n May 15 the nation will pause to remember officers who gave their lives in service to others. Events will be hosted by departments across the country. In Washington, D.C., the 25th Annual National Peace Officers Memorial Day Service on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol will be preceded by many events, including the March 13 candlelight vigil at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
As in years past, too many of the names of fallen officers added to the walls of the memorial will be the result of traffic crashes.
The sad fact is that traffic-related officer deaths have increased 40 percent in the past three decades, according to data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, while deaths from shooting incidents declined 36 percent in the same period.
While we have worked diligently to improve traffic safety for the public we serve, it seems that too often we forget to remind those we work with daily just how vulnerable they are to becoming a crash victim. It's clear from the data that officers are at a much greater risk to be involved in a crash than the general motoring public.
The reasons for the increased probability of a crash are easy to understand. Our officers are on the road during the worst weather conditions. They are driving from call to call during those hours of the day and days of the week when it's most likely that other drivers will be impaired. On patrol, we expect them to both drive and see everything that happens around them, an expectation that can lead to distraction and a crash. We also add distractions to their driving environment, things like computers, radios, siren controls, video cameras, pagers, and cell phones.
Emergency response driving brings a whole other set of risk factors into play.
The causes of fatal crashes are often no different from the factors involved in the minor daily crashes with which all law enforcement administrators deal. Many are unavoidable: being struck by a felon fleeing the scene of a crime; getting hit by an impaired driver suddenly crossing the center line; or colliding with a distracted driver who pulls into the police vehicle's path.
Still, other crashes indicate that training and awareness-on the part of the public and our officers-may prove beneficial.
Drive Safely, a campaign created by the National Law Enforcement Memorial Officers Fund to reduce police fatalities on the road, is intended to change driver behavior.
"I think most people recognize how dangerous it is for an officer to face gunfire in a dark alley, but they don't realize that automobiles can be very deadly weapons too," said NLEOMF Chairman Craig W. Floyd. "This campaign will enable us to promote crucial safe-driving habits among the public that will make a measurable difference in officer injuries and deaths."
The campaign encourages drivers to sign a pledge to drive safely, spread awareness, create safer generations of drivers, and share thoughts and support with survivors through the Drive Safely tribute board. More information is available at the Web site (www.nleomf.com).
The Web site also contains educational tips in ready-to-print form for distribution at your public events. These tips are designed to help drivers be more aware of what they can do to help keep law enforcement officers safe:
- Be conscious of officers on the road. Do not talk on your cell phone, eat, look for items in your back seat, or put on makeup while driving.
- Give officers room on the highway.
- Watch officers' hands as they direct traffic.
- Always pull over to the right, well onto the shoulder (unless the officer directs you otherwise).
- Only drive when sober, and report drunk drivers.
- Drive within the speed limit.
- Keep the volume on your car radio at a reasonable level.
- Don't wear headphones while you drive.
If you are pulled over:
- Follow the officer's directions and pullover as soon as possible.
- Leave the officer enough room to walk up to your car on the shoulder.
- Put your car in park.
- Turn the engine off.
- Turn on the flashers.
- Turn on the interior light.
- Keep your hands where the officer can see them. Do not look in your glove compartment until you are directed to do so.
Visit the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Web site and review the information available there. Train your officers and educate the public, and let's work together to prevent that next fatality. ■