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High Speed Pursuit and Traffic Crashes: Leading Causes of On-Duty Law Officer Fatalities

Although it’s rarely reported, traffic crashes and high speed pursuit kill roughly as many law officers as firearms.  According to the nonprofit National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, traffic-related incidents have been the leading cause of death for officers in the line of duty for most of the past two decades.  These “traffic-related incidents” run the gamut, from single and multiple vehicle collisions to traffic police being accidentally struck by passing vehicles during or run-down by fleeing suspects.  But in the majority of cases, a law officer is piloting the vehicle during a fatal crash.


High Speed Pursuit: Deadlier than a Pistol

The most recent annual reports from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program show that, over the last decade, 1,068 officers have been killed in the line of duty.  While 330 officers were killed by handguns, 577 died in accidents, almost always involving a motor vehicle.  In 70 percent of those accidents, the officer was driving the vehicle when the deadly incident occurred.

And that’s only part of the story.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that police have the third-highest incident rate for non-fatal workplace injuries in the country.  Roughly 11% of all law enforcement officers sustain an on-the-job injury each year.  (This injury rate is almost four times higher than the national average.)  Police are also four to five times more likely than the average American worker to be put on leave to recover.  On top of that, police are more than twice as likely to be injured in a motor vehicle accident than the average worker:  Motorized vehicle incidents account for around 5 percent of all non-fatal workplace injuries in the U.S., but are estimated to be more than 11 percent of law enforcement workplace injuries.

That’s thousands of law enforcement officers injured or killed in vehicle accidents every year.  Recent years have seen overall declines in the total number of line-of-duty deaths among peace officers. Nonetheless, many states have seen deaths and injuries resulting from on-duty traffic collisions steadily climb.


High Speed Pursuit and On-Call Driving

In 2015 the VALOR Officer Safety Initiative released several recommendations to curb the increase in vehicle-related injuries and deaths among law officers.  VALOR (a project of the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance) noted that officers were very often injured or killed in single-vehicle incidents—especially while responding to calls.  They also found that law enforcement officers needed to make a better habit of wearing seat belts, especially while responding to a call.  VALOR suggested training programs that offered greater opportunities to practice critical decision making, especially in gauging the proper speed for conditions.

That same year the RAND Corporation released a study of the risk factors contributing to law enforcement vehicle crashes (funded by the Office of Justice Programs at the National Institute of Justice).  RAND identified four factors that correlated with vehicle-related accidental injuries and deaths among police officers:

  1. Responding to a Call:  Officers driving to the scene of an incident were at three-to-four times greater risk of being injured in a crash, compared to those on routine patrol
  2. Seatbelt Usage: Officers chronically fail to wear seat belts, and a law enforcement officer not using a seat belt was two-to-three times more likely to be injured in a crash
  3. Motorcycles: Motorcycle officers are five times more likely to be injured in a crash
  4. Partnering Up: Having another officer in the car more than halves the likelihood of an officer being injured in a crash, while having a suspect in the car increased the likelihood of injury

Optimized Police Pursuit Training

While items #3 and #4 often fall outside the control of policymakers or individual departments (either because of budgetary constraints or the on-the-ground realities of how law officers must operate on their roads), any department can refresh and retrain for best-practices in pursuit safety.  A good police pursuit training program will go beyond refreshing the “muscle memory” of good driving habits to include split-second decision making during high-risk events, and even “tactical seatbelt” use.  Improved police pursuit training is the clearest path to big improvements in peace officer safety and survival.

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