Why Cops Can't Drive, Part 1

It's no secret why police officers wreck their vehicles at appalling rates

 


 

Craig Peterson | From the January/February 2006 Issue Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Looking through the Nikon's viewfinder, the police Crown Victoria throwing a rooster tail of gravel and dried brush seemed enormous as it skidded broadside toward me at a high rate of speed. I was looking through a wide-angle lens, and the visual distortion meant that the errant Ford didn't just look big, it was nearly on top of me. How ironic, I recall thinking. Not only was I about to be killed by a driver who was a friend, but all in the quest for a police-magazine cover photograph that would pay less than two C-notes.

Then a sense of self-preservation kicked in; I let the camera drop onto my chest by its neck strap (like a duty weapon, you don't fling a $1,200 camera into the weeds merely because you are about to die) and executed an Olympic-caliber lateral broad jump to safety. The Crown Victoria slid past mere inches away, the driver still valiantly sawing away at the wheel.

Equally ironic: The driver was not only a friend, but also the chief driving instructor for his department. Worse, on his very next lap he went off the track yet again, though this time I'd prudently fitted a long telephoto lens and was standing well away from my earlier perilous location.

Was this display of driving ineptitude a major surprise, particularly in light of the fact that this instructor, charged with training his department's officers in high-speed driving techniques, had logged thousands of laps on this very track? Hardly. He'd admitted to me privately that he'd been appointed chief instructor despite his disinterest in an academy assignment. He also said the subject of his driving skill had never arisen. And he was the first to admit he wasn't a particularly talented driver. In fact, he tended to crash a lot.

An added irony: Only days before I'd had a request from the same department's shop supervisor to photograph for him the record number of wrecked patrol vehicles littering his storage lot. He was preparing a command-staff presentation, asking either for better driver training to reduce accidents or a larger budget to repair the mangled units. Their answer was to increase funding for repairs.

Are these extreme or isolated situations? Unfortunately, no. It's the same in departments across the country.

Driver Training, or Lack Thereof

U.S. police departments pay far more attention to firearm training than driver training. Yet by an order of magnitude more officers are injured and killed annually in motor vehicles than by weapons.

According to FBI statistics, from 1995 2004 some 404 officers nationwide died in car crashes. This doesn't include 120 who were struck by vehicles while out of their own cars, and 60 more killed on motorcycles. Total: 584. During the same period, 594 officers were killed feloniously, and 16,565 were assaulted and injured.

The FBI doesn't track the number of officers injured in car crashes, and there's no central repository for those statistics. But ask any department about the number of officers injured in car crashes versus the number wounded by deadly weapons, and the ratio will likely be on the order of 20:1 or higher, probably much higher. As a result, cities lay out substantial bucks not only for the resulting workers' compensation claims, but also to settle lawsuits by citizens in the aftermath of accidents involving police vehicles. The combination adds up to serious dollars for many departments.

Take the Denver Police Department, an agency with 1,405 sworn officers and a total fleet of some 950 vehicles, including those used by the detective division, administration, special-ops and non-patrol duties. A study by the Rocky Mountain News concluded that from 2001 late 2004, the city of Denver paid $2.5 million in workers' compensation benefits to officers injured in on-duty auto accidents. During the same period, the city shelled out $3 million-plus to settle lawsuits stemming from police cars crashing into civilian vehicles (this did not include pursuit-related incidents) and paid another $2.4 million to three officers forced to retire from injuries sustained in car accidents. Total tab: over $7.9 million in benefits and lawsuit settlements alone. Add the cost of replacing vehicles and repairing the salvageable wrecks, and we're talking serious money.

This period came a few years after one of Denver's less auspicious public moments, one captured for posterity and seen even today on television reruns. The driver of a patrol unit running hot to a routine call with a "Cops" TV cameraman behind the cage, shooting through the windshield blows a stop sign and runs headlong into a blind intersection without so much as lifting off the gas. The first time I saw the footage, I thought, "Geez Louise, better not be anybody coming from the right." There was a huge bang as he was T-boned by another Denver unit running to the same call. Officers were injured and both cars were mangled but fortunately, nobody died. There was another stroke of luck here: If the second car had been a civilian ride, even a first-year law student probably could have won the inevitable megabuck personal-injury court settlement.

Okay, maybe the officer was distracted by the TV crew's presence. Yet right there on camera, courtesy of Fox-TV, we can witness the onset of tunnel vision and his subsequent disregard for common sense, departmental policy, state law and, not least, one of the most basic elements of driver training: situational awareness.

But Denver is far from unusual. Other departments of similar size have similar accident records. And why not? An untrained civilian could well have made the same mistake. And that's the problem. With few exceptions, police officers are no more skilled at controlling a car than they were before entering the academy.

The Denver/Fox-TV incident was purely a failure of judgment; car control wasn't an issue. But the typical police-vehicle accident report reads pretty much like any other: Driver backs into a fixed object, another vehicle or a pedestrian. Driver fails to maintain sufficient following distance and rear-ends another vehicle. Driver fails to yield and collides with another car. Driver fails to maintain control, vehicle leaves roadway, strikes a fixed object. And so on.

Despite this dismal record, for most officers, driver training ends after they take the oath. Some agencies require periodic in-service refresher courses, but the focus is generally on liability issues, not car control. So, unless the officer is an amateur racer or a gifted driver who somehow manages to acquire professional civilian training and then regularly practices on-track, the number of years of driving experience remains meaningless as an indicator of ability.

Truth is, one of the scariest drivers I've ever seen was a veteran highway patrol chief driving instructor. He was chief instructor because his supervisor told him he was chief instructor, same as the friend who nearly killed me. And while his car-control ability was above average, his control inputs were coarse, brake applications harsh and worse, his judgment was lousy. Under stress, he was dangerous.

"If an officer's training and ability add up to what I consider a one-year level of experience, it's irrelevant that he may have been on the road 15 years. He's still got one year of experience, repeated 15 times," master police officer Terry Pearson once told me. Pearson knows; he's one of the best EVOC instructors I've seen, a talented driver, a keen observer and a skilled trainer. Pearson was co-chief driving instructor and one of the designers of the Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department's showcase EVOC near Washington, D.C.

The California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), arguably among the more comprehensive, requires only 24 hours of basic driving instruction. In contrast, the minimum requirement for firearms and chemical agents is 72 hours. And, more of that training entails actually using the weapons (pistols and shotguns) and chemical agents (OC, CN and CS spray) than does driver training, in which four students will share a vehicle, cutting actual seat time to as little as six hours. The rest is classroom work or, at the more well-heeled EVOCs, sitting in a driving simulator. Many states have lower requirements. One of the largest state highway patrols didn't even have a driver-training track until recently.

At the typical academy, to qualify with firearms, the cadet must demonstrate reasonable familiarity with the weapons and achieve an acceptable level of accuracy in firing them. To become a qualified driver, the officer must execute a few elementary turning, backing and stopping maneuvers along with basic exercises in skid control, vehicle dynamics, collision avoidance and, to graduate, a final exam incorporating a short Code 3 on-track exercise. Only the spectacularly incompetent will fail.

The prevailing view in law enforcement, whether command staff or a 60-day rookie, is that driver education is just another element of the training curricula. Most consider themselves superior drivers, and in the past 20 years I've met only one patrol officer who considered himself merely average.

But while many officers attend their retirement parties without ever having discharged their duty weapons, a patrol officer will log thousands of hours behind the wheel and engage in high-speed pursuits. It's a statistical certainty most will be involved in car crashes.

The Numbers

In one of the few comprehensive studies of police-vehicle accidents ever conducted, covering the years 1988 1991, the Division of State and Provincial Police of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), supported by the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency, surveyed all IACP-member agencies. Of the 607 departments that responded, metro departments serving cities ranging in population from less than 10,000 to more than 1 million reported a cumulative crash rate of 35.2 per million vehicle miles traveled (VMT). State agencies weighed in with 13.12 per million VMT.

Municipal agencies reported that 67.5 percent of their crashes occurred during normal patrol, 21.3 percent during emergency driving and 11.2 percent during pursuits. For state police, 53.5 percent occurred during normal patrol, 24 percent during emergency driving and 22.5 percent during pursuits.

It would be handy to compare law enforcement crash statistics with those from the civilian sector, but an apples-to-apples comparison isn't possible too many numbers are missing on the law enforcement side. But if we compare civilian non-injury, property damage-only accidents for the same years to the IACP study, the numbers say officers with municipal departments crashed at a rate of up to nine times higher than the general population, and state agencies at a rate of up to 3.4 times higher. But even if the cumulative number is only, say, a 300 400 percent higher crash rate by law officers, clearly there's a problem.

Granted, police driving is unusually demanding. But if two-thirds of the accidents occur in routine driving, the big question remains, why?

Simple. Officers aren't the underlying cause of the bad-driving problem. They're doing the best they can with the training they've received. It's time for better training.

Next issue: I'll look at departments that have taken the lead in improving their driver training; specifically, how they planned and financed their programs, and the results they've seen.

Craig Peterson has been road-testing and reviewing police vehicles cars, SUVs, undercover units and others since 1990 and has constructed a number of widely publicized police concept vehicles seen at IACP and similar venues. He's an IPTM-certified police radar instructor, an ex-race car driver and has authored hundreds of stories on vehicles, driver training, mobile electronics and speed-measuring technology for U.S. and foreign law enforcement magazines since 1990.



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