Officer-Involved Traffic Crashes
By James K. Dourvetakis, M.S.
Police officers should operate their vehicles carefully and prudently. They must obey all laws and policies so they can conduct their patrol operations effectively, respond to incidents expediently, and, most important, complete their duties safely. When an officer becomes involved in a traffic crash, all other police business halts for that officer and others who respond to the scene.
More important, the outcome can be tragic. Injuries can and often do occur. Although less frequently, these injuries can prove serious and even fatal. Additionally, officer-involved traffic crashes take resources (e.g., money and manpower) away from the main mission and can result in liability issues for the officer, department, and city.
Motor vehicle-related incidents are one of the leading causes of law enforcement line-of-duty deaths. In the United States, vehicle crashes caused 460 such fatalities between 2007 and 2016.1
The Plantation, Florida, Police Department (PPD) experienced over 216 officer-involved traffic crashes from January 2016 to December 2020. Some of these accidents (115) were deemed avoidable, meaning the officer could and should have taken action to prevent the crash from occurring.2
Deputy Chief Dourvetakis serves with the Plantation, Florida, Police Department.
Overall, the frequency of such incidents in the department was balanced between daytime (51 percent) and nighttime (49 percent) accidents. Weather had little impact—86 percent of the crashes occurred in clear weather and only 14 percent while it was raining. Parking lot accidents comprised 36 percent, leaving 64 percent on the road. Additionally, 27 percent were high speed and 73 percent low speed. Only 33 percent of the accidents happened in response to a call for service, and 48 percent of the crashes involved rookie officers with less than 5 years of service.3
Nationwide statistics from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) demonstrate that officer-involved accidents are not a problem unique to any one agency.4 Further, as other studies show, “law enforcement officers appear to drive significantly worse while distracted.”5
Although the PPD data does not specifically cite distracted driving as a cause, it may prove a factor. Law enforcement agencies should take measures to decrease the number of officer-involved crashes by adopting a philosophy of policy, awareness, education, and training.
Although not an immediate solution, a better collection of information on officer-involved accident scenes represents one easily implemented action. This would improve future reviews of accident data and assist in determining what causes these accidents. Some factors currently are not captured in many cases.
- Technology usage involved (e.g., mobile data terminal, cell phone, radio)
- Number of consecutive days the officer worked
- Officer’s start of shift time
- Officer’s normal end of shift time
- Length of officer’s shift (e.g., 11.5 hours)6
The collection of this data likely would provide a better picture of what may cause officer-involved accidents, but agencies cannot afford to wait for additional data.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) provided a resolution recommending that law enforcement agencies “…adopt policies to prohibit the use of handheld communications and portable electronic devices not necessary to the performance of their official duties while a vehicle is in motion.”7
Likewise, many states recently have passed laws regarding bans on texting and driving. While this type of policy may address personal devices, it still leaves officers with the dilemma of using their laptops and mobile data terminals (MDTs). Thus, these policies alone do not resolve the issue of distracted driving. Agencies also may need to adjust guidelines concerning officer fatigue, including maximum hours of work. Additionally, they might consider implementing two-person patrols.8
Beyond policy, change requires awareness, education, and training. A study comparing mobile phone use and alcohol consumption found cognitively demanding and text-based conversations comparable to a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.07 to 0.10.9 Officers must learn this information and see it themselves through training. One portion of the training should include a practical driving exercise where officers attempt to drive while multitasking with the radio, MDT, and other devices. This would give officers a firsthand understanding of how distraction debilitates their ability to drive.10
Awareness, education, and training also can provide officers with reference points to enhance their driving experience. Information provided by sources such as the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance’s program Preventing Violence Against Law Enforcement and Ensuring Officer Resilience and Survivability (VALOR) can prove invaluable.11
Research indicates four main factors associated with officer-involved crashes and injuries.
- Responding to a call: Officers driving to the scene of an incident were at three to four times greater risk of being injured in a crash compared with those on routine patrol.
- Seatbelt usage: Officers chronically fail to wear seat belts, and a law enforcement officer not using a seat belt was two to three times more likely to be injured in a crash.
- Motorcycles: Motorcycle officers are five times more likely to be injured in a crash.
- Partnering up: Having another officer in the car more than halves the likelihood of an officer being injured in a crash, while having a suspect in the car increased the likelihood of injury.12
With this knowledge in mind, forewarned can be forearmed, allowing officers to use better critical decision-making when confronted with related risk factors.
VALOR provides various training materials, including posters from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance.13 Personnel can place these strategically throughout the department as training and safety reminders. Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers informational videos that departments can use in short briefings and training sessions.
Similarly, NIOSH has partnered with the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund to provide a toolkit for law enforcement that includes suggestions for managers, safety posters, decals, and even image files to post on internal social media sites.14
“Motor vehicle-related incidents are one of the leading causes of law enforcement line-of-duty deaths.”
Another useful source of training and information is the Below 100 program. Its mission is to “[r]educe line-of-duty deaths to fewer than 100 per year.”15 The initiative offers a variety of studies, training, and resources that departments can use for awareness, education, and training.
The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training’s POST Driver Training Study provides a comprehensive list of recommendations. These include the need for retraining, including in-service Emergency Vehicle Operations Courses (EVOCs) and the use of law enforcement driving simulators (LEDS).16 The commission also suggests coordination with the local police academy to discuss potential improvements in initial training. Finally, it notes the Field Training Officer (FTO) program and the need to enhance FTO focus on driving skills.
The clear picture from research suggests that these driving skills are perishable. Thus, training should occur every 24 months, instead of following a random or less frequent pattern.
In 2009, the POST study indicated costs of about $341 per student for LEDS training and $377 per student for EVOC training.17 Traditionally, PPD uses an older LEDS device, secured from the local police academy, which reduces the costs to only training hours. Also, the use of in-house EVOC trainers could minimize the costs of actual driving courses. Of course, departments must track vehicle damage and maintenance to assess those potential costs due to training.
“...police departments across the nation face issues with insufficient driving experience, lack of focus (especially due to distracted driving and fatigue), and excessive speed.”
Awareness and education costs likely would prove minimal because departments can distribute information during briefings, post it throughout the building, and emphasize it during annual training.
For many agencies, a move to partnered units for the entire department proves highly unlikely due to staffing and budgetary costs. However, administrators should consider a policy allowing supervisory discretion to authorize two-officer units during times when staffing permits and when officer-involved accidents are most prevalent.
Changes to FTO training would require a simple adjustment of the current programs to place a higher focus on driving skills. This likely would not incur additional cost.
On the surface, coordination with local police academies for additional emphasis on driving training should not impact departments’ budgets, either. However, it could result in increased costs per cadet trained, which likely would pass on to agencies.
As many law enforcement agencies struggle with handling officer-involved vehicle accidents, the liability is clear and not unique to any one department. Studies suggest that police departments across the nation face issues with insufficient driving experience, lack of focus (especially due to distracted driving and fatigue), and excessive speed. These same studies indicate that the combined efforts of strong policy, officer awareness, education, and training can have a positive effect.
Hopefully, this level of awareness- and reality-based training will have a positive effect on officer buy-in. The combination of efforts undoubtedly will have some impact on the budget between research, development, training hours, and vehicle maintenance, but the expenses in this area prove financially prudent when balanced against just one major officer-involved accident, not to mention the prevention of injury and death.
Deputy Chief Dourvetakis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Law Enforcement Officer Motor Vehicle Safety, accessed November 17, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/leo/default.html.
2 Plantation, Florida, Police Department data.
4 Law Enforcement Officer Motor Vehicle Safety.
5 Stephen M. James, “Distracted Driving Impairs Police Patrol Officer Driving Performance,” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 38, no. 3 (2015): 505-516, accessed November 17, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1108/PIJPSM-03-2015-0030.
6 Judd Citrowske et al., “Distracted Driving by Law Enforcement Officers Resulting in Auto Liability Claims: Identification of the Issues and Recommendations for Implementation of a Loss Control Program” (capstone, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, April 12, 2011), accessed November 17, 2020, http://policedriving.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Distracted-Driving-Saint-Marys-University-April-20111.pdf.
7 “Law Enforcement Policy Recommendation to Reduce Distracted Driving,” International Association of Chiefs of Police, accessed November 17, 2020, https://www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/all/f-h/HSCDistractedDrivingResolution.pdf.
8 Citrowske et al.
9 Sumie Leung et al., “A Comparison of the Effect of Mobile Phone Use and Alcohol Consumption on Driving Simulation Performance,” Traffic Injury Prevention 13, no. 6 (November 2012): 566-574, accessed November 17, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1080/15389588.2012.683118.
10 Citrowske et al.
11 See U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, VALOR Initiative: Preventing Violence Against Law Enforcement and Ensuring Officer Resilience and Survivability, accessed November 18, 2020, https://bja.ojp.gov/program/valor/overview.
12 “High Speed Pursuit and Traffic Crashes: Leading Causes of On-Duty Law Officer Fatalities,” Pursuit Response, accessed November 18, 2020, https://www.pursuitresponse.org/high-speed-pursuit-leading-cause-law-officer-fatalities.
13 “Vehicle Safety," VALOR Officer Safety and Wellness Program, accessed November 18, 2020, https://www.valorforblue.org/Spotlight-On-Safety/VehicleSafety.
14 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Law Enforcement Officer Motor Vehicle Safety: Toolkit, accessed November 18, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/leo/toolkit.html.
15 “Vision & Mission,” Below100, accessed November 18, 2020, https://www.below100.org/vision-mission; and “Brochures and Posters,” Below100, accessed November 18, 2020, https://www.below100.org/brochures-and-posters.
16 California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, POST Driver Training Study Volume 1, 2009, accessed November 18, 2020, https://www.below100.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/CalPOST.pdf.