Dying by Driving: Understanding Law Enforcement Officer Traffic-Related Fatalities

by | October 24, 2018

Words can never do justice to describe the heartache every law enforcement officer across the country feels when one of their own is killed while protecting the communities they serve. It is a tragedy any time a peace officer is killed in the line of duty.

But it’s even more tragic when the death was preventable. The Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP) is a sobering reminder of the dangers we face every day as keepers of the peace. One thing that always strikes me when reading the ODMP: the number of fatalities that occur as a direct result of an automobile crash. If you include crashes that began as a vehicle pursuit, the numbers are even higher.

Click to read the stories behind each of these tragedies and you’ll learn many of the deaths occurred when the officer was responding to a call for service, and some involved a solo patrol car losing control and crashing.

Could some of these deaths have been prevented? Would it have made a difference if the officer slowed down? Was the officer distracted by their in-car computer or cell phone? The wives, husbands, daughters, sons, brothers and sisters who were left behind probably asked these same questions. In some cases we’ll never know the answers, but that doesn’t mean there’s no benefit in making the inquiry.

I also wonder how many calls for service these heroes were responding to that didn’t necessitate a speedy response. In my career, I have seen law enforcement officers driving 90 mph in a residential area while responding to a fistfight between two people. I have seen the same type of response to a burglar alarm call or a vehicle theft.

What’s the Rush?

Why are we in such a rush that we are willing to endanger our community and ourselves? There is no chief of police, sheriff, commissioner or director who wants to tell your loved ones you died or were seriously injured in the line of duty—it must be the worst nightmare of any department head. Imagine the anguish they experience walking up to a door knowing the news they are about to deliver. Now think about how much more painful it will be when they know your death was preventable.As law enforcement officers, we run toward danger while others run away from it. We see things every day that others won’t see in a lifetime. There are evil people in this world who will intentionally do us harm. Sadly, it’s difficult to prevent all line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). However, preventing tragedies caused by automobile crashes is something we can do. The numbers back us up: Law enforcement traffic-related fatalities have dropped from 51 in 2010 to 31 in 2017. We must do everything we can to continue this trend. Even one more life saved is worth the effort.There’s another danger associated with unsafe driving, one we don’t often think about. Numerous law enforcement professionals across the United States have been prosecuted as a result of unsafe on-duty driving. Some have seen their careers ruined and some have been incarcerated. Do you want to chance your career or your freedom because you killed or injured an innocent person as you barreled toward a call?

What We Can Do

In the September 2012 issue of Law Officer magazine, former California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Executive Director Paul Cappitelli says, “Almost all line-of-duty traffic fatalities result from poor choices, poor supervision, and/or poor management. Police officers are killing themselves by negligent driving at a greater rate than those being killed at the hands of suspects. There is far too much tolerance for negligent driving in our profession!”

These are tough words to hear, but having spoken with Mr. Cappitelli, I can vouch for his passion for making our profession better. His criticism comes from a deep commitment to preventing LODDs.

So the question we have to ask ourselves is, why are we making these poor choices and how can we do better? Following are some strategies to consider:

  • Stress the importance of safe driving every day in our roll call.
  • Train employees on the basics of safe driving. For obvious reasons we consistently train on officer safety. How often do we train on driving?
  • Establish policies that emphasize the importance of safe driving and slowing down when possible.
  • Hold personnel accountable to following policies and laws.
  • Hold each other accountable when we see one of our partners driving too fast for no apparent reason.
  • Talk about it. We always talk about mentally preparing for dangerous encounters with violent felons. Why don’t we speak about driving? I can only guess it’s because most of us are not aware of this problem. We need to bring it to the forefront so it’s on every law enforcement professional’s mind. We can’t ignore it any longer. If we do, needless deaths will continue to happen.

Statistics also provide some clues for simple steps we can take to reduce law enforcement traffic-related fatalities:

  • Slow down. Driving too fast for conditions or driving in excess of the posted speed limit was one of the top two driver-related factors cited in a study on fatalities that occurred in police vehicles.
  • Take extra caution at night. In the same study, crashes resulting in law enforcement officer fatalities occurred more frequently during dark hours (8 p.m. to 4:59 a.m.).
  • Wear your seat belt. In a study of 167 fatal automobile crashes between 2011 and 2015, officers were not wearing seat belts in at least 38 percent of crashes
  • Be aware of the impact of fatigue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by fatigued drivers. The CDC also lists shift workers as being at higher risk for drowsy driving. But you don’t need these statistics to tell you what you already know: Many, many cops are tired on the job and if you’ve been a patrol officer for even a few months, you probably found yourself fighting off sleep behind the wheel. Know the signs of drowsy driving and commit to pulling over when you’re dangerously tired.

In Our Hands

We must never forget those who have laid down their lives while unselfishly protecting others. May they always be remembered and honored as true American heroes.

At the same time, we need to take individual responsibility to reduce our risk behind the wheel as much as possible. Please slow down. Don’t be in such a hurry. I understand there are times you are going to drive faster than you normally would; however, make this the exception rather than the rule. If you find the need to drive faster, do so safely. Follow your department policy and the laws of your state.

If you don’t do it for yourself, please do it for your loved ones. They are counting on you to come home after every shift.

ANDREW BIROZY is a 27-year law enforcement veteran currently serving as a lieutenant in a police department in Southern California. Andrew has also worked for Lexipol for the past 13 years as a Training Developer. He holds a master of science degree in Law Enforcement Executive Leadership and a bachelor of arts degree in Leadership. Andrew is a California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training Master Instructor and teaches a variety of law enforcement classes throughout the state. He’s committed himself to being a life-long learner and teaching helps him further his passion for learning. Andrew can be reached at abirozy@lexipol.com.

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