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Back to Archives | Back to March 2011 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

Can We Learn Anything from 29 Years of Officer Traffic Deaths?

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



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egrettably, the deaths of law enforcement officers in motor vehicle crashes are trending upward sharply. Crashes accounted for 29 percent of officer deaths during the 1980s, 35 percent in the 1990s, and 48 percent in the first decade of 2000.1 Put another way, officer deaths from crashes increased 44 percent from an average of 25 per year from 1980 to 1999 to an annual average of 36 from 2000 to 2008. National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) preliminary figures indicate that 73 officers died in traffic collisions in 2010.2

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes analyzed the circumstances surrounding 772 crashes involving 776 publicly owned, marked police motorcycles and passenger vehicles and 823 law enforcement officer deaths between 1980 and 2008. The document is rich with almost three decades’ worth of findings on which police executives, managers, supervisors, and trainers can develop new strategies to mitigate future officer crash deaths and injuries.


Typical Crashes

According to the NHTSA report, the typical passenger vehicle and motorcycle crashes in which law enforcement officers were killed between 1980 and 2008 can be described as follows:

Passenger vehicle. A male (92 percent) driver (84 percent) between 30 and 39 years old (36 percent) was traveling straight ahead (61 percent) in a passenger vehicle (80 percent), without activated emergency equipment (58 percent), and first collided at an angle (55 percent) with another moving vehicle (53 percent) on a dry (78 percent), straight (70 percent), level (66 percent), two-way, nondivided (65 percent) arterial roadway (51 percent) in a rural area (54 percent) between 11:00 p.m. and 1:59 a.m. (24 percent) during May, July, or October (totaling 31 percent), and did nothing to avoid the collision (37 percent). The initial point of impact, as well as the principal point of impact, was the front of the vehicle (47 percent and 42 percent, respectively). The vehicle neither caught fire (90 percent) nor rolled over (73 percent). When an officer was wearing a seat belt (45 percent), he was not ejected (95 percent). “Failure to keep in proper lane or running off road” and “driving too fast for conditions or in excess of posted speed limit” were overwhelmingly listed as driver-related crash factors.

Motorcycle. A male (99 percent) rider (100 percent) between 30 and 39 years old (47 percent) was traveling straight ahead (71 percent) on a motorcycle (12 percent), without activated emergency equipment (63 percent), and first collided at an angle (67 percent) with another moving vehicle (80 percent) on a dry (96 percent), straight (88 percent), level (73 percent), two-way, nondivided (41 percent) arterial roadway (66 percent) in an urban area (89 percent) between 2:00 p.m. and 3:59 p.m. (26 percent) during May, July, or October (totaling 31 percent), and did nothing to avoid the collision (29 percent). The initial point of impact, as well as the principal point of impact, was the front of the motorcycle (73 percent and 69 percent, respectively). The motorcycle did not catch fire (96 percent). The officer was wearing a helmet (91 percent) and was not ejected (94 percent).


Implications for the Future

The almost 30 years of data identify trends that should be of interest to police administrators and driving instructors.

  • During their careers, law enforcement officers unfortunately are thrust into myriad situations over which they lack control and sometimes are seriously injured or killed. Not buckling up should never be included among those situations, yet the failure of officers to wear seat belts needlessly continues to rob agencies and families of dedicated officers. Forty-two percent of those officers killed in passenger vehicle crashes during the 29 years NHTSA studied were not wearing seat belts; that equals 311 officers whose deaths might have been averted had they simply chosen to buckle up—that is, do to themselves what they cite others for not doing. Moreover, 34 percent of those who died in passenger vehicle crashes without the benefit of a properly fastened seat belt were ejected.

    Seat belt use by officers during the three time periods remains puzzling. Twenty-eight percent of officers killed in passenger vehicle crashes in the 1980s were restrained, 56 percent were buckled up in the 1990s, but only 50 percent were belted in the first decade of 2000. The decline in seat belt use after the year 2000, in relation to the 1990s, corresponds to increased deaths attributed to rollovers (from 27 percent in the 1990s to 31 percent in the first decade of 2000) and ejections (from 16 percent in the 1990s to 25 percent in the first decade of 2000). NLEOMF reported that 35 percent of the 37 officers killed in passenger vehicle crashes in 2009 were unbelted.3 Its preliminary figures for 2010 indicate that 58 percent of the 31 officers whose agencies already had reported their dying in passenger vehicle collisions were not wearing seat belts, and that the agencies of the additional 22 officers who were killed in last year’s crashes either had not reported their officers’ seat belt use at the time of their deaths or had advised it was unknown.4

    Air bag deployment doubled from the 1990s to the first decade of 2000 (27 percent versus 56 percent). Especially troubling, though, is that available air bags did not deploy almost five times more in the first decade of 2000 than in the 1990s (33 percent versus 7 percent). Air bags and seat belts together operate as an effective safety system; however, in the first decade of 2000, officers sacrificed critical protection during crashes when air bags deployed only 56 percent of the time and seat belts were worn only half the time.

    Police chief executives must mandate that all of those they lead always wear their seat belts and must strictly hold their supervisors accountable for ensuring this is the case during every tour of duty. Agencies should consider showing to all of their officers, as well as spouses and significant others of their officers, the roll-call training video Is Today Your Day? that the IACP Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee produced last year and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) generously distributed to police agencies nationwide. For more information on Is Today Your Day? contact the author at 1-800-843-4227, extension 276, or at ashtonr@theiacp.org.

  • While colliding with another vehicle was the first harmful event in three-fifths of the passenger vehicle crashes during the 29 years studied, its prevalence diminished decade by decade, from 60 percent in the 1980s to 52 percent in the 1990s and to 48 percent in the first decade of 2000. To some degree, that decline was offset by crashing into fixed objects: the next largest category of first harmful events. It increased during each of
    the three time periods: from 29 percent to 37 percent and to 41 percent, respectively. Perhaps excessive speed for road conditions could be the culprit, since more than half of these incidents occurred in rural areas.
  • The fact that 36 percent of the officers killed between 1991 and 2008 were on motorcycles or in passenger vehicles that did not attempt to avoid the crashes is cause for concern. Emergency vehicle operator course instructors may wish to emphasize to a greater degree the effects of tunnel vision.
  • Interestingly, the age range of 30 to 39 years identified in the NHTSA study for the most officer fatalities corresponds to FBI data indicating that the average ages of officers accidentally killed in the 1990s and in the first decade of 2000 were 36 and 38 years old, respectively.5 According to the FBI, the average years of service for officers accidentally killed between 1990 and 2009 was 10.6 “Because seasoned officers have experienced so many successful outcomes in the past, they begin to rely on experience and believe that they can read . . . situations accurately. This causes them to walk a dangerous tightrope. They become complacent. . . . Complacency, however, is the worst enemy of a veteran officer.”7
  • Police passenger vehicles rolled over in 27 percent of the crashes involving at least a single officer fatality. These vehicles were four times more likely to roll over as a subsequent, as opposed to an initial, event (21 percent versus 5 percent). The number of officers dying in roll-over crashes actually increased during the three periods studied: from 21 percent in the 1980s to 27 percent in the 1990s and to 31 percent in the first decade of 2000. However, the full implementation of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 126, which requires the installation of electronic stability control systems on all passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, and buses with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or fewer8 manufactured on or after September 1, 2011,9 should go a long way in reducing deaths and serious injuries of officers.

Tragically, 823 of our brother and sister officers died over 29 years in motor vehicle collisions. We cannot bring them back, but we can use the NHTSA data to develop new and more effective ways of driving law enforcement vehicles to decrease the number of officers killed and seriously injured in the future. As motivational speaker Anthony Robbins said, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”10 That is simply unacceptable. ■

Notes:

1Unless otherwise noted, statistics in this column were derived from Eun Yong Noh, Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes, January 2011, DOT HS 811 411,http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/811411.pdf (accessed January 26, 2011).
2National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, “Law Enforcement Officer Deaths: Preliminary 2010,” Research Bulletin, http://www.nleomf.org/assets/pdfs/reports/2010_Law_Enforcement_Fatalities_Report.pdf (accessed January 31, 2011).
3Craig 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, March 13, 2010), slide 22.
4Craig W. Floyd, e-mail message to the author, January 8, 2011.
5Federal Bureau of Investigation, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted 2009, October 2010, table 57, http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2009/data/table_57.html (accessed January 26, 2011).
6Ibid.
7Anthony J. Pinizzotto, Edward F. Davis, and Charles E. Miller III, “Traffic Stops,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 77, no. 5 (May 2008): 8, http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/2008-pdfs/may08leb.pdf (accessed January 26, 2011).
8Electronic Stability Control Systems, 49 CFR 571.126 S3.1, http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=a39d45b35e0ed320299c468d2cb09f1d&rgn=div8&view=text&node=49:6.1.2.3.37.2.7.27&idno=49 (accessed January 26, 2011).
9Electronic Stability Control Systems, 49 CFR 571.126 S8.4, http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=a39d45b35e0ed320299c468d2cb09f1d&rgn=div8&view=text&node=49:6.1.2.3.37.2.7.27&idno=49 (accessed January 26, 2011).
10ThinkExist.com, “Anthony Robbins Quotes,” http://en.thinkexist.com/quotes/anthony_robbins (accessed January 26, 2011).


Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, "Can We Learn Anything from 29 Years of Officer Traffic Deaths?" Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 78 (March 2011): 76-78.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 3, March 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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