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Back to Archives | Back to July 2005 Contents 

Your Vest Won't Stop This Bullet:
A Guide to Safer Traffic Stops

By Richard J. Ashton, Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP



raffic stops are vital to effective law enforcement and homeland security. These stops contribute to several organized efforts to reduce the daily average of 117 persons dying on U.S. roadways; 40 percent succumb in alcohol-related fatalities. Highways and streets are far safer when police officers consistently issue citations for traffic violations and when officers focus enforcement efforts on speeders and red-light violations, arrest those driving under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, interrupt street races, and detect fatigued drivers and those whose ability to drive safely has been affected by aging or illness.

Vehicles are involved to some degree in virtually every crime and traffic law enforcement regularly identifies those who have perpetrated-or who are planning to commit-serious criminal acts. For example, four of the September 11 terrorists were issued speeding tickets just before that infamous day,1 and those 19 terrorists had obtained a total of 34 driver's licenses and identity cards.2 Competent and dedicated police officers legitimately detect irregularities during traffic stops and alertly connect the dots to solve more significant crimes. 3M's annual Looking Beyond the License Plate Awards showcase representative examples of the excellent police work that evolves from the countless traffic stops occurring daily. Registration irregularities contributed to Timothy J. McVeigh's apprehension just 75 minutes after the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Other examples are the 2002 arrest of a Utah driver discovered with two corpses in his vehicle's trunk as he was en route to commit a third murder, and the 2002 seizure of Washington, D.C., snipers John A. Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.

Traffic law enforcement remains dangerous work for another reason. Police officers are 1,000 times more likely than other drivers to be parked alongside roadways and are four times more likely than other drivers to be involved in crashes.3 In fact, more police officers in the United States have died accidentally than have been killed feloniously each year beginning in 1998,4 and being struck by vehicles has ranked as the number two cause of accidental police officer deaths (behind vehicle crashes) for at least the last decade.5

Roll Call Video
The Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee (LESSS)6 of the IACP Highway Safety Committee - through a cooperative agreement with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)-has worked during the past 28 months to fulfill its mission of creating a safer working environment for police officers during traffic stops and other roadside contacts. True to that mission, LESSS prepared Staff Study 20047 as a status report to highlight its preliminary findings, and it will debut and distribute its roll-call video, Your Vest Won't Stop This Bullet,8 at the upcoming annual IACP conference in Miami and will ensure that every law enforcement agency receives thereafter a copy. Two posters also will be available, so agencies constantly can reinforce the video's message. The intent of these efforts is to mitigate the perils of traffic stops and other roadside contacts, not to attempt to dictate either agencies' policies or training. The video intentionally was limited to about 10 minutes in length, so it can be viewed during the typical roll call. The brevity of the video required LESSS to limit its subject coverage only to a portion of its many efforts and thus to postpone for a future video other significant issues, such as vehicular conspicuity and highway design.

Officer Visibility
The need for officers to be alert and readily visible to others when investigating collisions, directing traffic, or attending to disabled vehicles is indispensable to their safety and security. Officers must not focus so intently upon completing these duties that they unconsciously overlook the importance of being clearly recognizable to approaching motorists. They must be furnished with-and trained to use-retroreflective gear suitable to the duties they are undertaking, that is, gear that adheres to ANSI/ISEA 107-2004, the performance specification for the American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear.9 The use of such clothing, coupled with well-placed signing and appropriate warning devices, will protect officers and allow them to direct effectively motorists around incidents. In addition, first-line supervisors must ensure that officers constantly are reminded to use the uniform hand signals, in concert with those standardized whistle blasts, they were taught during entrance-level training, so the correct message is conveyed to motorists and pedestrians. Traffic direction should not be allowed to fade into a lost art; it should remain one of the hallmarks of preventing incidents from worsening.

Selecting the Location
Officers come to know their beats like the backs of their hands. Consequently, they should employ that knowledge for their own safety when making traffic stops and should select, whenever possible, safe locations for those stops. They should seek driveways, off-ramps, parking lots, pull-offs,10 rest stops, service drives, well-lit areas, and wide shoulders. They should not accept blindly the places where violators choose to stop. Officers should especially avoid having the violator stop their vehicle on blind curves, hillcrests, medians, narrow or nonexistent shoulders, reduced berms, and similar spots where visibility is impaired; and officers should take into account adverse weather conditions that reduce visibility in the stop location. However, the fact that those officers who have been accidentally -as opposed to feloniously-killed since 1984 have averaged 10 years' law enforcement service11 suggests that complacency resulting from the sheer number of successful traffic-related activities undertaken over a decade may be a contributing factor that needs to be explored in greater depth and addressed via enhanced training and increased supervisory attention.

Trunk Packing
The manner in which officers pack their vehicles' trunks remains crucial to their safety. The Ford Motor Company's study of 14 fiery, high-speed, high-impact rear-end collisions in which officers had died revealed that objects installed or carried in the trunks of those Crown Victoria Police Interceptors (CVPIs) had caused or contributed to two-thirds of these fatalities. These deaths are preventable.

  • The Trunk Pack12 originally was developed jointly by the Arizona CVPI Blue Ribbon Panel and Ford, is an option available for purchase from Ford, and is a sturdy equipment repository designed to carry laterally-as opposed to longitudinally-sharp-edged or weighty items and to reduce thereby the risk of police equipment's piercing the rear seat or the fuel tank as the result of high-speed, high-impact, rear-end collisions.

  • A comprehensive trunk equipment mounting guide, "an outline pattern with recommended fastener mounting locations in the trunk,"13 is available at no charge on Ford's Web site, (www.cvpi.com). This guide will assist those who install police equipment in a CVPI trunk, as well as those officers who store other items in it.

  • Agencies need to promulgate what items may be carried in their vehicles' trunks and how those allowable items are to be transported. They must mandate that supervisors consistently and frequently inspect the trunks of all vehicles over which they exercise control to ensure they are packed safely. The Florida Highway Patrol's monthly inspection report is available at (www.patrolvehiclesafety.org) to assist in this effort.

Aftermarket Equipment and Replacement Parts
The installation of aftermarket equipment is integrally related to officer safety in the event of a high-speed, high-impact crash. The manner in which in-car cameras, mobile data terminals, radar units, shotguns, and other equipment are mounted can affect injury severity. The Florida Highway Patrol currently requires that all aftermarket installations in the passenger compartment of its vehicles withstand 30gs to prevent secondary impacts to its troopers during collisions. Every radar manufacturer now has a bracket that meets this standard.

LESSS just recently identified another significant vehicle-safety issue: ensuring that the correct replacement parts are used on police model vehicles. This concern pertains to more than a single manufacturer and is especially critical in terms of tires. Vehicle manufacturers engineer police model vehicles to operate optimally with specific items of equipment. An agency that switches for whatever reason from the tires recommended by the manufacturer unwittingly could compromise the safe operation of that vehicle. In this same vein, Ford makes four Crown Victoria models, only one of which is the CVPI. Parts for the CVPI are different from those for the other Crown Victoria models and bear unique part numbers. While LESSS continues to explore this issue, agencies need to implement means by which to guarantee that parts are replaced with the correct ones and to consult with vehicle manufacturers prior to deviating from the equipment included as part of the police package.

Vehicle and Officer Positioning
There is no means by which to guarantee that any traffic stop or other roadside contact will be 100 percent safe; in fact, all are fraught with peril. That being said, traffic stops and other roadside contacts are a vital-though inherently dangerous -component of effective law enforcement.

One of the ways to effect a traffic stop or other roadside contact that LESSS has examined extensively is that tested by the blue ribbon panel, Ford, and the New York State Police (NYSP).14 All conducted numerous computer simulations, Ford then undertook a verifying crash test, and the NYSP reported the success of this approach during a 2004 traffic stop.

Ford15 and the NYSP16 both recommend that on right-shoulder stops where the officer intends to make a driver's side approach,17 the cruiser 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 that the parking brake be set.18 Ford's testing indicates that this orientation possesses the lowest probability of a pedestrian officer's involvement in a crash.19

After an NYSP trooper stopped a vehicle on the right shoulder in accordance with the aforementioned protocol and while she was standing at the driver's door of the stopped vehicle, her cruiser was rear-ended by a vehicle driven by a suspected DWI and traveling at an estimated 70 miles per hour in a 55-miles-per-hour zone. The physics of the vehicle orientation was clearly demonstrated: she was uninjured.20

Ideally, officers should reenter cruisers only to leave the scene once a traffic stop or other roadside contact has been concluded. At all other times when officers are not occupied with other tasks, they should position themselves adjacent to-and about six feet out from-the passenger door of the rearmost vehicle (usually the cruiser). Realistically, however, officers are required to spend time in cruisers for a multitude of valid reasons: to initiate warrant-and-wanted checks, to obtain driver's license and vehicle registration information, to prepare citations (either in handwriting or via printer), to complete crash and other reports, or to seek refuge from adverse weather conditions. They should minimize the actual time spent inside cruisers and should fasten their safety belts so that they do not become projectiles in their cruisers in the event of a collision.

Recognizing this reality while still attempting to minimize its risk, the NYSP21 recommends "'falling back' to a safer position." Once troopers have completed the initial approach and interview phases of traffic stops, they increase the distance between the stopped vehicle and the cruiser from 15 to 40 feet and move the cruiser as far away from-but still parallel to-the nearest lane of travel as possible. Once troopers are ready to re-approach the stopped vehicle, they return the cruiser to its initial configuration and then approach the stopped vehicle as they first did. This additional step more effectively safeguards troopers and only slightly increases the length of the traffic stop.

In-Car Cameras
Officers learn during entrance-level training never to stand directly between parked vehicles during traffic stops and other roadside contacts. Unfortunately, the proliferation of in-car cameras unintentionally has placed officers between stopped vehicles and cruisers, especially when they record the administration of standardized field sobriety tests (SFSTs) in connection with suspected DWI stops. LESSS currently is working with the IACP In-Car Camera Project to promote the development of affordable technology to address this and other issues that place officers in situations jeopardizing their safety and the safety of other motorists. In the meantime, agencies need to reexamine their policies that could place their officers in harm's way.

LESSS's stakeholders appear quite dissimilar but in reality are the same: they hail from diverse walks of life and different parts of this continent, possess different levels of experience in their chosen professions, but share the same passion to improve the safety of law enforcement officers as they discharge their duties on and adjacent to highways. They may be tackling the single most important set of safety issues facing today's police officers and will not be content with their accomplishments until they significantly reduce police officer deaths and serious injuries.   ■   


1 Robert S. Mueller III, "Partnership and Prevention: The FBI's Role in Homeland Security," Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, California, April 19, 2002; (www.fbi.gov/pressrel/speeches/speech041902.htm); May 7, 2005.
2 Douglas Waller, "Inside The New Spy Bill," Time (December 20, 2004), (www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,1009740,00.html) (subscription required); May 4, 2005.
3 Ford Motor Company, "Crown Victoria Police Interceptor: Police Officer Safety Action Plan," June 2003 Update, 3.
4 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 2003 (Clarksburg, W.Va.: 2004), 9 and 56.
5 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 56.
66 LESSS is composed of representatives from Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Ontario, Virginia, and Washington, as well as from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the DaimlerChrysler Motors Corporation, the Federal Highway Administration, the Ford Motor Company, the General Motors Corporation, the Institute of Police Technology and Management, the national Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Sheriffs' Association, and the North Company.
7 Staff Study 2004 is available at the LESSS Web site, (www.patrolvehiclesafety.org).
8 The following individuals actively exerted considerable effort to produce this video through Colonel Paul D. McClellan's generosity in making available the excellent facilities and professional staff of the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSHP): Deputy Commissioner Joseph A. Farrow, Assistant Chief Scott MacGregor, and John C. Keller of the California Highway Patrol; Captain Brigette E. Charles and Videographer Todd A. Gaudet of the OSHP; Garrett Morford, NHTSA's chief of enforcement and justice services; and the author.
99 International Safety Equipment Association, "Revised American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear, ANSI/ISEA 107-2004," September 21, 2004; (www.safetyequipment.org/hivisstd.htm); May 4, 2005.
10 Emergency pull-offs, pullouts, turnouts, or enforcement platforms are areas that are away from the traffic flow, that should accommodate at least two emergency vehicles, that are spaced periodically along controlled access highways lacking continuous shoulders wide enough for enforcement and other activities, and that allow officers more safely to investigate crashes, undertake enforcement actions, and assist motorists.
11 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, 55.
12 Ford Motor Company, "CVPI Blue Ribbon Panel: Panel Topics-Police Interceptor Trunk Pack Now Available," March 3, 2005; (https://www.fleet.ford.com/showroom/cvpi/default.asp); May 7, 2005.
13 Ford Motor Company, "CVPI Blue Ribbon Panel: Panel Topics-Trunk Equipment Mounting Guide," 2002; (https://www.fleet.ford.com/showroom/cvpi/default.asp); May 7, 2005.
14 The Blue Ribbon Panel's 2002 "Police Practices Questionnaire" found that 75 percent of officers parked their cruisers offset left, 72.5 percent of them parked behind the stopped vehicle, and 65 percent of them approached the stopped vehicle on its driver's side.
15 Ford Motor Company, "CVPI Blue Ribbon Panel: Panel Topics," 2002; (https://www.fleet.ford.com/showroom/cvpi/default.asp); September 5, 2003.
16 New York State Police, Patrol Vehicle Protocol and Safety Committee, "Safe Stop Protocols: Field Guide" (2004), 2.
17 The NYSP procedure allows an officer to approach either from the driver's side or from the right side.
18 There are several caveats involved with Ford's tests: they were conducted with only rear-wheel drive vehicles on dry, level road surfaces and with the left side of the stopped vehicle being at least one vehicle width from the fog line (the right border of the closest lane of travel).
19 Ford Motor Company, "CVPI Blue Ribbon Panel: Panel Topics" (2002); (https://www.fleet.ford.com/showroom/cvpi/default.asp); September 5, 2003.
20 Trooper James A. Hunt described this crash to the author during an April 27, 2005, telephone conversation.
21 Patrol Vehicle Protocol and Safety Committee, 4.


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From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 7, July 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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