fatal collisions, and (c) policy enforcement is a significant factor in preventing law enforcement traffic collisions.

SAFE Driving
CalPOST’s Driver Training
Study: Volume I is available
for free download online at

The good news is that training does appear to reduce collisions. The potentially more important reality is that 90 percent of collision rates appear to be driven by variables other than training. It was this realization that moved CalPOST from its original training focus to its comprehensive “SAFE (Situation-Appropriate, Focused, and Educated) Driving Campaign,” aimed at reducing fatal and injurious officer collisions nationwide.

For CalPOST, the SAFE Driving Campaign is aimed at both action and awareness. Action is realized through two components. First, CalPOST has assembled a multidisciplinary research team (RT) to investigate law enforcement traffic collision causes and feasible interventions. An ambitious agenda looks at the effects of policy, training, fatigue, distraction, supervision, management, and culture on officer collision rates.

Second, CalPOST has established a Vehicle Operations and Training Advisory Council (VOTAC) comprised of law enforcement trainers and policy makers from across the nation. The VOTAC uses findings produced by the RT to create validated, evidence-based, data-driven training and policy options for chiefs to implement at their discretion.

So what should or can a chief do to reduce collisions and improve safety? For starters, implement the “Three Es”—engineering, education, and enforcement. The same practices used in communities around the world to reduce traffic collisions can be applied to law enforcement agencies as well.

Engineering may be the area a chief has the least control over; however, giving officers the right tools is a big step toward helping them stay safe on the job. David “Doc” Halliday of the Michigan State Police is a member of the CalPOST VOTAC and an advisor to the nation’s law enforcement automakers in Detroit. Halliday has long noted the importance of proper equipment and professional installation in law enforcement vehicles—speed-rated tires and airbag-appropriate installation of in-car computers and radio accessories are just a couple of examples. Additionally, the deployment of a police-package vehicle is a must for law enforcement officers assigned to emergency response. A Volkswagen Beetle or Toyota Prius may be fine for community volunteers or administrative personnel, but officers on routine patrol who are expected to respond to emergencies with lights and sirens on should have a vehicle designed for that purpose.

Education is often incomplete and occasionally inadequate. To be complete, law enforcement officer–driving education needs to attend to both skills acquisition and decision making. This means that an officer must develop the ability to operate a vehicle under emergency conditions and, equally important, learn when—and when not—to do so. Chiefs must ensure that officers are taught agency policy and expectations and that supervisors and managers consistently reinforce these. To be adequate, law enforcement driving education needs to address all areas officers are expected to encounter—high speed, night driving, traffic, pursuits, calls for backup, and so on. This may seem obvious, but too many examples show that it is a problem. For example, less than half of California’s 40 basic law enforcement academies train officers at freeway speeds.7 At the same time, all of California’s more than 600 law enforcement agencies expect their officers to drive skillfully at freeway speeds.

Enforcement is the elephant in the room at most discussions about injury and fatal traffic collisions involving officers. Law enforcement officers are professional enforcers; however, there is strong resistance in most agencies to enforcing SAFE Driving standards on officers and even stronger resistance to identifying officer errors after a fatal collision. Although the law enforcement industry does not have an overarching regulatory body that reviews officer-involved collisions, chiefs can create internal review processes to serve the same function. CalPOST encourages a focus on what it terms Negligent Operator Negative Outcome (NONO) collisions. There will always be instances where an officer does everything right and still gets involved in a collision. There also will always be property damageonly (PDO) “fender benders” and miscellaneous backing incidents. While important, these are not the concern of SAFE Driving. NONOs—those instances where officers neglected to drive properly and had a collision resulting in some untenable conclusion—are where chiefs have the greatest opportunity to identify problems and enforce positive change. The challenge is to approach the NONO factors without indicting the individual officer. While this may be difficult at the time, the benefits will far outlast the discomfort. An unfortunate but apropos example of this recently took place in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD). After losing two officers in fatal traffic collisions in 2009, Sheriff Douglas C. Gillespie instituted sweeping policy and training changes to address what he deemed to be a culture problem. As is anecdotally common in law enforcement, officers were driving too fast and without wearing seat belts. In response, Gillespie has changed the way his agency works and made his expectations clear: his agency’s officers must wear their seat belts and observe agency-established limits on their speed.8

What else can a chief do beyond the all-important basics? Renowned lawman and lawyer Gordon Graham—who is also an advisor to CalPOST’s SAFE Driving Campaign—has consistently offered chiefs easy, empirically proven options. Speaking at the 2009 Annual IACP Conference in Denver, Graham challenged chiefs with a number of direct operational questions. Among them, “Why deploy motorcycles?” and “Why make driver’s-side approaches?” Tacit answers to these questions neglect hard data. Routinely, 10 percent or more of officers killed in traffic are on motorcycles; often, twice that amount are struck by a vehicle—frequently while making a driver’s-side approach. So why are these practices continued? Graham says that the risk-benefit analysis doesn’t make sense. As a risk manager for some three decades and a former motorcylce officer, he makes compelling arguments against the use of motorcycles on patrol and in favor of the safe-side (out of traffic) approach. These are just two examples where chiefs could review common practices and consider their necessity.

Safety or Speed

Another consideration for chiefs is whether or not they are creating cultures of safety or speed. A Google search for “police department” and “response time” produced 130,000 hits—many of them from law enforcement agencies letting their communities know how fast they can respond to the average call for service. By contrast, a search for “police department” and “officer safety” returned fewer than 50,000 hits. This illustration is not particularly empirical, but the fact remains that what a chief values and emphasizes contributes greatly to the establishment of the agency’s culture. A constant focus on response time is likely to encourage a competitive culture wherein officers try harder—against themselves and each other—to get to calls faster. Speed and traffic collisions go hand-in-hand. Therefore, it’s critically important that chiefs consider the message they send to their officers and how consistently that message is delivered both directly and through supervisors and managers in word and in practice.

Last, and among the most critical concerns for chiefs, are fatigue and distraction. How many things can an officer do while driving? How long can an officer go without sleep and still practice safe driving? These are important questions that law enforcement as a whole has not addressed very well. By comparison, truck drivers are carefully regulated in the number of hours they can drive and how much rest they have to get between shifts. Likewise, airline pilots are prohibitedfrom engaging in distractions during takeoff and landing. Imagine a pilot taking a call on a cell phone during landing—it’s unconscionable. Yet it is not uncommon for an officer to take a cell phone call while responding to a call for service. Clearly, these are not perfect comparisons, but officers today “do” a lot more while driving than they did even 10 years ago. A patrol car without distractions is not realistic; however, when and how officers directly engage distractions like cell phones and in-car computers is something that can be managed.

Fatigue can be managed too. Both management and labor representatives on CalPOST’s VOTAC have been wary of discussions about fatigue. Understandably, law enforcement officers worry that their overtime opportunities and long days off might be affected. Likewise, chiefs and sheriffs are concerned about maintaining staffing and readiness levels. The good news is that these issues do not preclude responsible fatigue management. Professor Bryan Vila, a member of CalPOST’s SAFE Driving RT and author of the book Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue, stresses that the issue is not as simple as overtime or shift length.9 A law enforcement officer who works eight-hour shifts and no overtime, but commutes three hours a day, has a second job, and has a baby with colic that interrupts sleep is likely to be a far greater risk than another who works twelve-hour shifts with some overtime but manages to get a good “night’s” sleep. In the utopian world people would go to bed when they get tired and sleep until they naturally wake up. Absent that “dream,” Vila teaches that a thoughtful fatigue-management program is the best practice.

As part of a safety-oriented fatigue management program, a growing number of agencies have embraced on-duty rest periods—naps, by another name. Not surprisingly, some traditionalists will bristle at this concept and suggest that it is not true to industry standards and long-held expectations of professionalism. Others may realize that an alert officer is a better and a safer officer. Other professions have utilized rest periods for years. Medical doctors in hospitals often have the availability of a designated room for rest periods, and some pilots on appropriately staffed long-haul flights have the option of a rest period. Research has revealed benefits to this practice, and it is likely to gain acceptance. Chiefs should consider this option. Setting aside a dark room with a cot is a small investment to prevent tragedies and improve officer performance.

Chiefs have many opportunities to improve safe driving in their agencies. Providing comprehensive skill and policy training, prioritizing safety over response time, carefully managing fatigue and distraction, and consistently communicating and demonstrating expectations from the chief down through management and supervision will give officers the framework they need to perform their best. Law enforcement agency cultures oriented toward safe driving and accountability will save lives and reduce costs while simultaneously enhancing the law enforcement profession nationwide. ■


1“Law Enforcement Officer Deaths: Preliminary 2009: A Tale of Two Trends: Overall Fatalities Fall, Fatal Shootings on the Rise,” National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, Research Bulletin, December 2009, January 4, 2010).
2Ibid., 4.
3Ibid., 2.
4Law enforcement officer traffic fatalities are based on FBI Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) reports. Other agencies (for example, NHTSA, Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund) report similar but slightly different statistics because of different definitions of “law enforcement officer” and reporting time frames (that is, the time between collision and death).
5California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, Driver Training Study 1:30 (Sacramento: February 2009), (accessed February 18, 2010).
7California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, Driver Training Study (Sacramento: February 2009) 1:18, (accessed February 18, 2010).
8Douglas C. Gillespie, Sheriff Gillespie Addresses Media Concerning October 7th Officer Involved Fatal Traffic Accident, 7 min., 24 sec, from YouTube (October 20, 2009), (accessed February 18, 2010).
9Bryan Vila, Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue (Washington, D.C.: Police Executive Research Forum, 2000)

Please cite as:

Bryon G. Gustafson and Paul A. Cappitelli, "SAFE Driving—The Role of the Chief," The Police Chief 77 (March 2010): 38–41, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 3, March 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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