Trooper Down

This is an interesting article found on Boston.com regarding motor vehicles striking police cars and officers during traffic stops. Something to be aware of while working. Be sure to click the link and watch the video.

Trooper Down

By Tom Vanderbilt

appeared on Boston.com

For the average driver, there may be no more visible car on the road than a police cruiser. Through sheer practice — and maybe a ticket or two — we learn to pick out the radar-equipped patrol car nestled in a roadside clearing, our brake lights signaling the danger to fellow drivers, like a bird alerting its flockmates. Even undercover cop cars — those white Ford sedans with the whip antennas — fairly scream for the attention of the attuned driver. Spend time inside of a police car, and you’ll see how a single car can affect a whole traffic stream; indeed, one of the challenges in training police officers to be better drivers is that they never receive negative feedback from fellow drivers.

To the already recognizable shape and coloration of the highway patrol, add flashing, high-intensity lights, and you would have, presumably, the dictionary definition for the word “visible.” Which is why there is something deeply surprising, counterintuitive, and disturbing in the fact that police cars, often in plain view on clear days with lights ablaze, are so often struck by other cars during traffic stops or other tasks.

As a recent spate of crashes — five in five weeks in Massachusetts — demonstrates, this seems to happen with alarming frequency. Statisticians might note that clusters of crashes, like so-called accident hotspots, could be random spikes of activity, but a look at the wider pattern reveals the depth of the problem.

Traffic is the most dangerous thing about police work, simply because most police spend a lot of time driving. But working outside the car has its risks, too: The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund estimates that, on average, one officer is killed every month while conducting a traffic stop or helping a disabled motorist. And it’s not just police. Figures from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health show the number of workers struck by cars has been rising over the past decade — in 2005, “struck-by” incidents accounted for nearly 7 percent of all occupational fatalities.

What’s going on? The simplest, Occam’s Razor answer is that stopping or exiting one’s vehicle on a busy highway thronged with fast-moving traffic is an inherently dangerous thing to do. “There’s an enormous amount of exposure,” says Michael Flannagan, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute who specializes in human vision issues. “Police making a traffic stop are standing alongside busy highways for long periods of time, and are passed by very large numbers of cars. Weird things happen when you get very large exposure numbers.”

But in reality, there are no simple answers to why drivers either do not see, or do not seem to be able to respond to, police cars stopped on the highway. “If we had a clear answer, we’d be shouting it,” says Flannagan. The continuation of the problem, despite progressive improvements in lighting technology and retro-reflective markings, speaks to the difficulties of understanding human behavior in a fast-moving, complex environment.

One clear culprit, however, is the drunk driver. Most of the recent Massachusetts cases involved a driver allegedly under the influence of alcohol, and in one episode, the officer struck was conducting a traffic stop on an allegedly impaired driver — and was hit by another. That is not necessarily a statistical lightning strike: Economists Steven Levitt and Jack Porter, based on one study that looked at two-car crashes in which both drivers were legally intoxicated, estimate that as much as a quarter of the drivers on the road between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. have been drinking.

Police sometimes talk darkly of a “Moth Effect,” by which drivers, particularly those who are intoxicated, seem to swerve toward parked police cars, drawn to the flashing lights like moths to a flame. This “phototaxis” is an alluring idea, albeit one lacking scientific evidence. More compelling is research demonstrating the various and insidious ways alcohol affects our visual and perceptual systems. Researcher Mark Nawrot of the University of North Dakota, in a study published in Psychological Science, found that alcohol intoxication affected a person’s eye movements — and thus a person’s ability to draw information about distance, and perhaps even heading, from his or her environment. The real world implications are not hard to fathom: At speeds of 65 miles per hour or more, a few inches of steering change may put a driver on a collision course with a car parked only a few feet away.

Similarly, several studies conducted in driving simulators have suggested that drivers may “steer where they look.” As a study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology reported, “there is a systematic and reliable tendency for operators to follow their direction of gaze with their direction of travel, in many cases without the conscious awareness of doing so at all.” So, the thought is, drivers intrigued by a roadside emergency may subtly steer in the direction of the emergency. But whether drivers do this in the real world, or do it enough to cause accidents, remains an open question.

While the answer might seem to lie in simply raising the visibility of vehicles, experts like Flannagan, who recently participated in a FEMA-sponsored study on emergency vehicle visibility, caution that the picture is more muddled. “It’s hard to imagine doing more to make vehicles more conspicuous, at least at night,” he says, “and yet people do run into them.” One issue is whether the visibility of the vehicle and of the officer outside that vehicle are at odds. In one test-track study conducted at the University of Michigan, Flannagan and his colleagues found that the glare from police warning lights actually obscured the presence of a pedestrian (a mannequin in this case) just beyond the car. This “masking” effect disappeared, however, when the pedestrian was equipped with retro-reflective marking.

Pedestrians, says Flannagan, tend to have little awareness of just how invisible they can be to drivers. And even though the Federal Highway Administration passed, in 2008, rules that require workers “whose duties place them within the right-of-way of a Federal-aid highway” to wear “high-visibility safety apparel,” Flannagan says many police officers have resisted such garb. “Many police actually don’t want to be visible,” he says. Increased visibility from warning lights may pose another risk. A study in Transportation Research Record found that when police cars were equipped with more conspicuous “roof bar” lights, they were actually involved in more crashes — the argument was as police became more confident that their lights made them visible, they became less vigilant about making sure their cars weren’t obstructing the roadway.

And visibility is not the only question. “Cognitive conspicuity,” as it has been termed by Ford Motor Co. researcher Louis Tijerina, also comes into play: Drivers need to not only detect an emergency vehicle, but understand the proper way to react to it. The failure of drivers to do this is one reason a number of states, including Massachusetts, have passed “Move Over” laws, which require drivers to change lanes or slow down when approaching an emergency vehicle or, in some states, a tow truck. Nationally, enforcement has been spotty, however, and a poll by the lobbying group supporting such laws found the majority of respondents did not know what the law meant.

The most troubling question is why, in many cases, drivers who were otherwise sober, driving during the day, on a clear road and while not talking on a cellphone, still struck a police car with flashing lights and bearing bright retro-reflective striping. A study in the United Kingdom looked at 47 cases in which a driver struck a stopped police car, and in more than half the cases drivers reported not seeing the police car, without any obvious explanation like alcohol or poor weather. These are what is known as a “looked but failed to see” crash. How could someone not see a brightly marked police car with flashing lights? As Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris remind us in “The Invisible Gorilla,” we all potentially suffer form the “illusion of attention,” or, as they put it, “we experience far less of our world than we think we do.”

Tom Vanderbilt lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is the author of “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).”


About Attorney John J. MacLaughlan

John MacLaughlan is Massachusetts licensed attorney as well as a Boston police officer. John is currently assigned to the Youth Violence Strike Force (Gang Unit). He is a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Law with a concentration in Labor Law. He holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well as a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. John has taught Defensive Tactics, Firearms, Use of Force, Applied Patrol Procedures, and Police Response to Active Shooters to sworn police officers and police academy recruits. Prior to becoming a Boston Police Officer, John served for 9 years as a police officer in Lowell, where he was a member of the Police Dive Team and Patrol Rifle Team.
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