Preventing Cruiser Casualties

Preventing Cruiser Casualties

Fifty-two!

Nationally, in 2015, 52 officers lost their lives in traffic-related incidents. That’s 52 individuals – moms and dads, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and comrades. In eight of the past 10 years, traffic-related incidents have been the leading cause of officer fatalities nationwide.

With almost half of line-of-duty deaths resulting from traffic accidents, there needs to be a cultural change throughout the country to bring driver training back into primary focus.

“We have to put an emphasis on driving,” said Kentucky State Police Deputy Commissioner Alex Payne. “It’s one of the things that hurts and kills our people all across the country. If we’re not focusing on that, then we’re missing the boat.”

Think about the amount of time the average officer spends in his or her patrol car. Cruisers have become mobile offices, where officers spend the better part of 10- and 12-hour shifts. Moreover, driving is one of those skill areas which officers almost always are very familiar before they choose a law enforcement career. Their familiarity with the act of driving a vehicle usually is higher than with any other police-related skill, making it easier for them to grow complacent and inattentive when it comes to vehicle operation.

“We ask officers to do a lot, and we ask them to get there as quickly as possible,” said Jeff Knox, vehicle operations instructor at the Department of Criminal Justice Training. “We don’t care whether it’s in rain, sleet or snow, we want them to get there, and do it quickly.

“For this reason I would encourage administrators to make vehicles and training a priority because it will save lives,” Knox continued.

There are eight areas related to vehicle operation and traffic enforcement that consistently plague law enforcement. While some are common-sense areas in which officers tend to get lax after years on the road, others specifically relate to training best practices or new technology that has changed the law enforcement driving experience.

Start by Following the Law

“We stress when officers are out on routine patrol, one way to save lives is to start by following the rules of the road,” Knox said. “Wear your seatbelt — there is no excuse not to.” 

Not only has wearing a seatbelt been the law in Kentucky since 1994, it is one of the primary ways to ensure one’s safety if involved in an automobile accident. However, many officers who were not accustomed to wearing seatbelts before they went into law enforcement won’t do it as officers either, Knox said. He cites numerous excuses officers use for not buckling up, including feeling like it traps them in their vehicle, its uncomfortable with all the duty gear, and it hinders how quickly they can exit their vehicles. 

Despite these complaints, Knox and Payne agree there is no valid excuse for not wearing a seatbelt, and it’s up to administrators to enforce that, Knox said. In fact, to counter some of these complaints, during basic training DOCJT instructors specifically address how to take off a seatbelt when officers make traffic stops — unlatch it, pull it up and drop it, Knox said. 

“I was on the road for 12 years, I don’t remember ever getting hung in my seatbelt,” he said. 

Second, Knox reminds officers to follow the speed limit and use ‘due regard,’ as stated in KRS 189.940, at all times. 

“We have a bad habit of speeding when we’re not even going anywhere in particular,” Knox said. “We should use due regard all the time, not just in pursuits.” 

In the February issue of TechBeat magazine, Michigan State Police Sgt. Andy Douville stressed that reaching a call safely is more important than reaching it quickly. 

“If you’re responding to an emergency and you end up in a ditch, not only does someone have to come help you, but someone else has to take the call, and you’ve tied up two more people,” Douville said.

The difference between 80 mph and 100 mph across 10 miles is a mere 90 seconds – it’s not worth the danger officers put themselves and other motorists in when using excessive speeds without need.

Drive for the Conditions

Similarly, being aware of road conditions plays into the idea of using due regard. Whether it’s the first rain in 15 or 20 days that makes the road slick like ice or transitioning from cleared freeways to unplowed side streets after a heavy snowfall, officers should use the same common sense when driving that they implore the general public to use, Knox said. 

 DOCJT skid track exercise. (Photo by Jim Robertson)

DOCJT skid track exercise. (Photo by Jim Robertson)

Navigating tight curves also can cause officers to lose control of their vehicles if approached improperly or at a rate of speed that is too high. In basic training, officers are taught to brake and accelerate in a straight line and drive through the late apex of a curve, Knox said. With more than 30 hours behind the wheel in basic training, these tactics become second nature to brand new officers. However, driving is a diminishable skill and, over the length of a career if not consistently practiced, that head knowledge dwindles.

Agencies with newer patrol vehicles do, however, get an added benefit with features such as electronic-stability control, which keeps vehicles from losing control on slick surfaces or when hitting a curve too fast. 

“On a slick surface, when you’re coming out of a curve, all you have to do is touch the gas and the back end will start to spin,” Knox said. “In vehicles with ESC, when you enter a curve at 50 mph meant to be taken at 35 mph, the vehicle reads that and automatically cuts torque or power to your vehicle until it regains what it considers control. It also controls your transmission and braking in a split second.

“Officers, I don’t care how good they are, will never be that quick,” Knox continued. “Unfortunately, officers are turning the ESC off because they do not like the way it feels when they drive it. That’s insane. This is going to save tons of officers’ lives — it already has.”

Know Your Limits

Officers have limitations beyond what ESC can correct as well, and it is important they recognize these limitations to keep themselves safe. Fatigue can keep officers from performing their best. Are you sick? Have you been in court all day with only five hours of sleep? Have you worked multiple double shifts because your agency is short-handed? Have you just left a second job you need for additional income?

In a 2011 study published in Police Practice and Research, Weber University professor Scott Senjo compares fatigue to driving under the influence of alcohol. Both sleep deprivation and alcohol cause impaired speech, inability to balance, impaired eye-hand coordination and falling asleep behind the wheel, Senjo said. Officers are at higher risk of being seriously injured or killed, especially when driving, because they lack focus and do not recognize fatigue’s danger signs.

“One thing we say in training is, ‘Don’t drive beyond your capabilities or beyond the vehicle’s capabilities,’” Knox said.

Maintain Your Vehicle

“We tell recruits to check out their vehicle on a daily basis,” Knox continued. “That was my job as an officer.”

If the brakes are bad, officers should not change them on their own, but instead take the vehicle to a certified mechanic, Knox recommends. Emergency vehicles require special brakes that are unlike other vehicles. 

Officers should check their vehicle’s tire pressure before every shift. Tire pressure should be maintained at what the door says. The No. 1 cause for tire failure is improperly-inflated tires, Knox said.

Officers have shown up to training in vehicles with wires sticking out of their tires, Knox added. Tires are the only piece of equipment between an officer and the road. Driving on poorly maintained, bald or under-inflated tires can be deadly. On wet roads, poor tires on a rear-wheel drive vehicle can cause hydroplaning accidents.

Officers expect a lot out of their vehicles. Knox encourages administrators to put more emphasis on maintenance. Instead of buying some of the latest technology to go inside the vehicle, consider buying new tires, he recommends. 

“Take a look at your fleet, what are your tires looking like?” Knox asks. “If administrators do not make the effort to keep up with vehicles, it will come back on them.”

Minimize Multitasking

There are so many distractions available in today’s police vehicles. As more and more technology is available inside cruisers to help officers be more efficient and effective, the temptation to multitask behind the wheel is ever increasing. 

“Don’t get lax behind the wheel of a moving vehicle,” Payne said. “Put down the cell phone, and quit looking at the computer screen while you’re moving. If you’re going to drive, drive. If you need to do those things, pull over. 

“When dispatch is calling out to you or giving directions
when you’re trying to get someplace, don’t compound that with cell phones or trying to do something on the computer,” he continued. “There will be time for that, but the time is not while you’re driving.”

Safely Navigate Intersections

Not only are there exorbitant distractions from technology within the car, officers often can lose focus from the circumstances outside the vehicle, too. 

“We’re getting killed at intersections,” Knox stressed. “Most fatalities are on emergency runs when officers’ adrenaline is up, and they know they need to get there, or they are in pursuit of a violator.”

On an emergency run or in a pursuit, when coming to an intersection officers are trained to come to a complete stop; look right, left and right again; and then ease into the intersection. However, when lights are swirling, sirens blaring and adrenaline rising quickly, officers often don’t follow these rules.

Officers easily can experience ‘brake fade’ when they are in high-speed situations where they repeatedly press the brake. Brake fade is the reduction in stopping power that can occur after repeated or sustained application of the brakes, especially in high-load or high-speed conditions. The reduction of friction is caused when the temperature rises and gas builds up between disc and pad, cites an article on EBCBrakes.com. 

When an officer approaches an intersection and they attempt to slam on their brakes again, this gas build up won’t allow the brake to stop, and they already are out in the intersection and T-boned before they can stop, Knox said.

“The body will never go where the mind has never been,” Knox said about the importance of training for these real-life situations.

“The more we can push them in training, the better they’ll perform,” Payne agreed. “We don’t want the first time they experience these situations to be out in the field. Through consistent training they’ll have something in their memory bank and recall that.”

Payne stresses that learning to control one’s self will help officers perform better in high-stress situations. 

“People overlook that with high-speed driving,” Payne said. “If they have to run lights and sirens, they should concentrate on controlling their heart rate.”

Controlling the heart rate allows officers to maintain the ability to perform the complex and fine motor skills needed to operate a motor vehicle. 

“Learn to calm down when things are boisterous around you — and that includes your radio and sirens,” Payne said. “Put yourself in the best position to think. Be conscious of what you’re doing behind the wheel at all times.”

Make Smart Stops

Officers also should be conscious of what they’re doing and where they are when they step out of their cruisers. In 2015, 12 officers were killed in vehicular assaults or when struck by a vehicle. As of October this year, another 15 officers have lost their lives this way. 

 DOCJT driving track. (Drone photo by Shon White)

DOCJT driving track. (Drone photo by Shon White)

One way to lessen the threat of being struck by a vehicle while conducting a roadside traffic stop is to practice right-side approaches. Yes, this approach takes more time and is not necessarily convenient, but it offers several benefits to keep officers safe, Knox said. 

Not only does a right-side approach keep officers away from traffic, it also affords them the element of surprise. Individuals in the car are expecting the officer to approach the driver’s window. It catches them off guard when the officer comes to the other side. Also coming around from behind the vehicle — never walking between the two vehicles — officers can see everything that is going on inside the car as they approach. 

Once at the vehicle, officers actually can see more of the inside of the vehicle from the passenger side than from the driver-side window. If someone wants to assault the officer, it is more difficult for them to do so from the right side, Knox said.

Despite these benefits, the majority of officers continue to practice left-side approaches.

“They still go to the left side because they’re lazy,” Knox said. “Left is the quickest way to get to the car. We stress right-side approach, but it’s easy to grow complacent and feel comfortable.”

Be Aware When Backing

Sixty-five percent of all law enforcement accidents happen when backing, Knox cited. Though backing accidents are not taking officers’ lives, they do cause a lot of damage and drain money and resources from law enforcement agencies. 

There are two simple things officers can do to avoid backing accidents. First, before getting into the car to go out to a call, officers should take an extra few seconds to look around the vehicle and see what they potentially could hit. Then, when backing, use all available resources. Turning and looking out the back glass is the most effective, Knox said, but some newer vehicles’ back ends sit up too high for this to be solely effective. Use side mirrors and back-up cameras, if available, as well. 

Second, officers should avoid situations where they must back out in a hurry, Payne said. When pulling up to a call or just pulling into a convenience store, officers can back into a spot. If they get a sudden call or need to leave in a hurry, they are facing forward and have a clear view of what’s going on in front of them as they pull out, Payne emphasized. 

Following these two simple practices can considerably reduce officer backing accidents and save time and money for agencies. 

“A lot of this is between-the-ears stuff,” Payne said about common sense changes officers can make to be safer in their cruisers and on the road. “You don’t have to be driving or doing driving skills all the time, it’s just reminding people to pay attention.” 

Paying attention and taking an active role in one’s own daily safety is key to staying safe out in the field while wielding the power of the 2-ton piece of equipment in which patrol officers spend a significant portion of each shift. 

“When in a patrol car, be aware of what you’re doing and what you’re going to do,” Payne said. “As soon as we get lax about it, it can give us some horrible reminders sometimes.”

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