Time for Reflection

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. 

  1. Wearing a high-visibility garment allows passing motorists a greater chance to perceive or observe a LEO walking around chaotic scenes, further complicated by the blinding and disorienting lights on emergency vehicles.
  2. A high-visibility garment allows passing motorists a quicker way to identify or orient the object as an officer in the roadway.
  3. A high-visibility garment worn by an officer conveys an unambiguous message causing passing motorists to decide instantly that this object (you) in the road must be avoided.
  4. The decision to avoid the officer wearing the high-visibility garment will become intuitive, cutting seconds off the motorists’ time to act.

The simplicity of the OODA Loop model demonstrates how matters of life and death are reduced to mere seconds and inches, especially as it applies to motorists avoiding a collision with first responders in the roadway. The importance of first responders being observed and identified can’t be overstated. Without a high-visibility garments, first responders are perilously negotiating traffic corridors, and at night reduced to an unrecognizable object that alternate between darkness and intense light emanating from the emergency vehicle strobe lights.

The Federal Mandate
Law enforcement administrators seeking guidance regarding the legal obligation of departments to mandate the wearing of high-visibility reflective garments can look to Section 6D.03 of the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) (2009). That applicable section states: “When uniformed law enforcement personnel are used to direct traffic, to investigate crashes, or to handle lane closures, obstructed roadways and disasters, high-visibility safety apparel as described in this Section shall be worn by the law enforcement personnel.”
These are the minimum requirements for law enforcement. Although these standards apply nationwide, high-visibility garments aren’t required during traffic stops.

The information contained in the MUTCD changes over the years so it can remain current. This corroborative effort reflects years of practical experience of the traffic engineers, academic researchers and the real-life experimentation necessary to find the preferred practices that will help make working in roads as safe as realistically possible. All emergency responders benefit from these standards. Lives can be saved as first responders become more visible and highly recognizable in the roadway.

Wear High-Visibility Garments
Despite the federal, state and agency mandates and the LEOKA statistics that show far too many officers perishing in the roadways each year, many in law enforcement would rather not be burdened with wearing a high-visibility garment. Many feel the donning and doffing of the gear is too time consuming. The gear is cumbersome and unflattering in comparison to the athletically cut leather traffic jackets worn by many traffic officers. The high-visibility gear isn’t traditional and is relatively new to most police officers and first responders. Each excuse, even recited in succession with another and taken cumulatively, falls flat when weighed against one life that could have been spared.   

Always wear the appropriate high-visibility garment when you’re required. And if you’re a supervisor, refuse to allow your subordinates to place themselves at greater risk by ignoring the law (Section 6D.03 of the 2009 MUTCD). Now that you know what’s required, resist the urge to just go along to get along. Wear the vests, and tell them to do the same. It’s an opportunity to make our profession a little safer. Remember: Reflective vests are like body armor—they only work if you wear them.

Joe Engler is a 20-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department and is presently assigned to the Ingleside Police Station. He is the author of the Tenderloin Traffic and Pedestrian Enforcement Plan and has been a presenter before the California District Attorney’s Association and the California Homicide Investigator’s Association. Joe is also a certified master instructor with California POST.

Pat Tobin
is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department and is presently assigned to traffic as the senior motorcycle sergeant. Prior to traffic, he worked for 12 years as an inspector, investigating hundreds of traffic related fatalities and OSHA-related workplace homicides. He founded and for five years worked as the program director of California’s largest temporary traffic control enforcement program operating under the authority of city traffic engineers, during which time his program responded to over 5,000 MUTCD-related violations in the public right-of-way. Pat is also a certified master instructor with California POST, a member on its SAFE Driving Campaign and the first peace officer from the U.S. to have taught for the China Ministry of Security at their Traffic Management Research Institute (TMRI).


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