According to data from the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), roughly 12,000 people were killed in police chases between 1979 and 2013. That’s roughly one death per day and is almost certainly an undercount (according to a 2015 investigative report, NHTSA’s figures for many specific states—including Kansas, Michigan, and Minnesota–showed fewer police pursuit-related crash deaths than those state’s own records). NHTSA doesn’t keep a count of non-fatal injuries arising from police pursuits, but independent researchers have calculated 270,000 people were injured in police vehicular pursuits between 1979 and 2013—dozens of people each day, nationwide. And only about half of those killed are the drivers fleeing police. The remainder—thousands of people each year injured or killed—are entirely innocent bystanders.
A conventional cost/benefit analysis might seem callous, but it’s nonetheless justified. Perhaps the severity of the crimes that trigger these dangerous chases justifies the risk?
Unlikely. In an analysis of 63,500 police pursuits in California over a 12 year period, this reporters found just 5 percent were pursuing a violent criminal. Roughly 90 percent of all chases were triggered by vehicle code violations. Some of these—such as speeding and reckless driving—are obviously dangerous in and of themselves, both to the motorist and to bystanders. But almost 10 percent of all chases were triggered by infractions with no possible brad public safety impact. These included seatbelt violations and missing/expired plates. Multiple studies have found that, nationwide, upwards of 90 percent of all police chases are for non-violent offenses
A separate analysis of seven years of California Highway Patrol data found that more than one-quarter of their police pursuits involved a crash, with 15 percent of all chases resulting in an injury. And that’s a relatively good record: a study of Minnesota police chases found roughly one-third involved a collision.
Reconsidering When to Engage in High-Speed Pursuit
In general, fleeing drivers are disproportionately bad drivers. According to a 2002 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, half of all police pursuit collisions happen in the first two minutes of the pursuit, and more than 70 percent within six minutes. A 1998 Justice Department study based on interviews of fleeing drivers found that roughly 75 percent fled for reasons strongly correlated to terrible judgment or degraded driving skill. Roughly half were either on a suspended license or drunk. Another third were in a stolen vehicle (i.e., one they were very likely to be unfamiliar with). The remainder simply “wanted to avoid arrest” and, seemingly, had little regard for who they endangered in doing so. In fact, it seems they have very little regard for their own safety or survival. An analysis of high-speed pursuits in Michigan–a state that largely permits motorcyclists to operate without helmets—found that nearly three-quarters of all motorcyclists who flee police end up crashing.
There’s an argument to be made that, in the name of public safety, the officers have an obligation to entirely prevent a high-speed pursuit situation. But that’s a tall order—officers don’t have the luxury of time to weigh their options. High-speed pursuits always start with a split-second decision. A modern simulation-based training solution assists officers in integrating their skills and knowledge, in order to activate and improve heat-of-the-moment decision making.