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Highway Safety Initiatives

Could Changing Our Ways Mitigate Officers’ Traffic Deaths?

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

n terms of in-the-line-of-duty deaths, U.S. law enforcement officers have not fared well in 2010 and 2011. After suffering in 2009 the fewest in-the-line-of-duty deaths since 1959 (116 versus 109),1 these deaths rose in 2010 by nearly 40 percent2 and have increased so far in 2011 an additional 7 percent over 2010.3 The year 2010 was the 13th consecutive year that traffic fatalities were the primary cause of officers’ deaths.4

How are law enforcement officers dying in traffic incidents? Of the twenty-six troopers, deputies, and patrol officers killed during the first six months of 2011,5 six were struck and killed on highways, seven were killed while en route to calls for service or to back up other officers, five died when vehicles essentially collided head-on, three were killed during motorcycle escorts, three succumbed in crashes while not responding to any known activity, and two died during pursuits. One of the twenty-six was not wearing a seat belt,6 and another who was ejected in the crash may not have been wearing a seat belt.7

The very nature of policing always will place law enforcement officers in harm’s way. Officers seldom are able to control fully the myriad situations they face daily, many of which are fraught with danger. However, there may be less hazardous approaches to the ambiguous circumstances into which officers too frequently are thrust and from which they strive to emerge unscathed. Several are explored in this column.

1. Investigate an alternative cruiser orientation by enlisting the involvement of police vehicle manufacturers, continue to seek off-highway locations for traffic stops, install shoulder rumble strips, and ensure cruisers’ trunks are packed for safety.

For decades, law enforcement officers have parked cruisers diagonally on the roadway shoulder behind the vehicles they stopped and thereby have placed themselves in the crosshairs of errant vehicles. While some individuals in law enforcement have suggested that officers should remain outside cruisers between the initiation and the completion of traffic stops and other roadside contacts, officers realistically must return to their vehicles—essentially, their offices—to undertake a host of activities, among which are initiating warrant-and-wanted checks; obtaining driver’s license and vehicle registration information; preparing citations (either in handwriting or via a computer printer); and completing crash reports and other reports. Also, like other human beings, officers might seek refuge from adverse weather conditions in their vehicles.

The IACP Highway Safety Committee’s (HSC’s) Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee (LESSS) extensively examined another way to position cruisers at traffic stops and other roadside contacts, which was tested by the Arizona Crown Victoria Police Interceptor Blue Ribbon Panel, the Ford Motor Company, and the New York State Police (NYSP).8 All conducted numerous computer simulations; Ford then undertook a verifying crash test, and the NYSP adopted this approach and even confirmed its viability during an August 8, 2004, traffic stop when a Jeep Grand Cherokee traveling at approximately 70 miles per hour (mph) struck a cruiser parked in the following manner.9 Ford and the NYSP both recommend that on right-shoulder stops where the officer intends to make a driver’s side approach, which 65 percent did according to the Blue Ribbon Panel’s 2002 survey, the cruiser should be parked parallel to the roadway at least 15 feet (or one car length) behind the stopped vehicle with a 50 percent overlap (offset left) between the vehicles and with the cruiser’s front wheels turned fully to the right and the parking brake set. Ford’s testing concluded that this orientation possesses the lowest probability of a pedestrian officer’s involvement in a crash, to which the NYSP trooper who survived the aforementioned August 8, 2004, traffic stop can attest. However, this test was undertaken with a few noteworthy provisos: only rear-wheel drive vehicles traveling on dry and level road surfaces were used.10

Since the three major vehicle manufacturers are in the process of replacing their current police-package models, this would be an opportune time for them to partner with LESSS to test the aforementioned orientation on their new models. Doing so could determine whether or not this approach to vehicle positioning at traffic stops and during other roadside contacts is beneficial to officers for safety purposes and is reasonable for agencies to explore. In the event the manufacturers choose to do so, their efforts would be a boon to officer safety and crash survivability as officers begin driving the new models.

In addition to seeking safer ways to position cruisers at traffic stops and other roadside contacts, officers still should be encouraged, where feasible, to opt for locations other than shoulders, such as behind Jersey barriers or concrete bridge supports, driveways, off-ramps, parking lots, pull-offs,11 rest stops, service drives, and well-lit areas. Pull-offs should be provided when major highways are built or when older ones undergo substantial reconstruction, for they place officers farther from the traffic flow and thereby offer a safer working environment.

What’s more, shoulder rumble strips12 rank among the most cost-effective safety features available and have proven quite effective in preventing roadway departure crashes. They have alerted drivers distracted by alcohol or other drugs; overcome with fatigue; or engaged in such varied behaviors as adjusting climate controls, applying cosmetics, changing a radio station or a CD, drinking, eating, looking for a specific business, picking up a dropped item, shaving, talking to a passenger, and rubbernecking and have simultaneously afforded officers and other highway workers opportunities to escape imminent danger.

Finally, neither officers nor supervisors should lose sight of the importance of safely stowing essential items of equipment in cruisers’ trunks, as improper trunk packing still jeopardizes officers’ safety and is directly related to their survival.13

2. Think about using blue and red light-emitting diodes (LEDs), send uncluttered messages to motorists, and consider cruiser-mounted amber directional arrows.

For numerous reasons, emergency-vehicle lighting remains problematic. One universal issue is that lighting colors among public safety disciplines are regulated primarily by state statute, since there is no national standard in this realm. As such, law enforcement is limited to blue lights in Florida,14 Tennessee,15 and West Virginia; 16 red, white, or blue lights in Maryland;17 red or blue lights in Michigan;18 and red, or red and blue lights in Pennsylvania.19 Oddly, in New York State, police vehicles may display “[o]ne or more red or combination red and white lights, or one white light which must be a revolving, rotating, flashing, oscillating, or constantly moving light. . . .”20 and

In addition to the red and white lights authorized to be displayed . . . one or more blue lights or combination blue and red lights or combination blue, red, and white lights may be affixed to a police vehicle and fire vehicle, provided that such blue light or lights shall be displayed on a police vehicle and fire vehicle for rear projection only. . . . Nothing contained in this subparagraph shall be deemed to authorize the use of blue lights on police vehicles and fire vehicles unless such vehicles also display one or more red or combination red and white lights . . . .21

Ironically, a volunteer firefighter in New York State may display one blue light on a personal vehicle.22 This nationwide hodgepodge tends to preclude drivers from easily identifying law enforcement vehicles and diminishes officer safety.

Red and blue appear to be the colors on which law enforcement might focus. A 2004 Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) study reported that blue is better perceived at night and is more distinctive because most vehicle lighting at night is red, and that red is more easily perceived during the day and in haze, smoke, and fog.23 While a 2008 University of Michigan study concurred on the advantages of blue at night,.24 it indicated that “the belief that blue lamps are ineffective in daytime has not been universal”25 and concluded that “[t]he apparent advantage for blue in terms of conspicuity should be general to all emergency vehicle applications, and therefore it could be argued that blue warning lamps should be used more often on all types of emergency vehicles, including fire, law enforcement, and medical vehicles . . . .”26 It also suggested that at least two levels of light intensity be employed—one for daylight, and the other for nighttime, emphasizing that blue was more effective in daytime, for a given level of intensity, than red, white, or yellow.27

LEDs offer much in the emergency-vehicle lighting realm. They provide electrical efficiency; long life; flexibility; a single, unfiltered color; reliability; and rapid onsets and offsets.28 However, LED lamps possess two caveats of which law enforcement must remain cognizant.

  • Initially, they are very directional; that is, they are most effective when approached straight on.29 While this characteristic could be problematic for agencies that park cruisers diagonally at traffic stops and other roadside contacts, it provides an added benefit for those that choose to adopt the parallel parking orientation described above.
  • Additionally, since LED lamps run cooler than other sources, officers working in jurisdictions with inclement winters must be aware that snow will not melt like it does on other lighting sources.

A related issue is that emergency-vehicle lighting “provides warning only and provides no effective traffic control”30 and that its current use does not provide drivers with unambiguous messages. Consequently, the lights of multiple emergency vehicles belonging to various public safety disciplines operating at a single incident are far more likely to confuse motorists and endanger officers and other responders than provide effective direction and order. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) recommends, “Public safety agencies should examine their policies on the use of emergency-vehicle lighting, especially after a traffic incident scene is secured, with the intent of reducing the use of this lighting as much as possible while not endangering those at the scene. . . .”31 In this vein, Stephen S. Solomon, OD, an optometrist who has conducted extensive research in this area, emphasized that excessive flashing lights draw attention and do not allow release, underscoring his view, “if you advertise a circus, expect people to come”; and that central vision in this context translates into “we drive where we look.”32 Perhaps, the MUTCD guidance, coupled with Dr. Solomon’s work, yields a clue toward promoting safer traffic stops and other roadside contacts: cruiser-mounted amber directional arrows. The FHP study recommended that such an arrow operate primarily when the cruiser is stationary,33 that it be separated from the light bar,34 that it be displayed with no other color,35 and that it clearly resemble an arrow.36 Additionally, Dr. Solomon suggested that an amber directional arrow be exposed as a unit and not flash in a progression.37 Once the cruiser and the motorist’s vehicle are safely on the right shoulder, an officer could extinguish the emergency-vehicle lighting and activate the amber directional arrow pointing toward the left. It would convey a clear message, should not attract undue attention because of the absence of red and blue lights, and may ensure a safer environment for both the officer and the motorist.

3. Add retroreflective material to cruisers.

The application of retroreflective material to enhance the ready recognition of law enforcement and other public safety vehicles has been a godsend to first-responder safety because “properly applied/maintained retroreflective sheeting materials can effectively increase the nighttime visibility and conspicuity of treated objects . . . .”38 The Arizona Department of Public Safety was among the pioneers in placing retroreflective material on its highway patrol cruisers’ trunks and rear bumpers and on their sides to outline and better identify patrol vehicles. “For law enforcement vehicles, retroreflective material can be concentrated on the sides and rear to maintain stealth when facing traffic or patrolling. Retroreflective tape matched to the vehicle’s base color also can be used to maintain an unmarked appearance during the day, but enhance visibility/conspicuity at night.”39

4. Ensure officers wear mandated highvisibility safety apparel.

Law enforcement officers directing traffic; investigating crashes; or handling lane closures, obstructed roadways, and disasters on all public roads now are mandated to wear high-visibility safety apparel meeting either the Class 2 or 3 ANSI/ISEA 107–2004, American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear, or the ANSI/ISEA 207-2006, American National Standard for High-Visibility Public Safety Vests.40 The mandate to don high-visibility safety apparel increases exponentially the odds that officers will be seen by motorists,41 an issue that has plagued law enforcement officers and other first responders. Over 17 consecutive years (1993–2009), an average of one officer per month was accidentally struck and killed by a vehicle.42 For each one involved in a “traffic stop, roadblock, etc.,” almost twice as many were “directing traffic, assisting motorists, etc.”43 Unfortunately, high-visibility safety apparel is not a silver bullet: Captain Daniel P. Stiles of the Uniontown, Ohio, Police Department, was struck and killed while directing traffic at a school crossing on February 15, 2011; the driver of the SUV that hit the officer may have been blinded by the sun.44

The HSC and LESSS successfully worked with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in 2006 to ensure the activities addressed by the high-visibility safety apparel rule reflect the reality that law enforcement officers, by the very nature of their multiple and diverse responsibilities, are the only highway workers who need to be visible at certain times and inconspicuous at other times.45

5. Proactively regulate response speeds, mandate seat belt wear, and consider a supplementary siren.

By and large, officers responding to emergency calls for service intend to arrive on the scene quickly in order to do good: to apprehend a dangerous felon, to back up a fellow officer in need of assistance, or to render lifesaving aid to a crash or a crime victim. They do not anticipate being involved in a crash where they are seriously injured or killed or where they seriously injure or kill others. Regrettably, excessive speed and unbuckled officers tend to go hand in hand. “Driving too fast for conditions or in excess of posted speed” was the second most prevalent driver-related crash factor over a 27-year period in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes,46 while 42 percent of the law enforcement officers killed in passenger vehicle crashes between 1980 and 2008 were not wearing seat belts.47

Unfortunately, bad things do happen to good officers. When they do, law enforcement executives and supervisors often react by promulgating new general orders; by disciplining officers who far more often than not only were attempting to accomplish—albeit not always as prudently as expected—what they had sworn to do and what their superiors expected them to do; or by trying to reassure the public that measures to prevent future crashes will be implemented.

Law enforcement leaders recognize that bad things inherently will happen from time to time, no matter how many preventive efforts are introduced beforehand in terms of policy, training, and supervision. However, proactive chiefs and sheriffs will go the extra mile and create policies to regulate the speed and manner of expedited responses and to mandate the wearing of seat belts, will provide appropriate training to ensure officers’ awareness and understanding of their agencies’ expectations, and will demand that supervisors enforce agencies’ standards. Clark County Sheriff Douglas C. Gillespie and former Illinois State Police Director Larry G. Trent developed strategies to address officers’ responses.

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. This policy limits speeds to a maximum of 20 mph over the posted limit (pursuits exempted); prohibits typing and cell phone use (texting and emailing whenever vehicles are in motion already were 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.”48

Director Trent adopted 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,49 that is, 20 mph and 30 mph, respectively—without supervisory permission.50 The policy continues to mandate that the in-car video system of any cruiser so equipped be activated whenever emergency lights are operating and to prohibit the use of the mobile data terminal or cellular equipment for voice or data communications while on either a Code 2 or a Code 3 response (hands-free cell phone use is permitted during nonemergency responses). Significantly, Director Trent stressed that 90 seconds is the difference between traveling 10 miles at 80 mph and the same distance at 100 mph. He 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 were unable to render any assistance at all.51

In order to more effectively warn motorists of responding cruisers, a low-frequency supplemental siren, such as the one developed during the FHP study, presently being implemented by the New York City Police Department52 and currently being evaluated by the Michigan State Police, should be considered to enhance safety during emergency responses. Its lower operating frequency, between a low of 130 hertz (Hz) and a high between 250–300 Hz,53 is able to penetrate more effectively than conventional sirens vehicles’ passenger compartments and is less directional, which increases its coverage.54 During FHP testing, it could be heard about 30 percent farther than other sirens in use at the time.55

Too many situations over which officers lack control will arise during their careers and will result in their being seriously injured or killed. Even if all of the above suggestions were implemented, officers still would be injured or die gallantly from time to time while performing their sworn responsibilities. But that reality certainly cannot be the basis for failing to seek new or different ways to enhance officers’ safety. Consider what has been presented, and adopt what makes sense to you. Your officers’ safety depends on your action, sooner rather than later. ■


1National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), “A Tale of Two Trends: Overall Fatalities Fall, Fatal Shootings on the Rise,” Research Bulletin (December 2009): 3, (accessed June 28, 2011).
2NLEOMF, “Law Enforcement Fatalities Spike Dangerously in 2010,” Research Bulletin (January 2011): 1, (accessed June 28, 2011).
3NLEOMF, “Preliminary 2011 Fatality Statistics,” June 29, 2011, (accessed June 30, 2011).
44NLEOMF, “Law Enforcement Fatalities Spike Dangerously in 2010,” 1.
5NLEOMF, “Preliminary 2011 Fatality Statistics.” Actually, 31 officers died during this period, but the deaths of a correctional officer, a park ranger, a parole officer, and police officers who succumbed to injuries sustained in 1996 and 2003 were not included.
6“Coroner: Saint Matthews Police Chief Victim of Fatal Car Wreck,”, March 29, 2011, (accessed June 28, 2011).
7“Updated: Michigan State Trooper Killed Following Rollover Crash,” Associated Press, April 6, 2011, (accessed June 28, 2011).
8LESSS, “Policy and Procedure,” chap. 3 in Staff Study 2004, 27–28, (accessed June 28, 2011); and New York State Police Patrol Vehicle Protocol and Safety Committee, Safe Stops Protocols: Field Guide (2004).
9LESSS, “Vehicle Positioning and Officer Approach,” chap. 4 in 2006 Staff Report, 43–44, (accessed June 28, 2011).
10Ford Motor Company, “Police Car Positioning during Traffic Stops,” (accessed June 28, 2011).
11Emergency pull-offs, pullouts, turnouts, and enforcement platforms are areas that are away from the traffic flow, should accommodate at least two emergency vehicles, are spaced periodically along controlled access highways lacking continuous shoulders wide enough for enforcement and other activities, and allow officers to more safely investigate crashes, undertake enforcement actions, and assist motorists.
12FHWA, “Rumble Strips and Stripes,”
_strips (accessed June 28, 2011); and LESSS, “Highway Environment and Design,” Staff Study 2004, 19.
13For additional information, see Richard J. Ashton, “Trunk Packing: A Matter of Officer Survival,” The Police Chief 77 (August 2010): 136–138, (accessed June 28, 2011).
14Certain Lights Prohibited; Exceptions, Florida State Uniform Traffic Control § 316.2397(2) (2010), (accessed June 28, 2011).
15Blue Flashing Emergency Lights on Motor Vehicles Unlawful — Exception — Penalty, Tennessee Code § 55-9-414(a)(1), (accessed June 28 2011).
16Special Restrictions on Lamps, West Virginia Code § 17C-15-26(d)(1),§ion=26#15#15 (accessed June 28, 2011).
17Audible and Visual Signals on Vehicles, Maryland Transportation Code § 22-218(c)(2) and (d), (accessed June 28, 2011).
18Side Cowl or Fender Lamps; Running Board Courtesy Lamp; Backing Lights; Lamp or Reflector; Flashing, Oscillating, or Rotating Lights; Private Motor Vehicle of Security Guard Agency or Alarm Company; Use of Lights Authorized under MCL 257.697, 257.697a, and 257.698a; Violation as Civil Infraction, Michigan Vehicle Code § 257.698(5)(a), (accessed June 28 2011).
19Visual and Audible Signals on Emergency Vehicles, Pennsylvania Consolidated Statute § 4571, (accessed June 28, 2011).
20Colored and Flashing Lights, New York Vehicle and Traffic Law § 375(41) and (2),$$VAT375$$@TXVAT0375+&LIST=SEA2+&BROWSER=EXPLORER+&TOKEN=48204411+&TARGET=VIEW (accessed June 28, 2011).
21New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law § 375(41) and (4)(b).
22Id. at (4)(a).
23James D. Wells Jr., Florida Highway Patrol Emergency Lighting Research and Prototype Evaluation (March 2004), 8 and 35–36, (accessed June 28, 2011).
24Michael J. Flannagan, Daniel F. Blower, and Joel M. Devonshire, Effects of Warning Lamp Color and Intensity on Driver Vision (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, October 2008), 41, (accessed June 28, 2011).
25Ibid., 5.
26Ibid., 41.
27Ibid., 40-41.
28Wells, Florida Highway Patrol Emergency Lighting Research and Prototype Evaluation, 15 and 36; and Flannagan, Blower, and Devonshire, Effects of Warning Lamp Color and Intensity on Driver Vision, 2.
29Wells, Florida Highway Patrol Emergency Lighting Research & Prototype Evaluation, 15.
30FHWA, “Control of Traffic through Traffic Incident Management Areas,” chap. 6I in Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) (2009), 729, (accessed June 28, 2011).
32Handount from Stephen S. Solomon, “Emergency Vehicle Lighting: To Light More or To Light Less?”(workshop presented at the 109th Annual Conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2002).
33Wells, Florida Highway Patrol Emergency Lighting Research and Prototype Evaluation, 34–35.
34Ibid., 19 and 34.
35Ibid., 8; and Solomon, “Emergency Vehicle Lighting: To Light More or To Light Less?”
36Wells, Florida Highway Patrol Emergency Lighting Research and Prototype Evaluation, 19 and 34–35.
37Solomon, “Emergency Vehicle Lighting: To Light More or To Light Less?”
38Federal Emergency Management Agency, Emergency Vehicle Visibility and Conspicuity Study, FA-323 (August 2009), 19, (accessed June 28, 2011).
39Ibid., 24.
40FHWA, MUTCD, 564, 566.
41Copies of the American National Standard for High-Visibility Public Safety Vests, ANSI/ISEA 207-2006, may be ordered from the International Safety Equipment Association at (accessed June 28, 2011).
42U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Systems, Uniform Crime Report, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted [LEOKA] 2002, table 52, (accessed June 28,
2011); LEOKA 2009, table 61, (accessed June
28, 2011).
44Lori Monsewicz, “Uniontown Mourns Officer Killed by SUV,”, February 18, 2011, (accessed June 28, 2011).
45For additional information, see Richard J. Ashton, “New Federal Rule Seeks to Improve Officer Visibility at Roadside,” The Police Chief 74 (July 2007), (accessed June 28, 2011).
46Eun Yong Noh, Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes, January 2011, DOT HS 811 411, 22, (accessed June 28, 2011).
47Ibid., 24.
48Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, GO-35-09, Safe Driving Policy, December 5, 2009, 3–5, (accessed June 28, 2011).
49According 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 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.
50Illinois State Police, “ISP Announces Monumental Policy Changes Which Address Emergency Response Procedures,” news release, November 21, 2008, (accessed June 28, 2011).
51Director Trent made this point during the roundtable discussion at the IACP State and Provincial Police Directorate’s Midyear Meeting on March 12, 2009.
52Ariel Kaminer, “The New Police Siren: You’ll Feel It Coming,” New York Times, February 25, 2011, (accessed June 28, 2011).
53Wells, Florida Highway Patrol Emergency Lighting Research and Prototype Evaluation, 21.
54Ibid., 17-18.
55Ibid., 37.

Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, "Could Changing Our Ways Mitigate Officers’ Traffic Deaths?," Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 78 (August 2011): 118–122.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 8, August 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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