As a columnist, I get the opportunity to test just about every patrol-related vehicle or new product out there. If you follow this column, you know the level of patrol vehicle offerings has increased substantially in the past year or two. Safety systems, dynamic capabilities and integrated equipment options have all added to a better patrol vehicle environment for officers.
What hasn’t changed is that, ultimately, the officer operating the vehicle makes the final choice as to how that vehicle will be employed, in motion or at a stop. Unfortunately, poor tactical decisions remain a major contributor to officer deaths in the field. The good news: We can change that. As a former state trooper and technical accident investigator, I’ve learned that the majority of crashes are caused by a limited number of factors.
The first is driving too fast for conditions—whether it’s the weather, roadway construction, traffic or the operational capabilities of the vehicle. This can happen due to physiological responses to running code or habit.
The second is inattention to driving, whether it’s being surprised by the actions of other vehicles or distracted by activities occurring within the vehicle. There’s so much technology in patrol cars these days that makes our jobs more efficient, but it also provides more distraction.
Never Assume Drivers Can See or Hear You
The fact is—as much as we’d like to believe everyone can see and hear us in our two-tone, stickered up, LED-emblazoned patrol vehicle as we cruise down the roadway, physics, environmental conditions and human behavior are working against us. First, depending on the time of day, available light, traffic and roadway conditions, line-of-sight obstacles, road position and presiding speed limit, it may be difficult for a motorist to see you as you approach—that’s if they’re even paying attention.
Second, depending on the type of light bar you have and where it’s placed, it may not be very visible during the daytime, and the height placement may render it ineffective from some angles.
Third, siren studies have proven that the ability to overcome ambient noise and the insulation capabilities of modern vehicles is limited. Although the noise may seem ear-splitting in front of your vehicle, chances are it won’t be heard by a motorist in a closed-window car until you’re close, which might be too late. Plan on an effective range of about 40 feet at an intersection. Do the math as to how fast you should be going when you reach it. That’s right—not fast at all.
Although state laws require motorists to yield to emergency vehicles displaying lights and sirens, and your cruiser is still a visual presence during routine driving, drive like nobody can see you. The extra cautiousness will pay off.
Don’t Put Your Life in the Hands of a Stranger
This is something that gets officers in trouble. They assume the other person will do the right thing.
In my experience working with DrivingMBA—a private driver training company, which is unique in its use of the PatrolSim IV Driving Simulator—immersing adult fleet drivers in head-on and angle collisions almost always generates predictable results and justifications. When asked why they allowed themselves to be hit head-on or at an angle by a vehicle they saw approaching them with plenty of warning, the typical response has been, “I thought they would stop, swerve, see me,” etc.
In other words, they placed their livelihoods in the hands of a stranger by assuming the stranger would do the right thing. Unfortunately, because you don’t know the mental, physical, psychological and emotional state of that person who’s operating the approaching vehicle, you can’t make assumptions. At intersections, don’t assume people will always do what’s expected. Even if they see and hear your lights and sirens, why assume they’ll stop?
It seems like a pretty basic rule, but one that gets violated regularly for non-essential reasons. In my experience, seldom can running at high speeds be considered justifiable. Because the vast majority of our job is reactive, not proactive, we usually arrive well after the incident has ended. Even in cases where there’s a robbery or DV in progress, driving at your maximum capabilities can easily become driving well above them, which is when bad things happen. You can’t help if you don’t make it there, no matter how good your intentions.
Think about it this way. Depending on where you work, you may not activate your overhead lights for days, and you probably received driver training in the academy a while ago. What makes you think your skills behind the wheel will be proficient enough to run at a high-performance level during a high-stress, physiologically charged incident? It’s not about the paint job, bright lights and loud siren. It’s about you being able to instantly recall how to employ a perishable skill that could lead to your demise or the demise of innocents if implemented incorrectly.
Even if you’re running codes all day, you still need to put the ego in check and accept that you can’t be of assistance or enforce the law if you’re crashed, injured or dead. It’s OK to give yourself a buffer. As a trainee, you were probably taught to drive at 70% of your capabilities and that’s where it should be most of the time. Today’s patrol vehicles are plenty capable even at that level.
Enough said. I’ve heard all the arguments against it, and you can’t help yourself or anyone else if your head is embedded in the windshield or worse. As a crash investigator, I can tell you that nothing will tear you up worse than a vehicle crash. Crash forces don’t discriminate. As for the myth you’re going to somehow get “caught” in your seatbelt as you’re getting out of the car quickly, I can tell you from doing thousands of traffic stops that was never an issue for me. If you practice removing your seatbelt as you come to a stop, it shouldn’t be for you either. What will be an issue is you being hurt or killed in a crash that you would’ve otherwise walked away from if you’d been belted in.
Let’s be realistic for a moment. Compare the chances of you getting killed while driving vs. the chances of being ambushed on a traffic stop using sound tactics. Bottom line: Buckle up and live to tell the story.
I like acronyms. SIPDE is one of them. It stands for Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide and Execute. It’s one you must commit to memory and say to yourself regularly as you drive. Scan means moving your eye point every two seconds or so and keeping your head on a swivel. Don’t rely on your peripheral vision alone to locate potential hazards because you can’t react to what you don’t see. Scan, scan and keep scanning. Identify means recognizing any potential source of trouble, from other vehicles to roadway conditions, weather and obstacles.
Once you’ve identified any potential hazards, predict what could happen that would cause you to take action to avoid a crash. Based on those predictions, decide what the best course of action might be, whether it’s slowing down, changing lanes, covering the brake pedal or something else. Lastly, if that predicted hazard becomes reality, execute your decision to maximize your safety and minimize the chances of a crash. Of course, you could have numerous SIPDE strategies going on in your head simultaneously that basically address the if/then factors. I didn’t invent SIPDE, but it’s simple and it works. Make it part of your daily driving and patrol routine.
Be Aware & Stay Alive
Driving a police vehicle isn’t easy, even when you aren’t running code. Add that to the fact that the great majority of today’s drivers have no formal training whatsoever. Never assume, don’t put your hands in the life of another, buckle up, slow down and adopt SIPDE. Common sense? Yes, but even the most common skills can be forgotten if not practiced. Keep sharp and stay safe.
Stay Alive During Traffic Stops
These tips may seem like common sense, but they’re rules I see officers violate every day:
1. You pick the place for the stop, not the violator.
2. Patience is a virtue. Take time to observe the violations and watch occupant behavior before initiating the stop.
3. If you’re working nights, align all of your spotlights by conducting a mock stop at the station on a parked vehicle. Moving spotlights on a real stop gives your position away and the earlier you get light on the violator mirrors and vehicle, the better.
4. Stop far enough back—at least one and oftentimes two car lengths behind the violator.
5. Don’t cross or stand between your vehicle and the violator vehicle on a stop. It places you in the kill zone from all sides. Walk around the back of your vehicle and approach along the passenger side.
6. Don’t sit in the driver’s seat of your patrol vehicle or any seat for that matter during a stop. Stand outside your vehicle in the passenger door area at an angle that allows you to watch the violater as well as the approaching traffic behind you.
7. Place your hand on the seatbelt buckle release as you come to a stop. Either push the belt forward and across your body with your right hand, or reach across with your left hand and pull the belt forward and away from you. This will clear the duty belt and allow your right hand to place the vehicle in park while your left hand moves to the door handle.
8.. If you observe actions before initiating the stop that lead you to believe you need a cover unit, call for it and wait for it to arrive. Waiting until you know there’s a problem to ask for another unit may cause a response delay that you can’t afford.
9. You can’t react to what you don’t see. Whether you’re driving or making an approach on a stopped vehicle, scan, scan and scan some more.
For more tips on conducting safe traffic stops, visit www.lawofficer.com and keyword search “traffic stop survival.”
Wear Your Belt; Watch Your Speed
These are two of the main tenets of Law Officer’s Below 100 initiative—and for good reason. Most cops die in accidents because they aren’t doing one or both. For more information, visit www.lawofficer.com/below100.
Think Everyone Buckles Up?
Think again. Take a look at this excerpt from an e-mail received from a Law Officer reader:
“After losing a co-worker from the same academy class, same shift and same squad, it really hits you and makes you think. This officer was by no means one of those vigilante or aggressive types. We all know there’s a few that drive carelessly or always have to be the first on scene. This officer was the more laid back type, a gentle giant, who never in my experience drove recklessly and from the times I saw, had his seatbelt on, believe it or not. However, for some reason, during this tragic accident, the investigation determined that his speeds were excessive and that he was not wearing his seatbelt.
“Like you, I was taught by FTOs (5 out of 6) not to wear the seatbelt. But I practice breaking leather as I’m leaving the station after logging on and wearing my seatbelt. And probably like you, I’ve caught myself a few times begin to drive and then kick myself for not putting the seatbelt on. Now, more than ever, I find myself with a greater appreciation for driving safe, arriving safe and slowing down.”