November 18th, 2014 8:00 am ET - Hope M. Tiesman, PhD
In 2010, motor-vehicle-related events accounted for approximately two out of every five fatal work injuries in the United States [BLS 2011a]. Non-fatal motor-vehicle crashes can result in serious long-term injuries, permanent disabilities, and costly medical care. Notably absent from motor-vehicle research has been research addressing the safety of law enforcement officers who not only spend a significant amount of time behind the wheel, but often drive in dangerous conditions including inclement weather and at high speeds. Motor-vehicle crashes have been the leading cause of death for law enforcement officers for the last decade. [NLEOMF]. The survey described below revealed that from 2008-2011, 20% of officers had been in at least one motor-vehicle crash, and 16% reported being struck by or nearly struck by a motor-vehicle while outside their patrol car.
Recent research identified several important factors related to motor-vehicle crashes among law enforcement officers: low seatbelt usage and unsafe driving behaviors such as driving too fast for conditions. These findings have led many agencies to conclude that wide-spread cultural change is needed [NHTSA 2011; CalPOST 2009]. However, there is little research into current injury and crash trends, and the development of evidence-based prevention programs has been limited by a lack of risk factor data. The law enforcement community recognizes that motor-vehicle crashes are a serious and preventable cause of on-duty death; however, they have little evidence on how to best prevent them.
To further understand motor-vehicle operations and crashes among law enforcement officers, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) sponsored a statewide survey from September 2011 to December 2011 in the state of Iowa. The survey included a random sample of 60 law enforcement agencies and nearly 1,500 sworn officers. The results are presented in the recently published document, Law Enforcement Officer Motor Vehicle Safety. A summary of the results are presented below.
Officers were asked about motor-vehicle-related policies. Most officers reported their agency had a written motor-vehicle policy; however, only 66% received formal training on the policy. Less than half the officers from small agencies received formal training on motor-vehicle policies (47%). Elements of a typical motor-vehicle policy varied, but overall, speed restriction when using lights and siren (27%) and restricting use of mobile devices (39%) were the least common elements. Statewide, 82% of officers reported on written motor-vehicle policies that require the use of a seatbelt when driving patrol cars.
Officers were also asked about motor-vehicle-related training. State-wide, 29% of officers and only 8% of officers from small agencies reported receiving annual motor-vehicle training. Among those officers who reported any type of annual motor-vehicle training, just over a third had any type of hands-on driver training such as a driving course (38%), pursuit driving (37%), or an Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (35%). Motor-vehicle training provided at the academy level was not viewed in a positive light; 51% of the officers believed that academy motor-vehicle training prepared them to safely function in the field. However, nearly all officers believed that driver training was critical to their safety in the field (96%).
Finally, officers were asked about the use of certain occupational safety practices while in and around patrol cars. Statewide, 81% of officers reported wearing a seatbelt all of the time while operating a patrol car and 77% while riding in the front seat as a passenger on-duty, but this differed by type of agency. Members of the state patrol generally wore seatbelts more frequently than municipal or sheriff’s officers. Overall, 21% of officers believed there were barriers to the consistent use of seatbelts and the most common barrier listed was that “design makes it difficult to quickly and easily remove seatbelt when exiting.” Regarding roadside safety practices, only 4%–10% of officers reported wearing reflective gear, depending on the type of roadway. Law enforcement experience played a significant role in the motor-vehicle perceptions and behaviors of officers. Officers with more law enforcement experience were less likely to have had a motor-vehicle crash in the prior 3 years, more likely to view driving as a dangerous job activity, and more likely to practice safe driving techniques than those with less experience. Based on our findings, we offer the following recommendations.
- Consider policies to ensure periodic motor-vehicle training, especially among small agencies. Approaches for improving the frequency and quality of motor-vehicle training could include the development of a statewide training network, sharing of human and material resources across agencies, identification of fixed training sites, and the utilization of mobile driving simulators.
- Conduct an analysis of state-based training programs to assess the consistency and effectiveness of motor-vehicle training efforts.
- Continue to stress the importance of wearing a seatbelt and the practices associated with buckling/unbuckling while wearing full gear.
- Based on the current available evidence, agencies should consider implementing policies that restrict the use of cell phones while officers are engaged in driving.
- Agencies could also consider implementing speed restriction policies when officers are activating lights and sirens.
Use of Personal Protective Equipment
- Strive to get to 100% of officers wearing seatbelts by implementing policies and supporting officers in the wearing of seatbelts.
- Encourage officers to wear high-visibility apparel whenever they work in the vicinity of moving vehicles.
- Consider implementing a formal mentoring program using more experienced officers that may help to change an agency’s driving culture.
- Use testimonials of LEOs who have been involved in motor-vehicle crashes.
We welcome your feedback. Does your organization have policies and procedures similar to those described above? What has worked in your agency to promote safe driving and safe driving practices?
Hope M. Tiesman, PhD
Dr. Tiesman is an injury epidemiologist in the NIOSH Division of Safety Research.