During a span of about five weeks in January and February of this year there was a spate of headlines so similar in nature it bordered on bizarre. Paraphrasing somewhat, they were:
- Ohio Officer Struck By Car While Directing Traffic on Interstate
- Hawaii Officer Injured While Directing Traffic in Serious Condition
- South Carolina Officer Hurt While Directing Traffic Now Recovering
- New York Office Struck By Car While Directing Traffic at Crash Site
- Oklahoma Officer Directing Traffic Struck by Distracted Driver
According to the most recent media reporting, the officers with the Columbus (OH), Honolulu (HI), Summerville (SC), Suffolk (NY), and Nowata (OK) police departments are all now recovering from their injuries. This column is offered in hopeful anticipation of their return to full duty, and as an earnest attempt to help prevent similar incidents in the future.
Understanding the Enemy
Through each of those news items runs a single strand—what a novelist would call a plotline—that binds them all together to form the fabric of a story. That threat can be summed up in just two words: directing traffic.
Ian Fleming—the British Intelligence Officer turned famous novelist—is credited with saying, "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action."
This is not to say that there's a single "enemy" to be blamed for these and other instances in which an officer sustains injuries while directing traffic. In fact there are countless "enemies" to be blamed—myriad factors which contribute to these events—such as the weather, the time of day, the negligence/impairment of the offending vehicle's driver, the officer's own actions or inactions, and some measure of very bad luck.
Five officers struck by passing vehicles in about five weeks is enough get anybody's attention—particularly those five officers—but it should be an immediate impetus for police trainers at every level to focus some energy on reminding their trainees of some important basics. Here are a few quick reminders and safety strategies that can mitigate the risks.
Below 100 and Officer Safety 101
The first two things that come immediately to mind when contemplating the basics of traffic control safety can be found among the tenets of Below 100: "wear your vest" and "complacency kills."
Whenn LEOs think of "vests" it's usually those made of Kevlar, but during traffic control the brain should go directly to metalized and/or non-metalized micro-prismatic material. No officer should be outside of their vehicle at the scene of a vehicle collision without their reflective vest. Period. While you're at it, grab those reflective gloves and the wand lights.
Complacency comes in many forms, but when directing traffic it's the outcome of countless—hundreds? thousands?—hours spent at roadsides during which absolutely nothing interesting happens. Like checking the chamber of a weapon expecting to find a live round (and not an empty chamber), anticipate the prospect of a passing vehicle to do something dangerous.
A basic principle of "Officer Safety 101" for numerous activities is that there is safety in numbers. Whenever manpower allows it, ask for backup from as many fellow officers as is prudent, and when staffing shortages won't allow for additional personnel on the scene, use ample quantities of flares as a force multiplier. Even if backup cannot stay, perhaps they can swing by to lay out a quarter-mile stretch of smoldering potassium nitrate leading up to your location.
Another entry-level training credo for safety on the streets is to slow things down. In the case of directing traffic, that's probably already happening naturally, and while that congestion of cars is inconvenient and irritating for the passing motorists, it's of enormous benefit to responders at the scene. If you think shutting down two of the three lanes on that interstate will make the scene safer, go ahead and do it. Slow traffic can be your friend.
A third essential and elemental philosophy of officer safety is utilizing command presence. When you're setting up at the scene, position your patrol vehicle to be as visible as possible without turning your emergency lights into takedown lights that will blind oncoming drivers. When you're out of the vehicle and on your feet directing traffic, position your body to be easily seen and avoided (squared up, not sidways), and make large, unambiguous hand / arm gestures to be sure your instructions are understood.
Taking Every Possible Precaution
In 2022, four officers were reportedly struck by vehicles and subsequently died. In the previous decade (from 2012-2021) an estimated 80 officers were fatally struck by vehicles. Some of those were undoubtedly targeted felonious assaults, but the overwhelming majority of these deaths were undoubtedly preventable "accidents."
The best protection against "accidents" is attentiveness, and while officers cannot think on behalf of the motorists around them, they can be reminded—by academy and in-service trainers as well as immediate line supervisors—of basic tools and tactics to stay safe.