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Back to Archives | Back to January 2012 Contents 

Highway Safety Initiatives

“Predictable Is Preventable”

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

or many in law enforcement, this column’s title immediately conjures the teachings of Gordon J. Graham, the retired California Highway Patrol captain, attorney, and risk manager who over the years has offered law enforcement professionals so much down-to-earth advice to enhance officer safety and concomitantly reduce costs by eliminating flawed practices and avoiding litigation and lost duty time.1 While we continue to appreciate Graham’s fascinating presentations, we unfortunately have not learned the lessons he has tried to teach us.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) recently released Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted [LEOKA] 2010 and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes regrettably contain data to demonstrate that we are not listening to the extent we should be in order to reduce officers’ line-of-duty deaths. These reports underscore the sheer constancy of officers’ accidental deaths for considerably more than a decade and our apparent acquiescence to these tragedies. We must never forget that the numbers in these documents represent flesh and blood: the spouses, the parents, the siblings, the children, the neighbors, the coworkers, and the subordinates who comprise America’s thin blue line.

For 13 consecutive years (1998–2010), 254 more (37 percent) officers in the United States were killed accidentally as opposed to feloniously,2 as figure 1 demonstrates. This column identifies the primary causes of accidental officer deaths over time and suggests strategies to mitigate the needless loss of lives.

High Speed without Seat Belts

Two-thirds of officers who died accidentally were involved in vehicle crashes—87 percent involving automobiles and 13 percent riding motorcycles.3 Excessive speed and unbuckled officers combined far too frequently to trigger a catastrophe. In fact, over a period of 27 years (1982–2008), “driving too fast for conditions or in excess of posted speed” was the second most prevalent driver-related crash factor.4 For 29 years (1980–2008), 42 percent of the officers killed in passenger vehicle crashes were not wearing seat belts.5

The Las Vegas, Nevada, Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) lost two of its members in 2009—and had another one seriously injured—during high-speed responses to incidents while not wearing seat belts.6 Clark County, Nevada, Sheriff Douglas C. Gillespie said, “I would much rather hold our officers accountable by issuing citations or discipline for not wearing a seat belt, or for driving carelessly, than plan another funeral.”7Sheriff Gillespie mandated seat belt use unless “the vehicle is traveling less than 15 miles per hour [mph] and the driver or passengers are expecting to exit the vehicle and take immediate police action once the vehicle has stopped,”8 and simultaneously limited emergency response speeds to a maximum of 20 mph over posted speed limits, except in the case of pursuits.9

Not surprisingly, during the first 6 months of 2010 compared to the same period of 2009, crashes involving LVMPD vehicles declined by 14 percent and speed-related crashes decreased by 68 percent while miles driven by officers increased by 12 percent.10 Additionally, LVMPD crashes decreased by 19 percent between October 2010 and September 2011 from 606 to 494, and both the number of injuries sustained and the amount of damage incurred declined during this 12-month period.11 Actions really do speak louder than words.

Former Illinois State Police Director Larry G. Trent developed a policy similar to that of the LVMPD and stressed that 90 seconds was the difference between traveling 10 miles at 80 mph and the same distance at 100 mph. He asked troopers how many times arriving 90 seconds sooner actually had made a difference, emphasizing that those troopers involved in serious crashes en route to calls for service were unable to render any assistance at all.12

Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, Sheriff John T. Whetsel instituted a proactive notification system that makes his deputies accountable for their driving and additionally serves as a deterrent.13 When the speed of a deputy’s cruiser exceeds 85 mph, a text message automatically is sent to the commander’s cellphone so the appropriateness of the cruiser’s speed can be determined. If any cruiser exceeds 100 mph, the sheriff also receives a text message. Over the past five years, Sheriff Whetsel observed a noticeable decrease in citizens’ complaints regarding the manner in which deputies drive, and he indicates that major crashes involving his agency’s vehicles are almost nonexistent.

The IACP Highway Safety Committee’s Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee (LESSS) produced in 2010 the roll-call training video Is Today Your Day? to encourage officers to buckle up through an emotional appeal by family members and coworkers. It was produced by the New York State Police and is available on a DVD with LESSS’s three other videos: Your Vest Won’t Stop This Bullet (produced in 2005 by the Ohio State Highway Patrol); P.U.R.S.U.E. (produced in 2007 by the Colorado State Patrol); and Saving Lives . . . One Stop at a Time (produced in 2008 by the California Highway Patrol).14 Additionally, the IACP ratified at IACP 2011 a resolution urging “all law enforcement executives to immediately develop and implement mandatory seat belt [use] for their departments.”15


Over 24 years (1987–2010), 278 officers were struck and killed by vehicles; this averages out to nearly one officer killed each month.16 Of these officers, 60 percent were “directing traffic, assisting motorists, etc.,” while the remaining 40 percent were involved in a “traffic stop, roadblock, etc.”17

It’s the law that law enforcement officers directing traffic; investigating crashes; or handling lane closures, obstructed roadways, and disasters on all public roads are mandated to wear high-visibility safety apparel meeting either the Class 2 or 3 ANSI/ISEA 107–2010 standard18 in the American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear or the ANSI/ISEA 207-2006 standard in the American National Standard for High-Visibility Public Safety Vests.19 The public safety vest was purpose designed: It is capable (1) of visually signaling the presence of law enforcement and other public safety officers by contrasting the color and brightness of the vest against the ambient background of the officers’ work environment; and (2) of including police officers’ requirements for breakaway shoulders, adjustable waists, pen and penlight openings, badge holders, microphone tabs, and side access to such items as pistols, handcuffs, and walkie-talkies.20

To alleviate further the inherent dangers of working on highways, law enforcement executives should partner with the three major vehicle manufacturers to investigate safer ways to position cruisers at traffic stops and during other roadside contacts. Officers need to be taught to identify and use, where feasible, off-roadway locations for traffic stops and other roadside contacts; and transportation departments need to consider installing shoulder rumble strips to prevent roadway departure crashes.21


For 14 years (1997–2010), the average age of officers accidentally killed was 38 years old, and their average amount of law enforcement experience was 10 years.22 As three experienced FBI researchers pointed out, “Because seasoned officers have experienced so many successful outcomes in the past, they begin to rely on experience and believe that they can read people and situations accurately. This causes them to walk a dangerous tightrope. They become complacent, thinking that they can shortcut a thorough examination of the incident. Complacency, however, is the worst enemy of a veteran officer.”23 Unfortunately, this is a serious reality that is ripe for exploration.

Tire Deflation Devices

Tire deflation devices (TDDs) are “the most widely used pursuit termination technology available today.”24 When a pursuit intervention was initiated, TDDs were deployed in 63 percent of the pursuits analyzed in 2009 and in 68 percent of those studied in 2010.25 However, the use of TDDs definitely is not without danger. Since the first officer positioning these devices was struck and killed in 1996,26 at least 19 law enforcement officers in the United States have been killed deploying TDDs. In a Minnesota Highway Safety and Research Center two-year study of 26,737 pursuits, TDDs were deployed in 2,080 of them (7.8 percent), and someone was almost struck in 239 of those deployments (11.5 percent).27 During the first 11 months of 2011, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reported that 50 law enforcement officers had been killed accidentally during the year.28 An analysis of these officers killed revealed that nine had been involved in pursuits, and five of them were in some stage of deploying TDDs.

Beginning in 2004, LESSS partnered with the FBI to revise the latter’s Analysis of Officers Feloniously Killed and Assaulted form. The goal of this partnership was to gather information critical to identifying more precisely the factors that eventually could improve officer safety during traffic stops and other roadside contacts. The new Analysis of Officers Accidentally Killed form was implemented in January 2011, so the process of gathering crucial data has begun and eventually should yield the same type of invaluable information that has been available for four decades relative to officers killed feloniously.29

As we begin this new year, we need to refocus on the circumstances that continue to kill our officers and identify and implement more effective means to mitigate them. The statistics set forth above certainly reveal the predictability aspect of accidental officer deaths, so the preventable piece now needs to be explored thoroughly. There is no better time than right now to prevent what has been killing our officers for so many years. ■

1Gordon J. Graham, “Continued Professional Training” (handout based on workshop presentations at the 118th Annual Conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Chicago, Illinois, 2011) (accessed
November 28, 2011).
2U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services, Uniform Crime Report, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted [LEOKA] 2010, table 1, (accessed November 28, 2011); Ibid., table 61, (accessed November 28, 2011); LEOKA 2001, tables 16 and 28, (accessed November 28, 2011).
3LEOKA 2010, table 61; and LEOKA 2001, table 28.
4Eun Yong Noh, Characteristics of Law Enforcement Officers’ Fatalities in Motor Vehicle Crashes, January 2011, DOT HS 811 411, 22, (accessed November 28, 2011).
5Ibid., 24.
6Antonio Planas, “Sheriff: Officers Speeding, Not Wearing Seat Belts at Time of Deadly Crash,” Las Vegas Review Journal, November 1, 2009, (accessed November 28, 2011).
8Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, GO-35-09, Safe Driving Policy, December 5, 2009, 3.
9Ibid., 4.
10Richard Lake, “New Program Urges Police Officers to Wear Seat Belts,” Las Vegas Review Journal, July 31, 2010, (accessed November 28, 2011).
11Deputy Chief Marc Joseph, telephone interview with and email message to the author, October 17, 2011.
12Director Trent made this point during the roundtable discussion at the IACP State and Provincial Police Directorate’s Midyear Meeting on March 12, 2009.
13Sheriff John T. Whetsel, telephone interview with and email message to the author, November 16, 2011.
14For more information on these videos, contact the author at 1-800-843-4227, extension 276; or at
15Highway Safety Committee, “Mandatory Seat Belt Use by Police Officers,” IACP Resolution adopted at the 118th Annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (Chicago, Illinois, 2011), (accessed November 28, 2011).
16LEOKA 2010, table 61; LEOKA 2001, table 28; U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services, Uniform Crime Report, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted [LEOKA] 1996, table 23, Law Enforcement Officers Accidentally Killed, 1987–1996 Circumstances at Scene of Incident, (accessed November 28, 2011).
18Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), “Details for Request 6(09)–4,” April 27, 2010, (accessed November 28, 2011).
19FHWA, “Pedestrian and Worker Safety” and “Flagger Control,” chap. 6D and chap. 6E in Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (2009), 564, 566, (accessed November 28, 2011).
20For additional information, see Richard J. Ashton, “New Federal Rule Seeks to Improve Officer Visibility at Roadside,” The Police Chief 74 (July 2007): 24–27, (accessed November 28, 2011).
21For additional information, see Richard J. Ashton, “Could Changing Our Ways Mitigate Officers’ Traffic Deaths?” Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 78 (August 2011): 118–122, (accessed December 1, 2011).
22LEOKA 2010, table 53,
and table 54, (accessed November 28, 2011); and LEOKA 2001, table 33.
23Anthony J. Pinizzotto, Edward F. Davis, and Charles E. Miller III, “Traffic Stops,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 77, no. 5 (May 2008): 8, (accessed November 28, 2011).
24Robert Osborne, Pursuit Management Task Force Report, NCJ 172200, September 1998, 45, (accessed November 28, 2011).
25Gerad Mead, Pursuits: Data That Drives Safety (April 25, 2011), 25.
26Craig W. Floyd, Spike Strips Pose Own Element of Danger while Making Vehicle Pursuits Safer, January 1, 2008, (accessed November 28, 2011).
27David P. Schultz, Ed Hudak, and Geoffrey P. Alpert, “Emergency Driving and Pursuits,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 78, no. 4 (April 2009): 4, (accessed November 28, 2011).
28NLEOMF, “Recently Fallen,” (accessed November 28, 2011).
29U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, “UCR Program Continues to Adapt, Evolve,” CJIS Link, September 2011, (accessed November 28, 2011).

Please cite as:

Richard J. Ashton, " 'Predictable Is Preventable,' " Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 79 (January 2012): 62–66.

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From The Police Chief, vol. 79, no. 1, January 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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