Welcome to the first in a series of articles on police emergency vehicle operation. These articles will focus primarily on the causes of vehicle crashes and the tactics and techniques available to police officers to help us prevent crashes.
Historically, vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of officer deaths and injury. NHTSA statistics from 1980 through 2008 indicate that over 800 police officers have lost their lives in crashes. In 2015, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page statistics, 27 officers were killed in on-duty automobile crashes, 3 were killed in motorcycle crashes and 5 were killed in vehicle pursuits. Many more officers suffered injuries, some career ending.
What are the causes of vehicle crashes?
- Failure of the driver to properly and effectively use the vehicle’s controls. Any vehicle can perform only two operations. It can change velocity (acceleration and deceleration) and it can change direction (turning). Changes in velocity and direction are only accomplished by the application of the accelerator, brake pedal and steering wheel. The problem is, these controls need to be used properly and at the right time. Failure to do so will cause an imbalance in the vehicle platform, possibly resulting in a loss of control.
- Exceeding the limits of vehicle traction. Tires only have so much available grip. If the driver’s inputs into the controls force the vehicle to exceed that grip, there will be a loss of control. Grip is affected by environmental and vehicle factors as well as driver input.
Police Officer Zach Larnerd died as the result of injuries sustained in a vehicle crash on January 3rd, 2015.
He was responding to a domestic violence call when his patrol car left the roadway as he attempted to negotiate a curve and went down a 17-foot embankment. The vehicle struck a tree, trapping him inside.
- A lack of situational awareness. The driver must be aware of what is happening in a 360 degree field of view. That 360 degrees is established by the proper use of vision. Using correct visual techniques, such as looking far enough ahead, allows the driver to look into the future. The driver is able to see potential problems before they develop. The earlier a potential problem is identified, the sooner the driver can plan and initiate a response.
Police Officer Scot Fitzgerald was killed when his patrol car and an ambulance collided while en route to a medical call.
The ambulance was driving behind his patrol car. As they attempted to locate the address for the call, Officer Fitzgerald pulled to the right shoulder and then attempted to make a U-turn, but pulled into the path of the ambulance.
- Driver distraction. In today’s technological world, there are many more distractions which can remove our attention from the task of driving the vehicle. Police radios, cell phones, mobile data terminals, speed detection devices etc. all have the potential to draw our attention from the immediate task of safely operating the patrol vehicle.
- Improper speed for the circumstances. I always try to make the point to our EROC (Emergency Vehicle Operation Courses) participants that, if they do nothing else, SLOW DOWN! Too much speed in the wrong place, at the wrong time WILL hurt you! The effect of increases in speed in relation to the forces which act on the vehicle is not linear. These forces ramp up very quickly as the vehicle approaches its physical limitations. The difference between “success” and tragedy can often be a matter of one or two miles per hour in vehicle speed.
- Mechanical failure. This factor is probably one of the least prevalent, but it does occur. Proper maintenance of the department’s fleet is critical to safety.
Most crashes involving any of the listed factors are preventable, including mechanical failure. The keys are proper and consistent training and being proactive rather than reactive. Remember, even though our job often requires us to respond without delay to emergency situations, we must do so safely and professionally. Let’s honor the sacrifices of the officers in the examples above by learning from their tragedies.
In the upcoming months, we will be presenting a series of articles, written by our staff of EROC instructors. These articles will go into more detail on the safe and effective operation of emergency vehicles and how we can train to prevent police involved crashes.
Until Next Time: Stay Safe!
Lead Range Instructor
EROC Blue Division