What Causes Officers To Crash?

What are the two key tactical failures in a patrol vehicle that are the root cause of most collisions? Although the answer is debatable, based on collision data and observations during EVOC training, failing to look ahead and braking too late are near the top of the list. Simply looking at the high number of single vehicle collisions in which officers’ vehicles hit trees, poles, curbs, ditches,  and rear-end other vehicles is evidence enough that these are two key problems which need attention.

Scanning and looking down the road to see what’s next is easier said than done. Often, drivers are looking off the hood of the car as stress, adrenaline, and divided attention from multi-tasking naturally pull their vision down. The result is predictable: Delayed reaction times that result in braking too late and in speeds that are too high when approaching turns, curves, and intersections. The officer then loses control of the vehicle — often with crippling or deadly results.

If law enforcement agencies across the country want to support their officers, reduce injuries and fatalities, save money, and noticeably reduce collisions, it is essential that they make looking ahead and braking early a habit. All drivers, including those who regularly race in competitive motorsports, think they practice these two skills, but most do not.

At the 2013 conference of the Association of Law Enforcement Emergency Response Trainers (ALERT), I rode with an instructor from a large agency who was cursing up a storm on the test course about how the patrol vehicle he was driving would not turn and was dangerous. The reason the car wouldn’t turn was that he was fixated on the features right in front of him. He was braking 30 feet too late, turning too late, and thus overworking the front tires. Most of us who have to drive vehicles under pressure struggle with this — I’m guilty of it, too.

Coincidentally, the frequent causes of collisions in the real world mirror what is seen during Emergency Vehicle Operator Course training — both during rookie school and during in-service training for veterans. Sure, cops are never going to have to navigate cones on the streets, but the training can demonstrate gaps in performance while showing officers how good vision, scanning, and early braking techniques can be effective when used on patrol.

What makes these techniques so effective? Looking down the road helps slow things down. If your surroundings seem like a blur or you don’t remember much about the drive to a call, chances are you weren’t looking far enough ahead or your attention was too divided. Vision is the key to successful police driving as your hands and feet follow where your eyes are tracking. Good drivers know it’s not enough to look ahead. You have to think ahead and always be hungry for what’s next on the road.

To perform under pressure, well trained elite athletes, military special forces units, public safety, and many other occupations use trigger words to guide tactical behavior and increase situational awareness. The Metropolitan Police Service in London uses the term “Vision up” in training its drivers. I recently heard “Keep your chin up” at a national autocross event — physically raising your head is a great cue. “Peeking” ahead through a corner, even if you’re forced to look between parked cars or trees, to see what may be waiting for you at the exit is an advanced tactic. The bottom line is this: Do whatever it takes to get in the habit of pushing your vision down the road and gently scanning. In addition to combating tunnel vision, it will keep you calm, minimize surprises, and allow you to absorb more information from your environment.  

You’ve got to be your own co-pilot on the streets as usually no one’s in the passenger seat to help. Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who brilliantly landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, credits making “daily deposits” into his training account as a key factor that helped him. Even if you are in a department that does infrequent or no driving training at all,  you can be your own coach. Vision and early braking are techniques that can be practiced every day during normal driving — on or off duty. Making these two tactics a habit is essential in making sure they will be there when you need them the most. Whether it’s about driving or any other law enforcement skill, it’s hard to go wrong with this advice from Sullenberger: “Never stop investing in yourself. Never stop learning.”  


Eric Peterson is the town manager for Hillsborough (NC) and has worked in municipal government since 1987. He’s instructed and coordinated the Hillsborough PD’s annual driver safety training program since 2000, as well as the N.C. League of Municipalities annual “Slower Is Faster” police driving safety seminar for police instructors/trainers (in car and classroom training) across North Carolina since 2013. He is a member of ALERT International. Eric has 21 years of competitive motorsports experience and 10 years of professional instructing experience. In 2014, he won the Sports Car Club of America Pro Solo Championship Series and was the SCCA Solo National Champion in his respective classes. As town manager he has extensive experience in budgeting, performance measurement, and human resources.


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1 Comment

  1. Blake Edwards

    Law enforcement should enroll there officers in the Smith System driving coarse. And I apologize if I misspelled the name.

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