Police Drivers are Not Above the Law: But Do they Drive Like they Are?

We damage the law enforcement profession when we drive in a careless manner [or] with disregard for the very laws we enforce.

In the middle of this dangerous little ‘platoon’ of vehicles is a state police car that is dangerously too close to the vehicle ahead of it — tailgating in bad weather conditions,  just like all of the other drivers in the group.  (Copyright photo, 2013.)

The headline and sub-headline, above, both came from an August 2019 article on the PoliceOne website, and written by Andrew Birozy,  “a 24-year law enforcement veteran currently serving as a detective sergeant in a police department in Southern California.”  And he raises important points which apply in any country which has a credible police service.

In my own police career, in Britain, I learned during basic training that having a crash while driving fast to get to a bad incident quickly was, in my sergeant’s words, ‘worse than stupid.’  Not only does any crash cause danger — not just to the driver who crashes but also to other people in the vicinity — but it also instantaneously creates a need for two further police vehicles, one to take over and go to the original incident and another to come to deal with the police-vehicle crash.  As an additional outcome, it can also trigger the need for extra fire/rescue trucks and extra ambulances.

It is always good to see law enforcement vehicles being particularly well driven and setting the example to all other drivers in the vicinity.  (Copyright image, 2017.)

Just as important, however, is the example being set by law enforcement officers when they are driving.  Not only should their crash rate be commendably low, despite the higher-speed challenges their work demands, but they should also be setting an excellent example of good driving to everyone else with whom they share the roads.

“Yes, it is true, [an officer] can likely get away with it. But just because you may get away with it doesn’t make it right.” — Detective Sgt. Andrew Birozy, California


Interestingly, a few years ago while I was writing for our earlier not-for-profit, ‘Drive and Stay Alive’, I was challenged on my professional opinions regarding police drivers by a university professor in the USA whose specialty was road safety.  His viewpoint was that police drivers had too many other things to think about when driving than to be “exemplars” (his word) of good driving.  I confess that I was dumbstruck by that opinion.  If law enforcement officers who enforce traffic laws won’t abide by those laws then why should anybody else?  “Do as I say, not as I do,” is emphatically unacceptable in a scenario where over 36,000 Americans are killed and hundreds of thousands are seriously injured each year.

In respect of fast driving, either for pursuits or for getting to an incident scene promptly, one of the big dangers is the concept of a ‘noble cause’.  It is all too easy for a police driver to go too fast for his/her own circumstances in the belief that their action might potentially save someone’s life, but if the officer than crashes and kills a different innocent person, the irony and wrongness of the situation is there for all to see.  A superficial act of apparent heroism has become an act of negligent homicide.

New York State Police driver training. (Copyright photo, 2017.)

There is a huge difference in driver training for law enforcement officers in the USA when compared to other developed countries.  In Britain, for example, it takes from four to seven times longer to do the necessary driver training and qualify for traffic patrol duties as it does for state patrol police officers in the USA (depending on which state one is referring to).  But apart from the greater duration, the content and style of the training are radically different, too.

UK police patrol car — the extreme conspicuity will be discussed in a future article, here on the Road Safety USA website.   (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the USA, effectively all police driver training is done on private circuits, old airfields, etc., but in Britain, over 95 percent of all such training is carried out on public roads in regular traffic.  Unlike the highly conspicuous UK patrol car in the above photograph, however, the training cars are completely unmarked and have no blue/red flashing lights or sirens.  This is done so that officers have to learn how to mix high speeds with the safety needs of everyone else in the vicinity, without relying on sirens and lights to clear the path — something that cannot be taught on barren training circuits.

The only sign on the training cars in Britain is on the trunk lid and typically reads: ‘Police Driver Training’, just so that people know it was the police passing them so fast and not an illegal speeder.

Sadly it would seem likely that this dramatically more comprehensive form of training will never be permitted here in the US, probably because of the fear of litigation if there was a collision.  Sadly, though, this is missing the point.  The training is specifically about avoiding the risk of collisions by planning ahead, in extreme detail (and that is why the training takes many weeks, to ensure that an officer can either reliably make the safest decisions or simply does not pass the course).

Whichever the country, it is clear that law enforcement drivers have a major duty of care whenever they are driving, and in particular when higher speeds are involved.  And a key additional factor is to set the best possible example for other drivers.


Read:  Andrew Birozy’s article at PoliceOne

See also:

A Day of Driver Training at the New York State Police Driving Academy

2 Replies to “Police Drivers are Not Above the Law: But Do they Drive Like they Are?”

  1. Excellent points Eddie. To condense my thoughts into a single phrase- the USA is steeped in insularity. It’s only when Americans, particularly working within oil and gas come to the Gulf and have to take UK based driver training does it sink in how weak their driving standards are.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jamie.

      It does have to be recognized, though, that a major chunk of the ‘blame’ for this regrettable situation lies at the door of circumstance. The problem is that there is no hierarchical structure to driver training in the USA. whereas ever since 1935 Britain has had the good fortune to have a singular focus on its traffic police who, in turn, created the advanced driving system that now underpins every significant aspect of driver training in the country, including the civilianization of advanced driving in 1955.

      Getting one genuinely capable, national government body to do this, here in the USA, seems like an appealing possibility but the nature of the politics is such that each of the 50 states, plus D.C., would then want to do things their own way (which is a major problem in road safety in general here).

      I will add that I hope our regular readers understand that I am writing these comments out of genuine concern and not out of any form of malicious criticism.

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