By Craig W. Floyd, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund; and Kevin P. Morison, Senior Director of Communications, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund
n 2009, more U.S. law enforcement officers died in the line of duty in traffic-related incidents than were killed by firearms or any other single cause of death.1 This was not a statistical anomaly; 2009 marked the 12th consecutive year in which traffic incidents were the leading cause of line-of-duty law enforcement deaths in the United States, according to records kept by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).
Perhaps no agency last year felt the human tragedy of this statistical trend more than the Las Vegas, Nevada, Metropolitan Police Department. During 2009, three of its members died in automobile crashes, including two officers killed in separate collisions within a seven-week period last fall. A fourth Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officer was shot and killed by armed robbery suspects just two days before the third fatal auto crash. The names of all four officers have been added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Sheriff Douglas C. Gillespie responded to this spate of traffic deaths in a forceful and public manner. He implemented a number of changes in department policy and training designed to improve officer safety. Many of the reforms focused on two critical issues—excessive speed and the failure to wear safety belts—that, over the years, have endangered police officers in Las Vegas and across the United States. To further drive home the message, the sheriff secured the pro bono services of an advertising agency to develop an internal communications campaign reminding officers of the rules regarding mandatory seat belt use and following departmental restrictions on speeding.
In many respects, Sheriff Gillespie’s efforts are aimed at changing not just the behavior of individual officers but the broader culture of his agency, and to save officers’ lives in the process. Anecdotally, members of the department report that the reforms and the shift in culture are taking hold. Their only regret is that it took the tragic deaths of their fellow officers to make it happen.
Lessons Learned from Gunfire Deaths Reduction
While the traffic deaths and resulting reforms in Las Vegas have received a great deal of attention, they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Law enforcement traffic fatalities never seem to garner as much attention as fatal shootings do in the news media, from the general public, or at times, within the law enforcement profession itself. Far too often, officer injuries and deaths on the roadways are viewed as a normal and even unavoidable part of the job. After all, the thinking goes most officers spend much of their time behind the wheel or involved in other traffic-related activities, so it should be “expected” that some number of these officers would be injured or killed in traffic incidents.
This same reasoning was evident at times in the 1970s—the deadliest decade in U.S. law enforcement history—when close to 130 officers were killed by gunfire each year.2 Since then, attitudes and safety measures have changed dramatically, and officers’ lives have been saved. In 2008, 40 officers nationwide were killed in firearms-related incidents—one of the lowest totals in more than five decades. And although fatal shootings of officers began to increase in 2009 and the first half of 2010, the numbers are still substantially lower than those from the peak year of 1973, when 156 officers were killed by gunfire.3
A number of factors are behind the stunning decline in firearms-related deaths. The continued development of bullet-resistant technology and the growing use of safety vests among officers are two of the main factors. The IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors’ Club has documented more than 3,000 officers saved by safety vests.4 Resistance to the wearing of vests by officers seems to be declining as well. Better training, stronger policies, and the increased use of electronic control devices and other less-than-lethal weaponry have also helped.
A number of law enforcement organizations, researchers, and safety experts currently are working to apply some of the lessons learned from the reduction in firearms fatalities to the problem of traffic-related law enforcement deaths. Their efforts include the following:
- Through its Safe Shield program, the IACP’s division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police (SACOP) is focusing on law enforcement awareness and training efforts through the adoption of a zero-tolerance culture for officer deaths and injuries.
- The IACP’s Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee continues to collect data and analyze issues related to officer safety both behind the wheel and during traffic stops, when officers are outside their vehicles and are exposed to the dangers posed by other vehicles. The subcommittee has produced a series of compelling roll-call videos to drive home this safety message for officers.
- The International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and the NLEOMF are exploring ways to work together to enhance traffic safety information and awareness among law enforcement trainers.
- The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (CalPOST) has launched an extensive, research-driven project called SAFE Driving. This initiative is working to identify the factors contributing to law enforcement roadway deaths and to recommend improvements—in policy, operations, and organizational culture—that will reduce injuries and save officers’ lives. The NLEOMF serves on the SAFE Driving Advisory Board.
Understanding the Problem, Pointing to Solutions
One of the ways in which the NLEOMF is supporting these and other safety initiatives is by contributing data. The memorial fund maintains a database of the approximately 19,000 line-of-duty law enforcement deaths that have been documented throughout U.S. history—the largest collection of such information. The memorial fund understands that data are critically important to understanding the nature and extent of the safety problems confronting law enforcement.
Twice a year, the NLEOMF publishes research bulletins that examine recent statistical trends in law enforcement fatalities, as documented in the data forms collected from departments whose officers are added each year to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. The memorial fund also makes these data available to other researchers and practitioners. While NLEOMF statistics are by no means the only data source for these issues, they do provide a broad overview of trends and point toward those areas where additional action—including, in many cases, additional collection of data—is needed.
As noted, traffic-related incidents have been the leading cause of law enforcement deaths for each of the past 12 years, and the pattern is continuing into 2010. This is a dramatic reversal of historical trends. In fact, of the 18,983 officers whose names are engraved on the national memorial in Washington, D.C., 56 percent were killed by gunfire, and another 28 percent died in traffic incidents. From 1998 through 2009, however, the pattern has almost reversed: 44 percent of officers died in traffic incidents, and 35 percent were killed by gunfire, according to the NLEOMF’s internal Fallen Officer Database.
Expanding the data set to the past four decades, the longer-range trends become even starker. Since 1969, firearms-related law enforcement fatalities have declined 63 percent, while traffic-related fatalities have increased 45 percent. The year 1998 marked the first time that traffic deaths outnumbered firearm deaths, and that has remained the case ever since. What makes this trend even more remarkable, and troubling, is that it comes at a time when American motorists as a whole are safer than they have been in decades. Total traffic fatalities in the United States have declined 17 percent over the past 15 years,5 and the 34,000 people killed on U.S. roadways in 2009 was the lowest total since the federal government began collecting comparable statistics in 1954.6 As are law enforcement officers, Americans are logging more miles behind the wheel than ever before. But unlike law enforcement officers, fewer citizens are dying on the roadways.
A Sharp Rise in Fatal Automobile Crashes
In the NLEOMF data set, the category “traffic-related deaths” comprises three types of incidents: automobile crashes, motorcycle collisions, and officers struck and killed by other vehicles while outside their police vehicles or on foot. Over the past 40 years, the trends within each individual category have varied. In general, the number of officers killed in motorcycle crashes and the number struck and killed have remained fairly steady throughout this period. In fact, according to the NLEOMF data set, motorcycle fatalities declined by 10 percent between 1969 and 2009.
During this same period, however, the number of officers killed in automobile crashes surged approximately 25 percent. In 2009, automobile fatalities accounted for nearly 75 percent of all traffic-related deaths among U.S. law enforcement. While there are certainly opportunities for safety improvements in all three types of traffic-related incidents, the data show that the biggest challenges, and the largest opportunities to save officers’ lives, lie in the area of automobile collisions.
A closer look at NLEOMF data on the 477 automobile fatalities that occurred from 1999 through 2008 reveals some interesting trends. Approximately 20 percent of the incidents were described as “routine patrol.” The vast majority of the fatalities involved some type of enforcement action: crimes in progress (20 percent); pursuits (20 percent); assisting another officer (14 percent); responding to collisions (7 percent); and assisting motorists (6 percent). Another 5 percent of the fatalities occurred while transporting prisoners, according to the NLEOMF’s internal Fallen Officer Database. Interestingly, 43 percent of the automobile fatalities during this 10-year period were single-vehicle crashes; the remaining 57 percent involved collisions with other vehicles. By contrast, just 16 percent of all motorcycle fatalities during this period were single-vehicle incidents.
One of the officer safety issues generating considerable attention from the IACP, CalPOST’s SAFE Driving Campaign, and others is seat belt usage by officers. The memorial fund has only recently begun collecting data in this area, but even the limited information collected thus far provides some troubling news. Among 37 officers killed in automobile crashes in 2009, 24 (or 65 percent) were wearing seat belts, but 13 (or 35 percent) were not (no data were available for a 38th automobile crash fatality). By comparison, the latest data from the NHTSA show that among all U.S. drivers, 84 percent wore seat belts in 2009 and 16 percent did not.7While some safety experts argue that seat belts represent an after-the-fact bandage approach to dangerous driving behavior in the first place, the trend among the general public is clear: as seat belt use has risen, the number of people killed in vehicle crashes has declined. The rise in seat belt use among drivers and passengers has coincided with tougher laws and stepped-up law enforcement through programs such as Click It or Ticket. The memorial fund will continue to collect data on seat belt usage among officers killed in the line of the duty as one measure of whether the number of officers wearing seat belts is changing.
Another serious, and seemingly contradictory, trend in law enforcement fatalities involves the impact of drunk drivers. Among the general population, drunk driving–related deaths have generally declined in recent years. In fact, since NHTSA began recording alcohol-related statistics in 1982, alcohol-impaired driving fatalities have decreased 44 percent, from 21,113 in 1982 to fewer than 12,000 in 2008.8 At the same time, the number of law enforcement officers killed by drunk drivers has risen. According to NLEOMF data, 104 officers died in drunk driving–related incidents between 2000 and 2009, compared with 80 during the 1980s—an increase of 30 percent. Stepped-up enforcement of drunk driving laws has positively impacted the problem among the general population, but ironically, such efforts seem to have put law enforcement officers at greater risk.
The visibility of officers when they are outside their vehicles on the side of the road remains a critical safety concern as well. NLEOMF statistics show that in the 10 years between 1999 and 2008, 60 percent of the struck-and-killed incidents occurred during the nighttime hours of 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.
The Federal Highway Administration has responded to concerns about officer visibility with new regulations, contained in the December 2009 revisions to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUCTD).9 These regulations require officers engaged in a wide range of traffic enforcement activities to wear high-visibility apparel on all roads, not just on federal-aid highways, as the previous regulations specified. In addition, new requirements and options exist for the public safety vests worn by law enforcement, with the ANSI 206-2007 Public Safety Vest designed specially for law enforcement personnel now an approved option. Over the last two years, the NLEOMF has teamed with 3M to get the word out about officer visibility and the new federal requirements and options.
Drive Safely Campaign Stresses the Public’s Role
Of course, the public also has a role to play in officer safety on the roadways. That is why the memorial fund launched its Drive Safely campaign, designed to raise awareness among the public of the dangers officers face and to provide motorists with specific, actionable steps they can take to help keep officers safe.
One of the key elements of the campaign is to increase public awareness of and compliance with Move Over laws. Currently, 47 states have laws requiring motorists to slow down and, if possible, safely move over one lane of traffic when they come upon law enforcement officers and other safety personnel stopped by the side of the road. Hawaii, Maryland, New York, and the District of Columbia do not have Move Over laws.
Move Over laws are not a panacea. According to a recent poll commissioned by the National Safety Commission and Move Over America, approximately 7 in 10 Americans have never heard of Move Over laws.10 Law enforcement officers report that safely and effectively enforcing the laws remain a challenge. Making more people aware of the Move Over concept and getting more motorists to comply voluntarily remains a major goal of the NLEOMF Drive Safely campaign and other traffic safety programs.
Latest Numbers Offer Encouraging News
The encouraging news is that there is some evidence that all of these safety efforts may be starting to have an impact. After reaching an all-time high of 84 deaths in 2007, traffic-related law enforcement deaths declined 39 percent over the next two years, according to NLEOMF statistics. The 51 traffic-related fatalities in 2009 marked the lowest total since 1996, when there were 50.11
To keep these numbers moving in the right direction, the memorial fund will continue to partner with other law enforcement and traffic safety organizations to develop and deliver appropriate safety messages for both law enforcement and civilian audiences. As Sheriff Gillespie and his officers in Las Vegas have discovered, real and sustained progress will come when both driving habits and culture change, inside and outside the law enforcement profession. ■
1National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), “Law Enforcement Officer Deaths: Final 2009 Report,” Research Bulletin, April 2010, http://www.nleomf.org/assets/pdfs/law_enforcement_officer_fatalities_2009_end_year_report_apr10.pdf (accessed May 17, 2010).
3NLEOMF, “Law Enforcement Officer Deaths: Final 2009 Report,” 2.
4Michael J. Carroll, “President’s Message: Safeguarding Officers: A Continuing Priority,” The Police Chief 76 (December 2009): 6.
5This was derived by calculating the percentage change between the 1994 total traffic fatalities of 40,716 (as reported in NHTSA’s FARS Encyclopedia, www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx) and the 2009 estimate of total traffic fatalities of 33,963 (as reported in http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pubs/811291.pdf).
6NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, “Early Estimate of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities in 2009,” Traffic Safety Facts, DOT HS 811 291 (March 2010), http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pubs/811291.pdf (accessed May 17, 2010).
7NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, “Seat Belt Use in 2009—Overall Results,” Traffic Safety Facts, DOT HS 811 100 (September 2009), http://www.dmv.ne.gov/highwaysafety/pdf/TSFSeatBeltOverall2009.pdf (accessed May 17, 2010).
8National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Fatality Analysis Reporting System,” Data Resource Website, http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/QueryTool/QuerySection/SelectYear.aspx (accessed May 18, 2010).
9FHWA, Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (2009), http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/pdfs/2009/mutcd2009edition.pdf (accessed May 17, 2010).
10Move Over, America, “National Campaign Launches Effort Educating Drivers to ‘Move Over’ and Protect Officers on Roadways,” press release, July 2, 2007, http://www.moveoveramerica.com/Move-Over-Law-Protect-Officers.html (May 17, 2010).
11NLEOMF, “Law Enforcement Officer Deaths: Final 2009 Report,” 4.
Please cite as:
Craig W. Floyd and Kevin P. Morison, "Officer Safety on Our Roadways: What the Numbers Say about Saving Lives," The Police Chief 77 (July 2010): 28–31,
http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/naylor/CPIM0710/#/28 (insert access date).