Roadside Safety for U.S. Law Enforcement Officers

One area of great concern to us at Road Safety USA is the welfare of state troopers and other emergency services personnel at traffic stops and highway incidents.  In the interests of full disclosure, the writer of this post is himself a retired traffic patrol police officer.

State police officer doing a traffic stop at night and nearly impossible to see until the last moment because he was not wearing a reflective jacket or vest.
A state trooper in significantly greater danger through the lack of reflective garments. As is so often the case, the flashing lights on the patrol vehicle were seriously dazzling, and the officer was effectively invisible until the last moments.  (Copyright image, 2017.)

This article is specifically about the risk of emergency personnel being struck by vehicles — something which tragically accounts for about half of all on-duty law enforcement officer deaths each year.

Earlier this month, on September 12, NHTSA published this very important and legitimate post on Facebook:  “In 2017, there were 47 law enforcement officers killed in traffic-related incidents. Protect those who protect you #moveover

It would be dramatically safer if all other drivers did what the law requires and what NHTSA instructs in the previous paragraph by moving over.  But police officers above all others know that far too many drivers are distracted, drunk, drugged or drowsy for this to always happen, every time without fail.

Even in broad daylight, the lack of a reflective vest can leave officers at greater risk. Many law enforcement uniforms are drably colored and can easily merge into the background until a driver is far too close for comfort.  Look underneath this SUV and you will see the wheels of the car the officer has stopped.  (Copyright image, 2019.)

In virtually all — if not absolutely all — other developed nations, however, law enforcement officers significantly assist in their own self-protection by wearing reflective clothing so that they may more easily be seen by drivers, especially in poor lighting conditions, such as dusk or bad weather, and at night.

American officers, however, typically argue that wearing reflective garments makes them an easier target for a criminal with a gun — an understandable concern.  But let’s consider two other important facts in this issue:

  1. Traffic patrol officers (or whatever title you prefer for this role) tend to work very close to the people they are dealing with, so does a reflective vest really make much difference to a person’s aim at such short range?
  2. Is the effectively-equal risk of being hit and killed by a vehicle somehow less important than the risk of being killed by a gunman?

Washington State Police officers wearing reflective safety vests, and the massive difference is there for all to see.  [Photo: WSP]
On one occasion, an officer told me he would not wear reflective gear because he was a man, not a wimp….!  Sorry, but give me a break!  Preferring the risk of dying to simply being visible to passing drivers?  Try telling your family that being macho is more important to you than simply coming home to them each day.

I quite recently had the pleasure of teaching ‘System of Vehicle Control'[TM] advanced driving to one of the officers in the driver training team for Washington State Police.  When I mentioned my concern about conspicuous apparel to him, he delighted me by saying that all Washington State troopers have to wear reflective vests at all times when on highway patrol duties.

Congratulations, Washington State Police, I hope you lead the nation’s LEOs in this life-saving enhancement!

Does anyone know of any other U.S. law enforcement departments which mandate reflective gear?

4 Replies to “Roadside Safety for U.S. Law Enforcement Officers”

  1. Thanks for an article that is spot on!!! Are there any 2019 officer struck statistics? I know we are way above the national average already. ?

    I am a Fire/Rescue Captain Andy teach TIM in Kansas and would like to include the latest statistics.

    Thank you

    1. Keith, The Emergency Responder Safety Institute keeps a running list of all emergency responders struck-by-vehicle fatalities on our home page – – look for the link in the right hand column. To date there have been 15 LEOs struck and killed by vehicles in 2019. Just so happens I’ll be meeting with fire officers in the Lenexa, KS FD on Nov. 1. Lots of other TIM and responder safety info and training aids on our webpage and Learning Network – all free and developed with FEMA/USFA grant support.

      1. Jack, thank you for providing that extremely saddening statistic: “15 LEOs struck and killed by vehicles in 2019.”

        By the time that other emergency personnel and recovery vehicle people have been added, the scale of the problem clearly is tragic.

  2. I recently attended a Bike Safe Class (for motorcyclists) in North Carolina – an excellent class by the way – and I asked the instructors why they did not wear reflective clothing. They stated that it could make them “targets” which I understand to a degree. There are times when police officers wish to remain inconspicuous and I can fully agree that in certain tactical situations a reflective vest or jacket would hinder their activities and wopuld actually be dangerous. Having said that, when stopping traffic or working on the road it is a vital piece of safety equipment. The flashing lights only serve to dazzle motorists and do not provide any safety for the officers or construction workers or whoever is using them. Surely there is a dimming feature to make them less dazzling at night? Never walk with one’s back to the traffic and wear conspicuous gear. I recall a line in a fim: “First rule of law enforcement: Make sure when your shift is over, you go home alive.” I was a police officer for thirty one years; twenty-six of those were spent in the Traffic Division so, like you, I have some knowledge of the subject. I am truly staggered that officers would rather risk their lives needlessly than wear a simple piece of safety equipment and dim their lights.

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