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Study: Traffic Incidents Top Cause Of Police Deaths

The next time you see a police officer working along the shoulder of the road, think about this: Traffic incidents killed more law enforcement officers than guns did last year.

Of the 116 officers killed last year, all but one of whom were men, 51 died in traffic incidents. Traffic remains the largest cause of death for 12 years running, according to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Guns, meanwhile, killed 49 officers.

Police Officer Deaths, 2009

For the 12th straight year, traffic incidents remained the largest single cause of death for police officers in the line of duty in 2009.

Pie chart shows cause breakdown of police officer line-of-duty deaths, 2009

Thousands of law enforcement officers will gather at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Thursday night to remember colleagues lost in the line of duty.

The number of traffic deaths is a decrease from last year's total, 71, and some in law enforcement hope that's a sign that recent safety measures are working.

"This issue has only been focused on aggressively in the last few years," said Craig Floyd, the memorial fund's chairman and CEO. Part of that focus, he said, has been better driver training for officers around the country.

Something else that may be reducing traffic deaths: Most states have passed so-called "move-over laws" that require motorists to change lanes away from an emergency vehicle or slow down if they can't change lanes. Last year, the number of officers killed while outside their cars dropped from 18 to 10.

Another factor in the decrease may be a 2008 federal regulation that requires those working alongside the highway to wear reflective vests — depending on the roadway and what the worker is doing.

Along with a falling violent crime rate nationally, police deaths from gunfire are down over the long term, but did increase last year, in part because there were several multiple shootings.

Fifteen of the 49 officers shot and killed last year died in incidents where more than one officer was shot by the same assailant. The total includes an attack in which a gunman killed four officers in a coffee shop in Lakewood, Wash., in November.