Emergency Vehicle Safety
By Thomas J. Connelly
Whether in a large metropolitan area or in a quiet rural setting, police officers performing patrol functions do not simply use their patrol cars to transport them from call to call, chase down a traffic violator, or patrol their assigned areas; they also use their vehicle as their personal office. Like typical offices, the police vehicle is equipped with pens, paper, note pads, a computer, a radio, a telephone, and the forms necessary to complete reports and other paperwork. As in any other office setting, police officers use their vehicle to conduct meetings and interviews. Sometimes, officers even drink their coffee and eat their lunch in the car, just like most of us who work in a traditional office. Thus, patrol cars not only serve numerous functions but present many distractions.
In my years in law enforcement, I found that 25 to 30 percent of police officer line-of-duty deaths resulted from motor vehicle traffic collisions.1 Officers sustain many more nonfatal injuries each year as a result of traffic collisions involving patrol cars. Also, many line-of-duty deaths result from violent acts that occur in or within close proximity to the officer’s vehicle.
When officers drive at high speeds through a densely populated area, they may not only endanger themselves but also, perhaps, the public. This situation is exacerbated by officers’ inherent stress and distractions when responding to a high-risk, life and death situation. The public expects police officers to assume these risks at all times, under all conditions, without exposing those around them to an unreasonable level of elevated danger. Police executives and administrators expect the same.
Consider the equipment installed in a police vehicle to make an officer’s job safer and easier, including technology, such as computers, video cameras, license plate readers, two-way radios (sometimes more than one), stolen-vehicle locator devices, and manually operated light and siren controllers. Can these pieces of equipment create a distraction to the officer when operating their car? In my experience, they do.
When I was driving a patrol car, I found myself trying to multitask and operate a computer that could access various law enforcement databases and send messages to other cars or the dispatcher. I cannot say the number of times that I looked up from the keyboard just in time to avoid sideswiping a parked car or rear-ending a stopped one! Fortunately for me, I never was involved in a collision due to my attention being diverted while typing in a license plate number or messaging another officer. I was lucky, but others have not been as fortunate. Most agencies’ policies and procedures prohibit operation of the computer while driving. It is a practice that officers on the road should avoid.
Mr. Connelly, a retired captain from the Los Altos, California Police Department, is president of a management and public safety consulting firm in Santa Clara.
I also was involved in a number of high-speed pursuits during my career. Although most police officers are excellent multi-taskers, it is difficult to drive a patrol car at high speeds during a pursuit while operating the lights and siren and talking on the radio to fellow officers and the dispatcher. Add inclement weather or maneuvering through a school zone with children present, and it is easy to see the intense physical stress officers face. High-speed pursuits probably are the most dangerous situations threatening the safety of officers as well as the public. Though officers reasonably must pursue violent offenders to keep their communities safe, the public expects them to keep citizens’ safety interests in mind while engaged in high-speed pursuits.
As technology has developed, especially in the mobile policing environment, it increasingly has become integrated into the police vehicle. Thirty years ago, the typical police car was equipped with a two-way radio and a controller (possibly a set of toggle switches) for the lights and siren, usually mounted below the dashboard, somewhat out of the way. In contrast, many police cars today have several two-way radio systems, a light and siren controller, a computer, a video system with cameras mounted on the ceiling of the car and a separate monitor to review videos, license plate readers, moving radar transmitters, stolen-vehicle locator systems, and other mission-critical systems.
With all of this technology in police cars, it is a wonder that officers wearing 12-pound utility belts, a sidearm, and body armor will fit inside! Also, consider that the new 2012 police vehicle models from major manufacturers will be somewhat smaller inside than the vehicles prominently in use today. Significant injury avoidance in vehicle ergonomics is becoming a real consideration for police executives and risk managers.
Ergonomics represents a risk management concern in most industries today. Many employers, including law enforcement agencies, are required to develop and adopt a comprehensive injury and illness prevention plan (IIPP) in their work environments. Workplace ergonomics plays a significant part in any IIPP. The cost to businesses of repetitive stress injuries (e.g., back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, persistent migraines) due to poor ergonomics is significant. Police executives and risk managers need to consider not only the direct costs of medical care related to ergonomic injuries but also the indirect costs associated with reduced productivity, increased absenteeism, and damaged employer-employee relationships when evaluating the impact of ergonomic injuries.
Organizational leaders and risk managers proactively identify potential hazards and conditions that could lead to unnecessary injuries in the workplace and strive to enhance workplace safety. Do the guidelines and standards set forth in an organization’s IIPP carry over to officers’ patrol cars? If they do not, should they? A concerted effort to make the inside of the patrol car as ergonomic as possible will reduce the impact of repetitive stress injuries and avoidable driver distractions related to routine police vehicle operations.
Distractions Behind the Wheel
Distracted driving is another factor to consider in reducing the injuries and fatalities associated with police vehicle operations. Police officers perform myriad tasks behind the wheel. Concurrently, they must safely operate their vehicles at all times in the communities they serve. And, the more activity going on in the police car, the more likely the police officer driving the vehicle will be distracted. Officers are trained to handle distractions and should be assessed periodically on how well they do so.
Multiple approaches exist that can enhance the safety of emergency vehicle operations and reduce the number of preventable injuries and deaths that result from those operations. These approaches include evaluating alternative vehicle technology systems for safety, periodically reviewing emergency vehicle operations training programs, critically reviewing of policies and procedures related to emergency vehicle operations continually, implementing tracking systems for on-duty collisions (especially avoidable ones), integrating innovative vehicle safety technologies, and considering the potential negative safety impacts created before new technologies are integrated into existing emergency vehicle systems.
Several actions can help address some of the concerns related to the technological systems currently integrated into the standard patrol car. Most of that technology is stand-alone. With multiple radio control heads, monitors, keyboards, cameras, and radar control units inside the passenger compartment, it seems that the integration of these systems in police vehicles, perhaps, requires further consideration, especially from a safety and ergonomics perspective. Many patrol cars today appear cramped and cluttered. As a result, law enforcement agencies and technology-product vendors in the public sector must develop ways to integrate the various systems in police cars to eliminate any disordered appearance. In addition, development of an intuitive, user-friendly operating system for the integrated technology is paramount. I have seen several systems currently marketed to law enforcement agencies that attempt to integrate the various technological and operational controls, reportedly enhancing the safety of patrol cars as a result.
I have seen only one integration system that eliminates the clutter of control heads and redundant monitors in the vehicle and incorporates a selection of control methods. This system integrates the radios, light and siren controllers, moving radar control heads, video control heads, and other external technologies into the mobile computer, which offers control via several easy-to-use methods.
The first method incorporates a hand-controlled device mounted on the floorboard between the seats. Drivers can operate the lights, siren, and radios with one hand without having to divert their attention away from the roadway. The second method involves voice commands. Most of the system’s functions can be controlled by simple voice commands, including queries of license plates and people, thereby eliminating the need to type on the keyboard while driving. The final method employs a touch-screen user interface. By using a system, such as this, the radios, light and siren controllers, video controllers, and other clutter-causing equipment are removed from the passenger compartment of the police car and mounted remotely, typically in the trunk. This allows vehicles to appear roomy, neat, well-designed, and airbag compliant.
Vehicle Operations Training
In addition to systems upgrades, police administrators should review their basic emergency vehicle operations training programs. In this regard, a number of critical issues require consideration: how frequently training is held, number of hours committed, if that time commitment is adequate, whether the training mirrors realistic situations, and if reviews of current policies and procedures are included as an integral part of the training.
Modifying or expanding vehicle operations is a sensitive issue, especially considering the financial constraints that local law enforcement agencies face today. However, there may be creative ways to enhance this training without a significant budget impact. Roll-call training, shared regional instruction, and video training serve as examples of less expensive, yet viable methods. Agencies need to be creative in this area. Police executives and training coordinators could refer to various industry-specific resources to help them develop innovative training programs. Some of these resources include the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), various private universities and research organizations, and local or regional training academies.
Policy Development and Enforcement
Another necessary step involves ongoing critical review of department policies and procedures specifically related to emergency vehicle operations and pursuit driving. Ensuring compliance with contemporary laws and legal mandates related to emergency vehicle operations is crucial. Addressing activities that can lead to distracted driving (e.g., typing license plate numbers or messages into the computer) also is an important consideration. Ensuring compliance with these policies through consistent disciplinary intervention is imperative, not only when accidents occur but whenever a violation of policy is detected. In doing so, the policy is given credence throughout the organization.
A number of resources are available to assist police executives with policy review and development. The International Association of Chiefs of Police is a useful resource providing access to sample policies and topic-specific research. PERF and other state and regional police chiefs’ organizations are great resources as well. Private companies also provide policy development services to police agencies for a subscription fee, though some risk management groups will pay subscription fees for law enforcement organizations.
Tracking and administratively reviewing all on-duty traffic collisions is another useful approach related to policy development and enforcement. If an employee is involved in a number of avoidable collisions at a rate higher than the norm, the officer’s driving record merits further investigation. Determining the root causes of collisions and developing plans to address those, whether individually or organizationally, is important. Sometimes, additional training specifically developed for the officer, in addition to any other required in-service training, is appropriate. Other times, formal discipline resulting from identified policy violations might be necessary. Occasionally, the officer may not have the skills required to operate a patrol vehicle and its mobile technology safely, which could necessitate elevated levels of disciplinary intervention. The systematic review of emergency vehicle collision reports and employees’ driving records also may help identify the need for a change of organizational policy or training.
The impact of adapting to new technology in police cars is another important consideration for police executives and managers. Technology continues to evolve, and, as it does, new products will be incorporated into the mobile policing environment. When these technologies are adopted, the impact that their presence and operation will have on the driver must be considered. Then, through the steps described previously, any potential increased risk factors can be adequately addressed and mitigated before the technology is implemented.
New Safety Systems
A greater number of cars today have higher-level safety systems built into them at the factory. These systems further can enhance safety in the mobile policing environment. Some new vehicles are equipped with proximity-warning devices that sound an alarm when objects get too close to them. Others have automatic lane-drift warning systems and automatic braking in case the vehicle is approaching another car or an object and is not slowing down or braking. Some even have pre-collision impact systems that activate built-in safety systems before a collision occurs, while others can parallel park on their own. Police administrators and fleet managers can work with vehicle manufacturers to ensure that they integrate as many safety features into police fleet vehicles as they can.
Since the introduction of new and multiple technologies into police vehicles over the past few decades, the resulting clutter, driver distractions, and ergonomic degradation of the passenger compartment has created a situation wherein safe vehicle operation may have been sacrificed.
To halt this trend, a multifaceted approach is required. Integration of new and innovative technologies, from space-saving computer systems to emerging vehicle safety features, is imperative for officers behind the wheel. At the same time, the development of contemporary policies and procedures related to emergency vehicle operations, with consistent enforcement and requisite training, are important for officers when not on the road. These all are options that police department executives and administrators must heed to enhance officer safety and minimize the number of police injuries and deaths attributable to on-duty traffic collisions.
“Integration of new and innovative technologies…is imperative for officers behind the wheel.”
1 The author derived this percentage from his professional experience and expertise.