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Back to Archives | Back to May 2013 Contents 

Research in Brief: Realizing SAFE Driving: Effects of Multi-Disciplinary Research and Interventions in California

By Bryon G. Gustafson, PhD, Bureau Chief–Standards, Evaluation, & Research, California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, Sacramento, California

The IACP Research Advisory Committee is proud to offer the monthly “Research in Brief” column. This column features evidence-based research summaries that highlight actionable recommendations for Police Chief magazine readers to consider within their own agencies. The goal of the column is to feature research that is innovative, credible, and relevant to a diverse law enforcement audience.

n December 2007, the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (CalPOST) began an investigation of line-of-duty traffic fatalities. Then Executive Director Paul Cappitelli recognized the persistence of fatal law enforcement traffic collisions as an issue largely unaddressed in the profession and directed CalPOST staff to research it.

In 2008, CalPOST completed the Driver Training Study: Volume I1 and established a strategic objective to “[e]nhance and continue the study of driver training methods and vehicle-related high-risk activities to improve training, enhance safety, and reduce preventable collisions and injuries.”2 In 2009, CalPOST branded this effort the SAFE (Situation-Appropriate, Focused, & Educated) Driving Campaign and designed it as a nationwide effort (though it has had greater prominence in California).3 CalPOST also formed a SAFE Driving Research Team with original members including Dr. Geoff Alpert of the University of South Carolina; Dr. Mary Dodge of the University of Colorado, Denver; Dr. Tom Rice of the University of California, Berkeley; Dr. Bryan Vila of Washington State University, Spokane; Dr. Kevin Wehr of California State University, Sacramento; and Dr. Gustafson (the author). Each researcher brought different disciplinary perspectives including criminal justice and criminology, bio-physiology and human factors, epidemiology, public policy and management, and sociology.


Several studies were designed and carried out (some ongoing):

  • In a qualitative study of law enforcement officer culture and attitudes about driving, emergency response, and seat belt use, more than 75 law enforcement officers were interviewed using a semi-structured protocol and verbatim transcriptions were coded and analyzed for trends.
  • In a controlled laboratory study of effects of fatigue and distraction on law enforcement driving (and deadly force decision making) in simulated environments, night and day sleepers were divided into two cohorts from a sample of 80 law enforcement officers.
  • In a longitudinal statistical and epidemiological study of law enforcement officer collisions, training, and demographics, separate studies utilized information from multiple data sources to analyze (generally) reportable collisions for all California law enforcement officers over a 12-year period and (in greater detail) reportable collisions in a single large (<5,000 sworn) law enforcement agency over a 5-year period.
  • A mixed-methods study of state-level differences in law enforcement training, regulations, and fatal traffic collision involvement used 15 years of existing data for the 50 states and the District of Columbia and a 2012 survey of state POST agency directors and highway patrol colonels/commissioners to identify significant factors in higher and lower collision fatality rates.


  • Officers report they do not wear seat belts for what some call the “fear of the ninja assassin.”4 There is a pervasive worry—contrary to the historical record—that officers will be ambushed and unable to respond or return fire due to their seat belts.
  • Fatigue is an obstacle to SAFE Driving. Issues like the commute to and from work, secondary employment, overtime, and use of personal time can be just as (or potentially more) significant than shift length with regard to officers’ driving.
  • Appropriate driver training can contribute to lower overall collision rates.
  • Most officers drive in excess of speed limits without cause.


Consistent with these straightforward findings, CalPOST has designed and advocated practical interventions including the following:

  • A redesigned basic (i.e., academy) driver training program with emphasis on seat belt use, safe speed, and decision making
  • An online, video-based awareness campaign to educate officers about the realities of seat belt use, fatigue, and speed5
  • In-service training for supervisors, managers, and executives to (a) emphasize creating a culture of safety; (b) educate about seat belts, fatigue and distraction, and speed; and (c) encourage prioritization of SAFE Driving6


The results from the SAFE Driving Campaign (as it has been disseminated and the research findings been put into practice) have been encouraging. While it is difficult to quantify these results nationally given a host of variables, it is reasonably plausible to make inferences in California.

The first law enforcement officer traffic-related fatality in California occurred in November 1911. Since then (through February 20, 2013), a total of 543 law enforcement officer traffic-related fatalities have occurred in California.7 This is an average of about 5.3 officer deaths per year. Since 2009, there have been 13 deaths in California—9 fewer than average. What is even more significant is that there were no law enforcement officer traffic-related fatalities in California in 2012. For the first time since 1913, California had zero law enforcement officer traffic-related fatalities in a calendar year. In fact, California had not had a law enforcement officer killed in a traffic-related incident between July 2011 and March 25, 2013. Using the Poisson probability formula, the likelihood of this happening “by chance” is about once in 400 years. CalPOST does not believe this is a matter of chance.8 ♦


1Bryon G. Gustafson, ed., Driver Training Study: Volume I (Sacramento, Calif.: Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, 2009).
2Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, Strategic Plan (Sacramento, Calif., 2012), 7, see to download a copy (accessed April 11, 2013).
3See for more information (accessed April 11, 2013).
4Kevin Wehr et al., “ ‘The Fear of the Ninja Assassin:’ Understanding the Role of Agency Culture in Injurious and Fatal On-Duty Vehicle Collisions,” Journal of California Law Enforcement 46, no. 2 (April 2012): 25–31, 25.
5Videos are available at (accessed April 11, 2013).
6CalPOST has partnered with many organizations to support various training programs. Partners include Below 100 (, the California Office of Traffic Safety, the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC), the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), among others.
7Officer Down Memorial Page, (accessed February 20, 2012).
8There are clearly many factors involved with statewide collision rates—exposure, population changes, regression to the mean, and so forth. Even so, an identifiable alternative explanation that can account for the dramatic outcome for 2012 or the multi-year trend shift since 2009 does not exist.

Please cite as:

Bryon G. Gustafson, "Realizing SAFE Driving: Effects of Multi-Disciplinary Research and Interventions in California," Research in Brief, The Police Chief 80 (May 2013): 14–15.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 5, May 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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