Are Motor Vehicle Pursuits Dangerous?

On February 26, 2007 the United States Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in Scott v. Harris. This case deals with the consequences of a high speed pursuit. In 2001, 19-year-old Victor Harris was speeding (73 in a 55) in Coweta County, Georgia, when officers attempted to stop him. Mr. Harris, who was driving with a suspended driver's license, initiated a high speed pursuit which was joined by Deputy Timothy Scott of the Coweta County Sheriff's Department. As speeds reached approximately 90 mph, Deputy Scott created impact with Mr. Harris's Cadillac, causing it to crash. Mr. Harris sustained injuries that rendered him a quadriplegic.

Mr. Harris is suing Deputy Scott, claiming the deputy's "ramming" of his vehicle was an unlawful use of deadly force and a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Prior to going to the Supreme Court, the case was heard by the 11th Circuit Court; this Court ruled "the use of deadly force is not 'reasonable' in a high-speed chase based only on a speeding violation and traffic infractions where there was little, if any, threat to pedestrians or other motorists as the roads were mostly empty and Harris remained in control of his vehicle." The larger question is "Is there any pursuit that creates little threat to pedestrians or other motorists?" Is any roadway in America so deserted that no one is endangered by the fleeing motorist's actions? Or, are motor vehicle pursuits so dangerous to the general public that they create more harm than good?

Motor vehicle pursuits have been a growing concern to police administrators and public safety advocates. Though romanticized in movies and on television (where no one gets hurt and no one ever gets sued) a motor vehicle pursuit can cost an officer or an agency millions of dollars. In some areas, public opinion has shifted from viewing pursuits as a necessary method to apprehend felons to the perception that pursuits are an overly dangerous way of catching traffic offenders. Some cities, including Baltimore, North Miami and Austin are considering banning or curtailing high speed chases. Much of this opposition is fueled by skewed media reports that focus on the rare event of a civilian being injured or killed.

There is academic research that indicates injuries, especially to third persons, are rare. In 1983, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) conducted a six-month investigation into all of their pursuits; they also reviewed statistics from ten other agencies in Southern California. Of the 683 pursuits reviewed, 29% resulted in accidents. About 11% of these pursuits yielded an injury. 1% of the pursuits resulted in a death.

About eight years later, a study was conducted of 86 law enforcement agencies in Illinois. The study showed 41% of pursuits ended in accidents. Consistent with the CHP study, the injury rate was about 12% and the fatality rate was 1.4%.

Another study of Illinois law enforcement in the early 1990s produced similar results. 875 pursuits were studied. The accident rate was 34%, the injury rate was 17%, and the fatality rate was 1.7%.

One study that contradicts the other results was conducted in 1968 by the Physicians for Automotive Safety. Their research concluded that 70% of pursuits resulted in accidents and 20% of pursuits resulted in fatalities. These numbers were derived by reviewing three months of newspaper clippings. This study, its research method and its dubious results has been repeatedly criticized by researchers and scholars. Despite its unstable methodological footing, this study is often cited by attorneys in pursuit litigation cases.

There is no doubt that motor vehicle pursuits are dangerous. No officer would argue that any vehicle being operated at a high rate of speed is not dangerous. There is also little doubt that the media and others of questionable motivations have exaggerated the danger to third persons. But when the police finally catch the fleeing motorist, what have they caught? Have they caught a fleeing felon hell-bent on wreaking more havoc, or have the police caught a scared kid with a suspended driver's license (as Mr. Harris's lawyer alleges)?

A study out of Michigan in 1993 found that 34.5% of pursuits resulted in separate felony charges; 14.4% resulted in intoxicated driver charges. Another study of 952 pursuits by the Metro Dade and Miami Police Departments found 48% of fleeing suspects were arrested for felonies; that's 314 felons who would have been on the street had the police not proactively pursued them.

Motor vehicle pursuits present a unique problem to officers and supervisors. No officer goes to work hoping to endanger the good citizens of the community. At the end of the day it is an officer's job to protect human life. Is driving by a citizen at 90 mph the best way to protect their life ? The simple answer would be "no." But "danger" is an abstract concept and subjective term; it can only truly be measured against whatever the alternative is. Can you imagine a society where the police could not pursue? Any miscreant, from a speeder to a murderer, would know the way to avoid prosecution is to merely accelerate. Officers are professionals and should be guided by their own training, experience and discretion. They should be guided by a reasonable departmental pursuit policy. The officers should also be protected by the rest of the criminal justice system. Prosecutors should prepare charges that truly reflect how many people were endangered by the motorist's actions; if he sped past ten people, charge him with ten separate counts of reckless endangerment. Judges must view pursuits as unique and special situations. They should sentence motorists who initiate police pursuits the same as any other criminal who is reckless with a deadly weapon in a public place. Officers should also depend on technology to help minimize the opportunity for pursuits. Building civilian cars that cannot travel 90 mph could be a start.

To answer the simple question--yes, motor vehicle pursuits are dangerous, but just think how dangerous not pursuing would be.