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High Speed Car Chases Kill Thousands; Injure Tens of Thousands More

Since 1979 over 5,000 deaths and tens of thousands of drivers, passengers and innocent bystanders have been injured as a result of police car chases in the US. Most of these chases begin as routine minor infractions.

On March 19, 2015 a 60-year-old federal employee was killed by a driver being chased by police because his headlights were off. On June 7th a 63-year-old grandmother was killed in Indianapolis, Indiana as police chased a driver for shoplifting. On July 18 a 25-year-old New Jersey man was killed by a driver fleeing from police after he ran a red light.

Between 1979 and 2013 over 11,000 people died from injuries resulting from a police chase. Just over half of those deaths were the suspects being chased; 139 were policemen involved in the chase, and a staggering 5066 were innocent bystanders. On average, that amounts to 329 persons per year, or almost one person a day.

The reality is that this figure is probably understated. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) takes its data from police reports, which often never indicate that a chase actually took place.

According to Geoffrey Alpert, a researcher from the University of South Carolina, NHTSA records are “consistently wrong.” Mr. Alpert, a noted expert in this field, has done numerous studies for the US Justice Department. He points out that NHTSA records fail to show whether the victims killed are in the car that is actually fleeing from police or simply happened to be hit during the chase.

A study of six of the largest US states 17,600 people were injured in police chases between 2004 and 2013. Extrapolating from that data it is possible to conclude that police chases in the US injure an average of 7,400 people annually and have injured more than 270,000 since 1979.

Research shows that California had 63,500 police chases from 2002 through 2014. Of those chases, 89% were for vehicle code violations, 5% work for violent crime suspects, and almost 1000  safety violations, such as not wearing a seatbelt, motorcyclists not wearing a helmet and even 90 instances where police chased motorists for driving too slowly. Chases in California reflect a 28% crash rate with an injury rate of 15%.

Research in Minnesota found that in 2008, 35% to 40% of all police chases resulted in a crash. A 2010 Law Enforcement Bulletin published by the FBI reported that policemen are often blinded by “a need to win” that causes them to make a situation more dangerous than it would otherwise be. Problems stemming from this need to win attitude prompted President Obama to propose $75 million in federal funds to purchase 50,000 body cameras in an effort to “build and sustain trust” between the police and the people they are supposed to protect. 

In 2012, Florida Highway Patrol implemented a new policy that restricted pursuits to only suspected felons, drunk drivers and reckless drivers. Pursuits fell from 697 in 2010-2011 to 317 between 2013-2014. Still, over 35% of that reduced figure still violated the new restrictions. Several cities, including Dallas, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Orlando have shown a decrease in chases and related injuries after imposing a similar restriction.

Research by the Police Foundation indicates that most of the suspects fleeing police are wanted for minor offenses; few are felons. Misdemeanor assault, under-age drinking, and illegally possessing the car they were driving accounted for 32,000 chases in Pennsylvania since 1997. A 1998 study by the Justice Department showed that 32% of drivers fled because they were in a stolen car, 27% had a suspended driver’s license and 21% because they were drunk. Motorcyclists fleeing police are injured or killed at a vastly higher rate (74%) than those driving cars (18%).

According to a 2006 Justice Department study policemen only receive an average of 40 hours of driving training compared to 72 hours of weapons training. Only a portion of that 40 hours covers high speed chases. A 2007 study by the Florida Highway Patrol revealed that 80% of patrol sergeants felt that officers “did not have adequate training in the area of pursuit driving.”

The Justice Department has noted that tire spikes are dangerous to both motorists and officers. Yet, while the use of computer technology in patrol cars has increased by more than 200% over the last 15 years tire spikes are still the most common “technology” used for stopping a fleeing vehicle. Technology exists to shut off a car engine using microwaves but is not commercially available. GPS tags are also a little used option. A GPS tag can be attached to a fleeing vehicle from up to 30 feet away and allows police to suspend the chase while tracking the vehicle by computer.


Source: USA Today

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