Can You See Me Now?
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This safety tip and the response first appeared on PoliceOne.com
Tim Knowles, Humberside Police (United Kingdom)
I have noticed something quite alarming among U.S. law enforcement officers when they make traffic stops on highways and during night hours. I base my observation on viewing TV news, COPS and other "reality" shows; a recent vacation to the United States, which included five states; and a departmental visit. Not a statistically compelling study, I agree, but it's still a fairly wide sample.
American law officers rarely seem to wear reflective vests or tabards. Equally, U.S. police cars seem to be covered in pretty designs, corporate identifiers and commitment logos, but not much protective marking.
I appreciate the tactical considerations of making a stop in which many of the subjects may be armed, but stepping onto a road without reflective gear, with drivers moving at high speed, seems to be crazy from where I sit.
I also encounter armed and dangerous subjects, but I tell you, I wouldn't dream of exiting the vehicle without wearing some high viz gear. It only takes a few seconds to go from tactical black to hi-viz.
My force's vests feature a reflective strip, and our cars are also well striped to increase rear visibility. Despite all that, I still find myself talking to people who say, "I didn't see you."
Dale Stockton, editor
It's very hazardous to enter a roadway, and reflective gear can make a difference. During the last 10 years, more than 150 officers have died in the United States after being struck by cars. How many of these deaths could have been prevented will never be known. However, use of reflective gear, at least in America, requires judgment on the part of the officer, and there are times when an officer may legitimately choose not to do so and remain safer as a result.
Although nighttime operations are inherently dangerous, officers usually benefit from a stealth approach during traffic stops. A reflective vest can work against this effort. At other times, such as directing traffic, wearing a reflective vest should be a given. Consider:
- There are many distractions for drivers, especially at night. Assuming drivers don't see you will put you in a greater awareness mode, and you'll be in the mental mindset to act if a vehicle comes your way. Plan an escape route even if it means jumping on the hood of the car you have stopped.
- Position your vehicle to your advantage. Time the traffic stop to take maximum advantage of lighting, road width and visibility. Offset your vehicle to help protect you during the stop.
- A passenger-side approach can provide maximum safety and catch a vehicle's occupant(s) off guard. The downside: You must cross between vehicles. Do this in less than a second to minimize danger.
- If using the traditional driver-side approach, you may find it advantageous to move in front of the driver after the initial contact and safety assessment. By moving just past the door hinge and facing the driver, you have a good view of the interior of the vehicle and a much greater awareness of oncoming traffic. It also helps you see items concealed under the seat. Consider this tactic depending on the circumstances.
- Be aware of high risk vehicles. Large trucks, wide loads, RVs, rental moving trucks and vehicles pulling trailers present a much greater threat for obvious reasons. Some trailers are wider than the vehicle pulling them, and the driver may forget about the trailer's presence.
- If working an accident or other traffic-control incident at night, take extra precautions. This is definitely the time to wear a reflective vest because you want to be seen.
- Keep a vest handy so you don't have to dig for it. Draped over a seat, a vest can be put on in a matter of seconds and might make the difference.
- Remember the importance of flare or cone patterns in providing direction to drivers. If drivers seem confused, don't assume they are stupid. Take a minute to look at the pattern from their perspective to see whether it makes sense.
- Consider using a spotter who watches for wayward drivers and stands ready to sound a warning (or air horn). While not always practical, you can definitely do this at longer incidents with a trained volunteer.
There are times to wear reflective clothing and times when it is in the officer's best interest not to do so even during nighttime operations. This is not a black-and-white issue, but rather one that requires good judgment. Exercise it.