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Cover Story

Safer by Design

Patrol car manufacturers are working hard to help more officers walk away from crashes.

April 01, 2008  |  by Mark Kariya

Fatal traffic incidents involving law enforcement officers jumped last year to a new high of 81, topping the previous record of 78 set in 2000, according to a report issued jointly by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and the Concerns of Police Survivors. Of those 81 fatalities, 60 were listed as car crashes and six died in motorcycle crashes.

It's unrealistic to believe all deaths and injuries can be prevented from traffic accidents, of course, but striving toward that goal will undoubtedly help reduce such incidents.

First and foremost, the best way to prevent accidents is to instill better driving skills in police officers. If officers have more training in advanced police vehicle operation and work on honing their situational awareness, that will help them avoid a lot of accidents.

Most officers pride themselves on their EVOC skills. And many of you have been well trained. A bigger problem in the contemporary law enforcement vehicle is distraction. At any given moment in a patrol car, information is coming across a laptop computer screen, dispatch is talking to you on the radio, and your cell phone is ringing. It's a recipe for disaster, and the only way to avoid that disaster is to focus. Stay aware of the situation around you, and you can avoid many accidents.

Of course, accidents cannot always be avoided. Thus, it falls to the vehicle itself to offer protection to the occupants should metal hit metal.

The three major manufacturers' police patrol vehicles were developed from successful civilian autos, so it's no surprise that the law enforcement versions offer many of the same safety features. But with police cars sometimes asked to perform tricky maneuvers at higher-than-normal speeds as well as being subjected to many hours of cruising the streets, are these civilian-derived safety features enough?

Patrol car safety equipment is limited by the same practicalities that limit body armor protection. Too much protection is expensive and unwieldy; too little protection can result in tragedy.

It would be impractical both in terms of expense and performance to outfit all patrol vehicles like race cars with full roll cages, five-point safety harnesses, window nets, and Snell-certified helmets for each officer. Such features and protective gear would undoubtedly enhance safety for the officers, but they would also impede the officers' ability to quickly enter and exit their cars as well as perform other police functions.

So, what safety features are important and should be included in police vehicles?

Sudden Impact

Just as in civilian autos, the effects of an accident on the occupants of a police car are determined greatly by the car's design and construction. Chevrolet's Impala and Dodge's Charger police vehicles utilize the contemporary unibody construction, while the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor relies on body-on-frame design—older but still quite viable.

In fact, Ford says that the Crown Vic PI is the only car in the world that passes a 75-mile-per-hour rear-end crash test, a test that came about in part to allay fears brought on by a few past instances of rear-end crashes rupturing the fuel tanks of Crown Vic patrol cars and causing fires. Ford also points out that the Crown Vic has earned a five-star rating—the highest rating available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—when it comes to frontal impacts and has done so for 13 consecutive years including 2008.

All three major manufacturers of patrol cars incorporate crush or crumple zones into their vehicle designs. These are most effective in frontal impacts and to a somewhat lesser degree in rear impacts. Intrusion beams contained within the doors offer a margin of side-impact protection, though they fall short of the security that a race car's roll cage provides, but they are pretty good for a street vehicle.

And race cars don't offer air bags, which are standard equipment and proven safety devices in both civilian and police vehicles. All patrol cars now have driver side air bags and many have passenger side air bags. When combined with seat restraints, these can save lives and prevent serious injuries, particulary during a front-end collision.

Unfortunately, two factors have combined to prevent front-end collision protection from bringing down the fatality rate for officers in accidents: One, many officers don't wear seat belts; two, a lot of officers are killed when their cars are T-boned and their heads strike the driver's side windows of their cars.

Of course, three-point seat belts are standard in these cars and should be considered the most important safety feature. Studies have shown that air bags are less effective when used alone, but used in conjunction with seat belts they offer the fullest degree of protection. While not as secure as a five-point race harness, commercial three-point belts are far more convenient and immensely quicker to get into and out of so there's no good reason not to use them.

There's not much that manufacturers can do about cops not wearing their seatbelts on duty. But they're working on making cars safer during side impact. For example, side-curtain air bags are available as an option in all Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge patrol vehicles.

Chevy also touts a crush box added between the driver and front-seat passenger as well as under-seat structural tubes to the Impala's front seats as impact protection. "The 'crush box' is a key component that enables our vehicles to meet governmental Dynamic Side Impact requirements," says Rob Minton, communications director of General Motors Fleet and Commercial Operations. "It provides added structural integrity necessary to minimize intrusion into the occupant area as the result of being 'T-boned.' It uses a honeycomb-type material that absorbs and dissipates the energy of an impact."

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Comments (1)

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Jaypugliese @ 4/29/2008 1:14 PM

The fact that manufacturers can not make not do much about officers wearing a seat belt is untrue. Ford, in particular, can change the positioning of the seat belt latch so it does not come up through the seat. A good number of officers are right handed and their gun sits over the top of the seat belt latch. In order to wear a seat belt in a Crown Vic, officers have to move slightly to the left which makes them sit at an angle. Changing the position of the latch and extending the attachment hardware will make wearing a seat belt more comfortable. If a seat belt is more comfortable to wear, more officers will wear one.

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