See both officers? No? The high-viz raincoat makes the first officer clearly visible. The second officer is wearing his raincoat dark-side out. There's a time to be sneaky and a time to be seen. Photos Dale Stockton
FEATURED IN VEHICLE OPS
A serious traffic collision involving multiple vehicles on a busy four-lane highway after dark: In one vehicle, a man and his teenage daughter are trapped inside with airbags deployed. In another, a man sits on the side of the road holding an open hand to his bleeding forehead as the engine of his vehicle coughs black smoke and flicks off orange flames. Good Samaritan motorists have stopped along the highway, behind and in front of the developing scene, doing their best to light and set flares in an attempt to alert motorists of the hazardous condition and to slow the approaching traffic.
Sound familiar? I’ve just described for you a typical accident on any highway within any of our 50 States. This scene is dangerous, unpredictable and still developing, and an emergency responder hasn’t even been introduced into the formula yet.
Now help arrives in the form of a fire truck, an ambulance, police officers and a tow truck. Throw in an overzealous media reporter looking to capture some titillating footage and a highway road crew on hand to scoop up the debris and a virtual kaleidoscope of color, lights, sound and activity is now swirling around an already dangerous scene.
Just about every passing motorist, in both directions, will be seduced into diverting their attention from the roadway in front of them to catch a glimpse of the action. Just for a second, each driver takes a peek. When they’re done satisfying their curiosity, each driver then looks back to reacquire the roadway and continue their journey.
What happens when that look, that momentary lapse in attention to a traffic pattern, which has suddenly changed, causes a secondary accident? Who’s most at risk from the natural curiosity of the “looky-loo” driver? Is it the firefighter wearing a high-visibility turnout coat working to extinguish the burning vehicle? Is it the paramedic wearing the high-visibility reflective striped jacket while rendering aid on the curbside? Is it the highway road crew wearing high visibility orange colored vests? Is it the tow truck operator wearing a high-visibility neon colored reflective windbreaker?
Maybe it’s the police officer walking the highway in a midnight blue uniform with sharply creased trousers, a black leather jacket and a silver star or badge across the chest who assumes the greatest risk. Although there’s a clear advantage to wearing dark clothing during a late-night shootout, obscurity brings no tactical advantage to an officer trying to avoid being struck by a distracted, confused or hard-of-seeing driver attempting to reacquire the roadway. There’s a time to be stealthy and a time to be seen. Times like those described above are clearly the latter.
It’s that ever-so-brief moment where a driver’s distracted gaze and focus is re-engaged to the roadway and that operator must decide whether to direct the power and gravity of their moving vehicle that counts. In an instant, it’s better to be seen in retroreflective high visibility outer garments than not—a matter of life or death, in fact.
Defining the Hazard
The FBI keeps yearly statistics of the on-duty officers feloniously killed, accidently killed and assaulted, as well as the federal officers assaulted and killed (LEOKA). A review of these numbers reveals a chilling trend of officers being killed in the roadways that demands an immediate response by the entire law enforcement community.
Looking at the numbers, in 2010 there were 72 police officers who died accidentally in the line of duty with 63 of those incidents involving an officer on a public roadway or highway. Comparing that number to the 56 officers feloniously killed in the line of duty in 2010 due to a violent encounter, it’s obvious: too many of our officers are dying on the roadsides.
Drilling down the “accidental” numbers from 2010 is even more sobering. Forty-five officers perished in automobile accidents, 11 officers were struck by vehicles while on or about the roadway and seven officers died as a result of motorcycle accidents.
With the associated risks and the great loss of life, how is it that some agencies still allow their officers to conduct enforcement activities—even traffic direction—on or about the roadways without the benefit of high-visibility jackets or vests?
Interrupting & Changing Police Culture
A trend is developing to break past cultural norms that discount and dismiss the use of protective high-visibility equipment by officers in the roadway. Progressive administrators are insisting upon their use and training the officers about the importance of embracing the change. Many new and innovative approaches are being introduced to reduce police officer deaths in the roadways in the years ahead.
California’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) has undertaken a SAFE (Situation-Appropriate, Focused, and Educated) Driving Campaign, partnering with all of law enforcement to reduce officers killed and injured in traffic collisions. The primary benchmark is to reduce fatal LEO collisions by 15% by 2015.
POST introduced into many courses a popular rapid decision-making model, known as the OODA Loop. First popularized and disseminated by military tactical instructors, Observe-Orient-Decide-Act has been adapted to the predictably unpredictable world of the rapidly unfolding kill zones created in traffic during many emergency responses.
Here’s an example of how the OODA Loop applies to a rapidly evolving traffic scenario.