2022 has been a deadly year for law enforcement on the roadway. Sixteen law enforcement officers have been killed by, distracted, aggressive or impaired drivers. While we will never be able to eliminate all of the risks that working the roadway provides, the ability to manage the roadside work zone can mitigate many risks that we face on a daily basis.
The roadside work zone consists of an area approximately 100 feet behind the patrol unit to approximately 50 feet in front of the violator/disabled motorist, vehicle stop or crash location. Officers must conduct business in a work zone with no warning cones or directional arrows. If not properly prepared, officers can become conditioned to the sounds of traffic whizzing by and give little thought to the clear and present danger.
Vehicle and road safety is covered in most basic police academies, but it is typically conducted in a few short hours. Depending on the responsibility of the agency, (Municipal, County or State Police) the training may include less focus, upon self-protection during a vehicle stop, assisting a disabled motorist, directing traffic, or clearing debris from the roadway.
My first training academy was directed by a senior Sheriff in my state. The Sheriff believed time consumed conducting vehicle stops, or directing traffic was a waste of valuable “police” time. As a result, my academy class received only minimal classroom instruction on vehicle placement, using the vehicle for protection, and choosing a safe location for conducting business outside of the patrol unit. Any practical application of the classroom training was omitted.
My next academy was a State Police Training Academy. The primary function of my future agency was to conduct vehicle stops, work crashes, and assist disabled/stranded motorists. Training was heavy on vehicle placement and personal protection in the roadside work zone. We were instructed to choose a safe location to make the vehicle stop, (requiring the officer to be very familiar with their area). The patrol unit was to be stopped 1 to 1.5 car lengths behind the violator vehicle, angled to the left with the front wheels turned hard to the left.
This technique was two-fold.
Vehicle placement would offer cover for the officer by placing the engine block and rims between the officer and a possible attack from a violator. The positioning also would offer protection for the officer and the motorist if the patrol unit was struck from the rear. Before exiting the patrol unit, the officer was instructed to check for vehicles approaching from the rear, make a safe approach to the driver side of the violator vehicle, focus on the occupants, and ask the driver to exit the vehicle for the interview and the appropriate enforcement action These methods were considered sound until the acceptance of the passenger side approach.
After classroom instruction, the procedures were tested in a controlled environment. Cadets would make a stop, receive evaluation from field trainers on vehicle placement, and officer safety while conducting a violator interview.
Training vs. Conditioning
Training and conditioning are the same icon but are on two separate sides. Training is what we are taught in the classroom while conditioning begins as the officers’ habits are formed over time. After the officer becomes conditioned to the routine, vehicle placement during stops commonly includes the patrol unit being too close to the violator vehicle, not angled, and a driver side approach with little focus given to other vehicles approaching from the rear.
Today’s police agencies are heavily dependent upon technology and instead of standing outside of the patrol unit to complete enforcement documents, officers sit in the patrol unit and input data into the mobile data terminal and print the enforcement document from the interior of the car. Sitting on the driver side of the patrol unit inputting data offers very little protection for the officer. Fatigued, Impaired or distracted drivers that strike the back of the patrol unit at highway speed can cause injury or death to the officer.
Methods For Protection
- Choose a safe location for the stop. If assisting a disabled motorist in a less than desirable location, request additional patrol units to help protect the scene until the disabled motorist can be moved or the mechanical failure is rectified.
- Avoid making contact from the traffic side. Use a passenger side approach to the vehicle.
- Avoid areas in and around the violator and patrol vehicles. If you must access the patrol unit do so away from the traffic side.
- Have your head on a swivel. Expect the unexpected.
Remember that while conducting business on the roadway, the only protection you have is the placement of the patrol unit and your ability to be cautiously aware of your surroundings.
I hope this information will provide you motivation to make a mental inventory of your habits. Going back to the basics of training may very well save your life.
Until next time, be cautiously aware of your surroundings, keep your head on a swivel and please be careful.