By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP
e pay homage each year on May 15 to all those law enforcement officers who made the supreme sacrifice by protecting and serving the communities they chose to represent. We celebrate during National Police Week their lives and honor their spouses and significant others, children, parents, siblings, and partners as they all strive to move forward in life without their loved ones. We also remember daily those officers whom each of us knew personally—their knack for defusing domestic disputes and other emotion-laden calls for service, their “sick” sense of cop humor, their ability to remain unflustered during intense cross-examinations, their skillfulness in separating quickly and accurately the relevant facts from the rhetoric and then initiating appropriate actions, and … how they died.
We understood on the proudest day of our professional lives—the day we took the oath of office—that we might die in the course of discharging our sworn responsibilities. But even if we seriously pondered the prospect of an in-the-line-of-duty death, we most likely believed it would come to pass in a barrage of bullets during a high-profile felony arrest. However, the reality is that 41 percent more officers were killed accidentally than feloniously (746 officers versus 530 officers) between 1999 and 2008,1 and that 66 percent of those killed accidentally in that same decade (492 officers) died in automobile and motorcycle crashes.2
Since we were young and believed we were invincible, we raced to calls for service in a commendable effort to apprehend criminals and render aid to victims, failed to wear our seat belts because we thought buckling up somehow would slow our exiting our cruisers, and ignored at-the-roadside conspicuity measures and vehicle positioning. We did not know that between 1999 and 2008, the average age of officers who died accidentally was 38 years, or that they averaged a decade of service.3
Between 2004 and 2008, 213 officers died nationwide in automobile crashes, and speed was either a factor or a probable factor in 7 out of 10 of those deaths.4 No region of the country has been immune to these tragedies, and excessive speed and unbuckled officers seem to go hand in hand as recent examples demonstrate. A Corpus Christi, Texas, officer en route to a January 20, 2008, call for service lost control of his cruiser, struck a concrete barrier, was ejected from his vehicle and run over by another vehicle; he was driving 107 mph and was not wearing a seat belt.5 A Frederick City, Maryland, officer was traveling 102 mph on October 22, 2008, when he lost control of his cruiser; he also was not wearing a seat belt.6 An Osage County, Oklahoma, Sheriff’s Department deputy was responding to a burglary in progress on December 2, 2009, when his cruiser left the roadway, rolled over twice, and ejected the deputy, who was unbuckled.7
Two members of the Las Vegas, Nevada, Metropolitan Police Department died in 2009—and another one was seriously injured—during high-speed responses to nonemergency incidents while not wearing seat belts. On May 7, 2009, an officer traveling 109 mph, without the benefit of emergency lights and siren, to a false 9-1-1 call of domestic violence died after being struck by a vehicle that had turned into his path.8 On October 7, 2009, officers were responding at 71 mph in a 45 mph zone—with neither emergency lights nor siren—to investigate an odor when they swerved to avoid colliding with another vehicle and struck a tree and a light pole. The deceased officer was ejected.9 “These recent tragedies have brought to light a nationwide problem of police officers not wearing seat belts,” Clark County, Nevada, Sheriff Douglas C. Gillespie said. “I would rather hold our officers accountable by issuing citations or discipline for not wearing a seat belt or for driving carelessly than to plan another funeral.”10
Sheriff Gillespie promulgated a Code 3 (lights and siren) emergency response policy for situations that involve imminent danger to citizens where officers’ arrival might save lives, for circumstances in which another officer requires assistance to control a volatile situation, for conditions where officers are acting on reliable information as to a felony in progress, and for pursuits. That policy limits speeds to a maximum of 20 mph over the posted limit (pursuits exempted), prohibits typing and cell phone use (texting and e-mailing whenever vehicles are in motion already was banned), and requires all occupants to wear seat belts unless “the vehicle is traveling less than 15 miles per hour and the driver or passenger(s) is expecting to exit the vehicle and take immediate police action once the vehicle has stopped.”11
After a trooper traveling 126 mph on November 23, 2007, crossed a median on I-64 and struck another vehicle, killing two sisters aged 18 years and 13 years, former Illinois State Police Director Larry G. Trent implemented a similar policy. He enumerated the maximum speeds by which troopers were permitted to exceed the posted speed limit in responding to Code 2 and Code 3 calls,12 that is, 20 mph and 30 mph, respectively, without supervisory permission.13 The policy continues to mandate that the in-car video system of any cruiser so equipped be activated whenever emergency lights are operating and prohibit the use of the mobile data terminal or cellular equipment for voice or data communications while on either a Code 2 or Code 3 response (hands-free cell phone use is permitted during nonemergency responses). Significantly, Trent stressed that 90 seconds was the difference between traveling 10 miles at 80 mph and the same distance at 100 mph and asked how many times arriving 90 seconds sooner actually had made a difference, emphasizing that those officers involved in serious crashes en route to calls for service are unable to render any assistance at all.14
Officers’ failing to buckle up appears to be underreported and yields deadly results, especially when coupled with excessive speed. Only 7 of the 213 officers who died between 2004 and 2008, according to the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) program, were not wearing their seat belts, yet 28 of them were ejected from their automobiles. 15 The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reported that 35 percent of the 37 officers killed in automobile crashes in 2009 were unbelted.16 Similarly, 5 of the 13 officers killed in on-duty crashes in Texas in 2007 and 2008 were unbuckled.17 Two New Haven, Connecticut, cruisers, whose officers were responding to the same call for service, collided on September 9, 2008, killing a police sergeant and critically injuring another officer; neither was wearing a seat belt.18 Unfortunately, too many situations over which we lack control arise during our careers and result in officers being seriously injured or killed. However, these situations should never include being ejected during collisions and seriously injured or killed; this circumstance is preventable by wearing a seat belt and need not place officers in peril.
Between 1996 and 2008, an average of one officer per month was struck and killed along highways,19 as Figure 1 demonstrates. One of the officers who died in 2008, in fact, succumbed to injuries sustained 22 years earlier, so 2008 was the first year in at least 13 that no officer was struck and killed during “traffic stops, roadblocks, etc.”20 Perhaps we are becoming safer. To this end, myriad effective efforts, some of which are highlighted hereinafter, have been developed to increase the conspicuity of officers performing traffic-related duties.
- Shoulder rumble strips have proven effective in preventing roadway-departure crashes. They have alerted drivers distracted by alcohol or other drugs, fatigue, or other inattention and simultaneously have afforded police officers and other roadside workers opportunities to escape imminent danger.
- The Federal Highway Administration’s mandate that officers directing traffic; investigating crashes; or handling lane closures, obstructed roadways, and disasters on all public roads wear high-visibility safety apparel, has increased officer safety.21 The creation of the Public Safety Vest, designated the ANSI/ISEA 207-2006 standard, exponentially increases the chances of officers being seen by motorists.22
- The IACP Highway Safety Committee’s Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee (LESSS), in conjunction with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, Ford Motor Company, and New York State Police (NYSP), examined vehicle positioning at traffic stops and other roadside contacts. The NYSP adopted, with slight modification, that configuration; the physics surrounding it prevented an NYSP trooper from being seriously injured when her cruiser was rear-ended in 2004 by a suspected impaired driver’s vehicle traveling at an estimated 70 mph.23
- Forty-seven states—absent the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maryland, and New York—have enacted “move over, slow down” laws,24 an approach that the IACP embraced in 200525 and the success of which relies heavily on public education, like that undertaken by the Missouri Department of Public Safety that includes on its Web site LESSS’ roll call video, Your Vest Won’t Stop This Bullet.26
We need to remember those with whom we served for their camaraderie and for all they imparted to us before their final tour of duty. Those who died unbuckled while responding to incidents at excessive speeds were wellintentioned officers attempting to assist others. However, many of them still could be here working with us every day, except for their failures to do for themselves what they spent their careers teaching others. We need to learn from their shortcomings and pledge not to repeat their avoidable mistakes. As much as we earnestly believe arriving 90 seconds faster will have a positive effect, it probably won’t in most cases. A seat belt has made a difference to an officer only when it wasn’t buckled. Make Peace Officers Memorial Day a day to remember, as well as a day to pledge. Be careful out there. ■
1Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2008, October 2009, table 1, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2008/data/table_01.html (accessed March 10, 2010); Ibid., table 48, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2008/data/table_48.html (accessed March 10, 2010).
2Ibid., table 63, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2008/data/table_63.html (accessed March 10, 2010).
3Ibid., table 57, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2008/data/table_57.html (accessed March 15, 2010).
4Leslie Underwood, LEOKA Program Development Group’s Crime Statistics Management Unit, e-mail message to the author, April 9, 2009.
5Moises Mendoza, “Unbuckled, but Unbowed: Despite On-duty Wreck Fatalities, Police Who Don’t Wear Seat Belts Insist there’s a Reason,” Houston Chronicle, March 1, 2010, http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/6890303.html (accessed March 16, 2010).
6Justin M. Palk, “Bremer Traveling 102 mph, Not Wearing Seat Belt during Crash,” Frederick News-Post, June 10, 2009, http://www.fredericknewspost.com/sections/archives/display_detail.htm?StoryID=97872 (accessed March 17, 2010).
7Manny Gamallo, “Sheriff Praises Crash Victim as a Good Lawman,” The Oklahoman, December 4, 2009, 15-A.
8“Sheriff: Police Need To Wear Seat Belts,” FOX 5 News, October 21, 2009, http://www.fox5vegas.com/news/21356539/detail.html (accessed March 15, 2010).
11Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, “GO—35—09, Safe Driving Policy,” December 5, 2009, 3-5, http://www.mynews3.com/files/GO-035-09%20SAFE%20DRIVING%20POLICY.pdf (accessed April 6, 2010).
12According 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 officer 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, http://www.isp.state.il.us/docs/pressreleases/emergencyresponsedriving.pdf (accessed April 6, 2010).
13Illinois State Police, “ISP Announces Monumental Policy Changes Which Address Emergency Response Procedures,” news release, November 21, 2008, http://www.isp.state.il.us/media/pressdetails.cfm?ID=452(accessed March 17, 2010).
14Director Trent made this point during the roundtable discussion at the IACP State and Provincial Police Directorate’s Midyear Meeting on March 12, 2009.
15Underwood, e-mail, April 9, 2009.
16Craig W. Floyd, Preventing ‘Preventable’ Deaths: Trends and Issues in Officer Safety on Our Roadways, paper presented to the IACP Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee meeting, March 13, 2010, slide 22.
17Mendoza, “Unbuckled, but Unbowed,” Houston Chronicle.
18Betsy Yagla, “Click It, Or Not,” New Haven Advocate, September 18, 2008,.
19FBI, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2008, table 61, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2008/data/table_61.html (accessed March 4, 2010); FBI, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2005, October 2006, table 59, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2005/table59.htm (accessed February 26, 2010).
20Dorothy E. Kisner, of the LEOKA Program, e-mail to the author, February 26, 2010.
21FHWA, Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, 2009 edition, 564, 566, http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/pdfs/2009/coverintrotoc.pdf (accessed February 25, 2010).
22Copies of this standard may be ordered from the International Safety Equipment Association at http://www.safetyequipment.org/c/std207-2006.cfm (accessed March 17, 2010).
23See LESSS, Staff Study 2004, 26–28, http://www.theiacp.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=ez0WIkRWq2A%3d&tabid=379 (accessed March 19, 2010); Richard J. Ashton, “New Federal Rule Seeks to Improve Officer Visibility at Roadside,” Police Chief, July 2007, http://policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=1227&issue_id=72007 (accessed March 19, 2010); and LESSS, 2006 Staff Report, 37–47, http://www.theiacp.org/Portals/0/pdfs/LESS/LESSS_2006StaffReport.pdf (accessed March 19, 2010).
24Floyd, Preventing ‘Preventable’ Deaths, slide 30.
25IACP Resolution, “Uniformity in ‘Move Over, Slow Down’ Laws,” 2005, http://www.iacp.org/resolution/index.cfm?fa=dis_public_view&resolution_id=249&CFID=44353264&CFTOKEN=55324049 (accessed March 19, 2010).
26Missouri Department of Public Safety, Move Over Video, http://www.dps.mo.gov/home/MoveOverVideo.htm (accessed March 19, 2010).
Please cite as:
Richard J. Ashton, "Highway Safety Initiatives: A Day to Remember, A Day to Pledge," The Police Chief 77 (May 2010): 80–82,
http://policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&issue_id=52010&category_ID=11 (insert access date).