Auto collisions have long been one of the highest causes of law enforcement deaths in the United States, behind shootings — and it’s no wonder since the patrol car is a mobile office for many police officers. To combat injuries and fatalities from auto collisions, one sheriff’s office in California set out to change its safety culture through a traffic safety initiative.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) in California used a multidisciplinary cross section of staff to implement the initiative, an idea of Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. The agency identified four behaviors related to collisions: seat belt use, speed, distracted driving, and drowsy driving, said Gary Schade, fleet coordinator for OCSD. Staff members set out to address each of these behaviors through education — including newsletters, videos, and testimonials from officers who had been involved in collisions — mentoring, and changes to its vehicle setup.
The OCSD has a fleet of about 1,000 vehicles, of which 400 are patrol cars, including the Ford Crown Victoria, Chevrolet Caprice, and Ford Police Interceptor Utility.
Training Officers on Safe Driving
The first thing staff wanted to tackle was seat belt use.
“It’s been an old teaching that in law enforcement, the officers don’t wear seat belts due to possible ambush. They want to be able to react and get out of their car quickly if need be. However, that seat belt is there to save them and protect and them, and not trap them in their car,” Schade said. “We had training for all our officers where they learned how to quickly, tactically, and safely remove a seat belt.” The method allows officers to keep their gun hand free.
Before the program, self-reported seat belt usage numbers were in the low 70% range; it’s now in the high 90% range, Schade reported.
To address speeding, staff began printing out “90+ reports” — reports of vehicles that had been tracked via GPS going faster than 90 mph.
“We evaluate each one to see if they’re justified,” Schade said. When staff members find instances of unjustified speeding, they sit down with the officer for a mentoring session and explain why the officer shouldn’t be speeding. “There are no negative effects from the traffic safety initiative, meaning there’s no disciplinary action that happens,” Schade said.
Despite this, or because of it, officers are slowing down. The first report was more than eight pages long, and the most current report is just 1.5 pages, Schade reported.
The OCSD's third goal was to reduce distracted driving — a difficult task because officers have a lot of gear in their vehicles, Schade said.
“We made our equipment as heads-up as possible,” to keep officers’ eyes on the road, he said. One way the OCSD addressed this was to install magnetic mikes to the inside of vehicle, so officers don’t have to look down when taking and replacing the mike. Staff also moved the mobile dispatching computer (MDC) from the low console to the dashboard to keep officers’ eyes up and lowered the high center console to make it easier to get from one side of the vehicle to the other. Staff is making these changes on all new vehicles as well as vehicles with half of its life cycle left, and the officers been happy with these changes.
Staff also educated officers on cell phone use, reiterating that officers are not to use cell phones unless they’re in a no-radio area or in an emergency.
Finally, OCSD addressed drowsy driving by encouraging officers to get a good night’s sleep before a shift and educating them on the effects of coffee and energy drinks.
Traffic Safety Improvements Can Save Lives
OCSD started the program five years ago and continues with its safety training quarterly. As a result, Schade reported a lower number of collisions with officers at fault.
“In general, if departments do not have a traffic safety initiative, I think they need to get involved; they need to jump on board. It’s simple to put out safety posters and newsletter and training bulletins so the folks that are driving cars are as safe as they can be. It doesn’t cost that much money when you look at costs versus the amount of lives that will be saved,” Schade said.
Those implementing a traffic safety initiative should get employees from all ranks involved, up to the Sheriff. OCSD Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is fully supportive of the program.
“Our motto is ‘For your partners, for your family.’ So not only is it for your partners here at work that you show up and be able to be backup and get there safely, but it’s also for your family. The goal at the end of the day is for everyone to go home, and to go home in one piece,” Schade said.