police_car_accident-40171Protecting young drivers and pedestrians traveling to and from school has been a key priority of Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and the entire District. As such, the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department (M-DSPD) has gone to great lengths to enhance their safety, implementing a twofold strategy involving both education (safety presentations) and enforcement (Aggressive Driving Unit). This approach – along with its successes – has been well documented; however, there is one other area of school-traffic safety that must take precedence: the driving practices of our own personnel.

There is an assortment of reasons for any agency to emphasize safe driving practices for its employees. The most fundamental one being the preservation of life; yet, there are ancillary considerations as well, such as public perception, fiscal impact, and civil liability.

SAFETY FIRST
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more officers are killed in vehicle related incidents than violent confrontations involving firearms. In fact, it is the number one cause of line-of-duty deaths each year, and has been since 1997. The NHTSA study also revealed that at least 42% of police officers killed in vehicle crashes since 1980 were not wearing seat belts. These numbers cannot be attributed to young or rookie officers, as was the old assumption. The majority of these fatalities involve officers 30-39 years of age.

It may very well be true that many police officers do not fully grasp the importance of this issue; after all, they have been operating motor vehicles “just fine” for many years. Driving a personal vehicle is one thing, with the usual distractions, but operating a patrol car is another issue entirely. Police officers are trained to operate in “code yellow” at all times, with 360-degree peripheral awareness of environmental danger spots, and always aware of people or vehicles lurking in dark areas. When laptop computers, police radios, and emergency equipment are added to the mix – and actually put to use in emergency mode – one can appreciate the vast difference, and the need for extreme caution. It is, therefore, important for police personnel to be extra-vigilant and attentive in the driver’s seat, obeying all traffic control devices and posted speed limits. After all, safety is, and will always be, our number one priority. It would be unforgivable to maim or take the life of another driver, passenger, or a pedestrian, due to careless or irresponsible behavior behind the wheel. One can only imagine the emotional or psychological anguish that such an occurrence would inflict on the involved, their families, and an entire community.

PERCEPTION IS REALITY
Police vehicles, particularly marked ones, are the single-most visible and iconic representations of American law enforcement. It behooves us all to keep this in mind. Far too often, we read news stories, or watch eagerly-produced exposes on police officers driving at high speeds. One may even recall the highly publicized traffic stop that took place last year involving officers from two different agencies. The incident garnered significant media attention – none of it good – and prompted a backlash from the public sphere. If this embarrassing incident taught us anything, we must understand that public service employees (that’s us folks) are squarely in the national spotlight, and we must be very conscious of scrutiny.
Over the past few years, the M-DSPD has greatly improved the efficiency and effectiveness of all operations. Our service to the school community is truly unmatched and has yielded strong public support. We have worked diligently to build and maintain civic trust, but any perceived disregard for the laws we are sworn to uphold can place the Department in a difficult position. For that reason, we must redouble our efforts to maintain that level of confidence and lead by example.

MY WALLET HURTS
NHTSA statistics revealed that, between 2004 and 2008, 306 officers have been killed in traffic-related incidents, at a cost too great to count. According to Police Driving International (PDI), an organization dedicated to the safety of police officers and citizens, municipalities, counties and states “pay more money related to police involved collisions and pursuits than they will with deadly force encounters.” Thankfully, most police involved crashes are relatively minor in nature, but many have resulted in death or serious injury. Of those, there is a percentage in which the involved officer violated traffic laws.

With every crash, there is an increased risk of injury to the officers, other drivers and pedestrians. Property damage may also be a by-product. The funds to repair resulting damage to vehicles and property, and to cover worker’s compensation costs, are taken from dwindling budgets. Thus, a high rate of police involved accidents can indeed threaten any agency’s financial stability. The issue of police involved crashes is a foremost concern, particularly when most departments are struggling to reduce the number of lawsuits that ultimately cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in settlements each year.

For the M-DSPD – where no new police vehicles have been budgeted over the past four years and counting – preserving an aging fleet takes on added importance. Traffic collisions involving our personnel place unnecessary hardship on our finances and our ability to manage the fleet. It can also place the District in a very tenuous position with regards to civil litigation.

PROMOTING GOOD DRIVING HABITS
Driving any motor vehicle requires special care and attention. Obeying all traffic rules in a consistent manner will allow good habits to develop naturally. Remember, these habits are not the product of any scientific formula; they are developed over time, through experience, observations and application. Please review the following guidelines and let’s think safety first, for ourselves and those we serve.

• Being aware of surroundings, especially when operating a vehicle in reverse – do not rely solely on mirrors. There is nothing more trustworthy than your own two eyes.
• Maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front, particularly in hazardous conditions.
• Always wearing the seatbelt.
• Obeying traffic control devices, even when operating the vehicle in emergency mode; a quick response time is meaningless without a safe arrival.
• Conducting regular safety inspections on the vehicle, e.g., worn tires, brake system, etc., and adhering to the preventive maintenance schedule.
• Being alert when driving near parked vehicles.
• Understanding the vehicle’s anti-lock braking system.
• Utilizing turn signals.
• Anticipating the actions of other motorists.
• Getting a good night’s rest before reporting for duty.
• Having a clear understanding of Department policies and expectations.

Aside from reducing repair costs, protecting life is the ultimate goal. Greater accountability is a major component of this approach. It is expected that improved driver awareness will lead to better judgment, and as a result, less accidents.