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."[PAGEBREAK]

Sure Footing

Another safety feature that's become standard on patrol vehicles is the anti-lock braking system (ABS). If a tire exceeds the limits of adhesion and begins to slide on the pavement, the driver has less control of the vehicle. ABS permits braking—especially in panic situations—to be as powerful as possible yet controlled. It takes a highly skilled driver to replicate the degree of pedal control that ABS computers yield as a matter of course. Just mash on the brake pedal and the car stops straight and true without the driver having to delicately modulate pedal pressure.

At the other end of the scale is loss of grip during acceleration and cornering, and Dodge alone offers a form of traction control it terms the two-stage Electronic Stability Program (ESP). In this system, a computer constantly compares the driver's intended course with the vehicle's actual course. If it detects a difference, it will apply the brakes on certain wheels as well as modulate engine power.

In practice, ESP provides an astounding increase in control, making it nearly impossible to spin out in a corner. Dodge proudly points to a NHTSA report that concluded cars equipped with a stability-control system reduced the number of single-car crashes by 35 percent and the number of fatal single-car crashes by 30 percent. (ESP can be turned off if the driver feels it necessary.)

Ford's traction-control system isn't quite as sophisticated. It limits rear-wheel spin, a boon to those trying to accelerate quickly on ice, dirt, or other low-traction surfaces.

Another safety feature common to patrol cars made by the "Big Three" is a tire-pressure monitoring system. Should a tire lose pressure and become unsafe to drive on, the system will alert the driver.

I know what you're thinking: You would know if your car's tires were getting flat. Actually, maybe not. There are times when dangerously low tire pressure may not be noticeable to your seat-of-the-pants gauge, and it's only when the tire comes apart that you may notice something is amiss. A leaking tire in a pursuit could definitely pose a safety hazard so such a notification system is another worthwhile addition.

Special Concerns

Ford is the first patrol car manufacturer to offer an optional onboard fire-suppression system in its police vehicles. The system was developed because of concerns that Crown Vics could burst into flames during significant rear-end collisions.

Ford's Crown Vic fire suppression system consists of two canisters of fire suppressant chemicals mounted just forward and above the fuel tank. If the car is struck in the rear, the suppression system activates immediately after the car comes to rest. Upon activation, the system is pressurized, and the fire suppresant chemicals are dispensed through nozzles. The system has been tested at rear-end collision speeds of 75 mph.

Of course, while patrol vehicle fire is a concern for law enforcement officers, taking fire in or around their patrol vehicles is a greater concern. Cops have long been taught to use their car doors as cover in a gun fight, but the truth is that the average patrol car door offers little ballistic protection.

Which is why there are now ballistic protective packages available through the aftermarket for any patrol car. Some even offer NIJ Level IV protection.

And it's why Ford is offering ballistic front-door panels as an option from the dealer on all Crown Vic patrol cars. Ford's ballistic door panels are lightweight, fit the doors without any structural modifications, and offer NIJ Level III protection. They cost $1,200 per door. Which may seem like a lot, unless you're pinned down behind that door trying to use it as a shield.

When it comes to maintaining situational awareness, being able to see all around is a key component. All three of the main players in the patrol car market offer good visibility, though there are still a few blind spots. Enlarging the windows is one way to minimize blind spots, though that would entail a redesign of the vehicle. A simpler solution is simply to grace the car with larger mirrors and/or wider angle mirrors.

Since police vehicles may be subject to demanding high-speed operation more akin to race cars at times, they also come fitted with heavier-duty suspension, tires and brakes to cope with the added stresses safely.

As it stands, today's police patrol vehicles certainly benefit from advances born in the civilian marketplace to enhance the driver's safety. They aren't perfect, but they offer security unknown just a decade ago and will continue to be refined as new advances come online. When combined with vigilance and continued operational training, there's no reason that the number of police fatalities in traffic accidents can't mimic the downward trend of the civilian driving population.

Mark Kariya is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who reviews automobiles, motorcycles, and bicycles.

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