We talk a lot about how dangerous pursuits are. In fact, the media hits it pretty hard, too. And, aside from the daily news, members of the public are bombarded by television shows airing video of pursuits shot from helicopters and from dash-cams.
There's no question that pursuits are hazardous. While there are no solid figures, estimates are that several hundred people are killed in pursuits each year, including a few officers. Nobody really knows how many people are injured, or how many "fender-bender" type crashes there are that result from pursuit activity.
So you can imagine how surprised I was when, after leaving my department and taking up employment as an insurance type, I started looking at actual data, and saw that pursuit is not our biggest motor vehicle related problem. Far from it.
The deadly routine
Of much greater concern are emergency runs, and routine driving incidents. More officers are injured and killed, as are more civilians, and there is much more property damage that results from the more ordinary, day to day driving that occurs in every department.
Just because there is no good, national database of officer-involved motor vehicle crashes does not mean that no one is looking at the numbers. Insurance companies and risk management pools track the information closely (unfortunately, they seldom share it). When I was on the inside, reviewing lawsuits and workers' compensation claims, I saw what the insurers see: While the occasional pursuit-related fatality is very spectacular and causes a lot of media attention, that's not where police departments are incurring most of their costs and injuries. In fact, in the last ten years, an average of less than 6% of officers that died in the line of duty were killed in pursuits, usually between three and seven officers a year.
This is not to make light of those officers' sacrifices. Their families and friends miss them just as much as if they had been gunned down. And anything we can do to reduce that number is something we should do.
But all the talk about pursuit leads us somewhere that is not helpful. In order to have an impact on emergency vehicle crashes, we need to train, and to have sound policies and procedures. But when we focus on pursuit, we tend to get overwhelmed with the difficulty of conducting training that is relevant to a pursuit. "Not enough room," we say, or "too rough on the cars." "Too difficult to simulate," so we need to buy an expensive driving simulator, but we can't afford one. So, all too often, we do nothing.
The reality is that much more damage and injury is caused by lower speed, routine driving incidents. One of the most common types of patrol unit crashes is a backing accident. Not very spectacular, but have enough of them, and the dollars add up fast.
Emergency vehicle response, or just driving fast "because we can," causes us problems, too. And, believe it or not, one of the most common causal factors (although not usually the proximate cause of the crash) is emergency response without full emergency warning equipment. The reason this issue is so problematic is that, even if an officer does everything else correctly, if he or she is involved in an emergency response crash and does not have the proper and appropriate emergency warning equipment activated, in many states that officer would be in violation of the statutes. That often will breach governmental immunity, and that translates to a much higher cost in any litigation.
And the real problem with trying to "train away the risk" of pursuits is that they are a seldom-occurring activity. As with much of what we do in law enforcement, it's hard to adequately train for something that doesn't happen all that often. When a pursuit does result in a crash, the cause is often something very difficult to train for, such as a one-car crash where the suspect just runs off the road.
Statistically, we would be much better off, and probably have a far greater impact on both officer injuries and litigation, if we focused our training in two areas: defensive and evasive driving on the driving range, and a classroom session on EVO statutes and departmental policies. That way, we give officers the chance to practice the skills they need for avoiding a crash (some of which will obviously trickle down--or maybe, up--to pursuit situations), while reinforcing their understanding of their legal obligations and administrative responsibilities.
Any program that is likely to be successful in reducing traffic crash-related officer injuries, and the attendant litigation, must be multifaceted. It should include the training already mentioned, but should also include a careful policy review, as well as supervisory training. Along the same vein, departments should carefully examine the way their vehicles are equipped, realizing that a distracted driver is an accident waiting to happen--and everyone knows how distracting a modern, rolling "office" can be, especially when you're working alone.
Even if your department has very limited training resources (and who doesn't?), just conducting these reviews, and delivering the classroom training, can have a dramatic impact. And, the safer your officers are, the less likely they are to be injured, or to injure someone else. That means fewer lawsuits, and that's healthy for everyone.
Stay safe, and wear your vest! (and Buckle Up!)