Traffic Accidents Leading Cause Of Police Deaths

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After a 50-year low in 2009, the number of police officers killed in the line of duty jumped in 2010. Traffic accidents accounted for 73 of 160 police deaths nationwide. Cpl. Dan Ward of the Tulsa Police Department's Precision Driver Training Unit explains why driving on the job is so dangerous.


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Last year, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reported police fatalities at a 50-year low. Sadly, 2010 was more typical. The number of police officers killed in the line of duty jumped back up to about 160, closer to the annual norm. When you hear that number, you may think about gunfire and 59 police officers did die after being shot this year. But car accidents remain among the biggest causes of police deaths. Cops go fast, drive powerful cars and make split-second decisions behind the wheel, all of which put officers and civilians at risk.

We'd like to hear from the police officers in our audience today. What's your reality on the road? If you have questions about safe driving on duty. 800-989-8255. Email us, You can join the conversation on our website as well. That's at Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now is Corporal Dan Ward, a trainer at the Tulsa Police Department's Precision Driver Training Unit, with us today by phone from Tulsa and thanks very much for being with us today.

Corporal DAN WARD (Precision Driver Training Unit, Tulsa Police Department): Glad to be here, Sir.

CONAN: And traffic fatalities for police officers have been on the rise since the late 1990s. Do you have an understanding of why?

Cpl. WARD: Yes, Sir. You know, there's a core group of driver instructors across the country who have looked at this, and we feel part of the reason is decision-making. A lot of our training we need to transfer from, you know, vehicle dynamics and how to handle a police car - very important of course. But a lot of times if you study the causes of police officer and law enforcement involved crashes, well, a lot of the decision-making could come into question.

And, you know, with societies changing out there, there's a lot more congestion with traffic. There's a lot more distracted drivers out there. Even though the officer is doing the right thing and trying to make an emergency response to get there and help people, a lot of times the general public is just unaware that we're coming. And so like when we approach busy intersections, we need to just slow down, come to a stop, make sure everybody in the intersection is aware that we're trying to get through there before we proceed.

CONAN: And I wonder, are police officers given the prevalence of computers in the car more distracted as well?

Cpl. WARD: Yes. You know, officers are just like the general public. I mean, computers are in almost every police car now, and the information that the officers need when they're responding to these incidents shows up on their computer. So, you know, we have officers across the country that are looking at their computer screens to get information. You know, it's an important tool and ability for police officers to be able to multitask. But even we have to understand that when we're making an emergency response that we need to reduce that multitasking and focus on the task at hand which is making the emergency response and arriving safe to protect ourselves, the people that we're trying to help and the general public out there in the roadway.

CONAN: And I was - obviously, the high-speed pursuit is an especially dangerous situation.

Cpl. WARD: Yes, it is, of course. And, you know, most departments and most trainers across the country have developed policies and new techniques and new ways of dealing with that. And, of course, you know anytime that you're driving in high speed with even with your lights and sirens on, you know, there's increased risk there for everybody involved.

CONAN: It's interesting. I was reading a blog post by Captain Travis Yates, a team leader with the Tulsa Oklahoma Police Law Enforcement Driver Training Unit. I guess he's your boss.

Cpl. WARD: Yes, Sir.

CONAN: And he was saying, you know, it's important to remember that the goal of a high-speed pursuit is not apprehension but public safety.

Cpl. WARD: Yes, it is. Overall public safety. And a lot of departments, most major police departments across the country, including ours, have developed policies, and the underlying principle there for pursuits is that once the danger to the public outweighs the danger of apprehending the criminal or stopping the chase, well, then, you know, we're going to terminate the pursuit.

But, you know, a lot of the, you know, officer-involved fatalities and crashes aren't just in pursuits. You know, they're in involved in emergency response to the call. And, you know, unfortunately, a lot of them are just, you know, single car crash as well where the officer doesn't actually have to collide with somebody else. They just, you know, do the fatigue or whatever, ran off the road.

CONAN: And I assumed some of those responses, the traffic accidents, that kill and injure officers are in response to shooting incidents in which officers are involved. And the police are concerned about their fellow officers.

Cpl. WARD: Oh, yes. You know, in any time an officer comes on the radio and is yelling for help, I mean, you know, that gets us on our gut. But, you know, through training and stuff like that and your experience as a police officer, you have to understand to be able to process that information and then be able to deal with even the physiological autonomic responses that your own body gives you when you're driving at high speed.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Corporal Dan Ward, who trains officers with the Tulsa Police Department's Precision Driver Training Unit. We want to hear from police officers today, to tell us the reality of the road from their point of view. 800-989-8255. Email us:

And we'll start with Davey, Davey with us from Miami.

DAVEY (Caller): Hey, how are you. And thank you for having me.

CONAN: Very good. Thanks.

DAVEY: Thank you. My father was a police officer for many years. In fact, he's a major for the city of Miami Police Department. And one thing that I found that hasn't really change a lot in a lot of situations, not all, of course, is overconfidence on the part of the officer, especially driving at high speeds. You always have to drive defensively because everyone else isn't as skilled and aware of their surroundings where the officer might be. And also, like you said, fatigue of the officers as well, even with - especially in motorcades when they are on a, you know, a motorcycle where the risk is even higher, you know, for death in the event of an accident. And so that's something that I have experienced and noticed and see that all the time here. I do a lot of driving down in here Miami.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DAVEY: And - but just overconfidence on the part of the officers, thinking that their training - they're very highly skilled when they may have training but not enough to handle the type of situation that they're in.

CONAN: Corporal Ward, what do you think?

Cpl. WARD: Oh, I agree with the caller completely. You know, driving for police is a high frequency but high speed driving is risk. And, you know, we get out there and you make an emergency response one time, two times, you know, you do it 10 times in a certain way and nothing bad happened, so you get a little bit overconfident. You think, you know, I've got this all under control. But then it's the 12th or 15th time that you're running emergency response and you go through an intersection and catastrophe happens.

DAVEY: Well...

CONAN: Davey...

DAVEY: Thank you so much. And I do appreciate the quick response time of the police officers down here in Miami-Dade County.

CONAN: All right, Davey. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DAVEY: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to - this is Chris(ph) and Chris is on the line from North Charleston in South Carolina.

CHRIS (Caller): Hey. How are you doing?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRIS: I was - I read article and I have a question about - it's the traffic fatalities. It didn't specify if it was vehicle collisions or when us, as police officers, stepping out with people to help them to change a tire or whatever else, which I know we had many instances of that. Can the corporal discuss that and stuff? Did they found - did research, maybe LED light attracts police car, attracts motorists, the DUI drivers. That's why we get a lot of guys getting killed from.

CONAN: You say we, Chris. Are you a police officer?

CHRIS: Yes, yes, yes. Sorry.

CONAN: So you've had situations where you're stopping to help somebody with - change a tire and that your butt's sticking out in traffic and you're in danger?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRIS: Absolutely. The blue lights are blaring at night time and it a -you can just a car swerve to you. We've got incidents in the low country area, officers - two officers, as a matter of fact, in one jurisdiction got killed helping somebody change a tire.

CONAN: All right. Corporal Ward, does this - how big a factor is this?

Cpl. WARD: Well, it's a big factor. You know, lights, LED lights, well, they are much brighter and all. There has been studies - many studies done that sometimes reducing some of the red and blue lights that are shining through the rear and transferring to an amber light helps some.

But, again, I think we fall back on to - you know, I worked in our traffic unit for over two years. And I found that I was out on the highways, again, working very in close proximity to cars are going by me at 70 miles an hour. And I was becoming complacent, you know, and not realizing that, you know, that is a big danger.

So, yeah. You know, officers getting struck by other vehicles out on the roadway. There are certain things, you know, we got traffic vests that we should be wearing, you know, that reflect and show that we're out there. And, you know, society and people, I think, they have become so accustomed to red and blue lights that - and people want to get to where they're going and I think the - when they see the red and blue lights, the processing of that information is that they just don't give it as much attention as they should do and realize that those red and blue lights do mean that there's some kind of caution or danger ahead.

CONAN: Chris...

CHRIS: Absolutely. I've been doing it for 21 years. And I know police officers always get a bad rap for - maybe we drive too fast. I just want to make it clear to the public that it is not always the case for us driving. It's sometimes we're getting run over on the side of the road. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much. Be careful.

CHRIS: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Gordon in Marion, Iowa. There are many laws that relate to people not driving distracted, yet police cars continue to get more and more electronics, keyboards and displays. Should there be a way for the screens to be disabled when the police car is moving or when it's moving in pursuit? Should they rely more on verbal input from the dispatcher?

Cpl. WARD: You know, when I started in law enforcement - I've only been doing this job for 15 years. But when I've started and until now, our call loads have increased dramatically. The radio traffic is just unbelievable on some busy nights out there. But, you know, most departments, and ours included, will have policies that say, hey, you know, you've got information on your computer screen. But when you're driving, you're supposed to be focusing on the road. And I think part of training is how we overcome all that. And we've got to train our officers and get them to realize that, you know, driving is a very high-risk thing. You know, the reasons a lot of the fatalities due to their firearms over the years have gone down is because our firearms trainers have taught us other officers how to reduce and minimize the risks. I think we need to take that same approach with law enforcement driving.

CONAN: We're talking with Corporal Dan Ward, a trainer with the Tulsa Police Department's Precision Driver Training Unit, that after a report of the number of traffic fatalities in the - that unfortunately killed police officers on duty this past year. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Eldis(ph), Eldis with us on the line from Miami.

ELDIS (Caller): Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ELDIS: I just wanted to comment. I'm a police officer with the Miami Police Department.

CONAN: Yeah.

ELDIS: And the biggest trouble that I've seen as far as threats to officers responding to calls in their vehicles is actually other officers who were on the road. We have a relatively small area that we're policing. We have quite a few officers that tend to respond to these emergency calls for service. And unfortunately, they're all coming at the same intersections at the same time, so it can be quite dangerous.

Cpl. WARD: Yeah, I agree to that completely. You know, here's the thing with policemen, you know, probably the reason that makes us all want to be police officers is we want to get there, and we want to be the one that saves the day. And we may be focusing on where we're going to end up at on the call, but we also got to pay attention to the other police cars that are also responding an emergency, with at an emergency response as well, too.

CONAN: Eldis, thanks very much for the call.

ELDIS: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Angie, Angie calling from Orlando, Florida.

ANGIE: Hi. How are you guys today? Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Thanks so much. Go ahead, please.

ANGIE: Everything everybody has said has been so wonderful in addressing some of my concerns. As a driver in Florida, I know someone had mentioned that police officers get a bad rep for speeding. And I've actually called at police departments, complaining on the highway about officers who are tailgating or driving aggressively. Now, my...

CONAN: When you say that, Angie, with their lights on or without lights on?

ANGIE: No, without their lights on, driving in traffic. And in some instances, it's been an officer, say I'm in Daytona Beach and the officer's obviously not from that county or that city; they're driving home, which is fine. What kind of training or repercussions or discipline do police officers get in regards to their own driving style? Like what exactly do they do to ensure that they are driving safely, because that's - I know not all officers are driving that way, but the ones who do make it so hard on the rest of us citizens were just driving, and I want to make sure that we're giving our kids a good example.

CONAN: Corporal Ward?

Cpl. WARD: You know, every department has their own policies across the country and all like that. And I can't speak for everybody out there, but I do know there that our department, we do have an internal point system here, and that if you're found in violation of traffic laws, or if you have your own crashes that you're at fault, you're assessed points and you have to go through remedial training, and you can also be disciplined for whatever actions that you take. Our department lets officers know that we are responsible for our actions.

CONAN: We've gotten a lot of calls like yours, Angie, and emails too. This from Chris in Cheney, Washington: My biggest peeve just about with cops is they routinely drive way fast without their lights on. This is nuts, I hope illegal. Civilian drivers need to be alert, but are not expecting a car to come up on them in excess of 10 miles an hour over the speed limit. Changing lanes could be deadly. Cops have lights and they should be on if they're going to exceed the posted speed limit.

ANGIE: Exactly. And it is very disconcerting to be driving on the highway and you're trying to be aware of what's going on around you and all of a sudden here comes a cop really quick on your bumper. It's like is he going to pull me over? Do I need to get out of the way? It's - it causes so much anxiety on the road, and it's the last thing you want when you're driving. And I have a seven-year-old, so him in the car with me as well, I'm extra cautious. So having that happens is so unnerving.

I'm glad I'm not the only one. I really do hope that there's something that we can do to ensure that officers are courteous on the road as much as they sent the example for the rest of us that are driving.

CONAN: Angie, thanks very much for the phone call. And Corporal Ward, if you had one thing to say to officers who might be listening about driving safely, what might it be?

Cpl. WARD: You know, always take a few extra moments to evaluate what you're doing. Training, of course, is very important. We kind of have to sometimes change our own culture. I think if we just slow down and if we could just get officers to - at red lights, when they are running emergency response that they could just stop and make sure all the traffic through the intersection sees them and yields to them before they proceed through. I think it would be safer for the officer and the general public as well.

CONAN: Dan Ward, a trainer with the Tulsa Police Department's Precision Driver Training Unit, with us today from Tulsa. We thank you for your time and happy New Year.

Cpl. WARD: Oh, thank you, sir. And happy New Year to you.

CONAN: Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION's fifth annual obit show. Send us an email of your pick for someone who passed on this year that you'd like to remember, someone who accomplished something or somebody whose life we should remember. The address is

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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