Dear Cecil: Every day I see ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks hauling ass down the road while masses of (mostly shitty) drivers scramble out of the way. Yet I’ve never seen an emergency vehicle crash or even bump into another vehicle, or a light pole, a parked car, etc. How often does it happen? Jacquernagy, via the Straight Dope Message Board
Oh, often enough. In the early ’00s, when an uptick in cop-car fatalities lined up with a long-running decline in violent crime, it was looking like vehicle crashes had replaced getting shot as the leading cause of line-of-duty death for U.S. law enforcement. The trend has swung back since then, but whether or not you’re seeing these accidents, they’re definitely happening.
It’s not just cops, of course. A 2012 analysis calculated that there are about 3,100 fire-truck accidents each year, claiming about five firefighters’ lives. Vehicle crashes are also a big part of what makes firefighting the dangerous job it is, accounting for 20 to 25 percent of deaths (trailing only “stress and exertion” as a cause). A study from 2015, compiling 20 years of data from the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration, estimated an annual average of 4,500 ambulance crashes, a third of which result in injury. The yearly death toll for these crashes is approximately 33, but only a quarter of these happen inside the ambulance — the balance is borne by people who have the misfortune of being in the vehicle’s way.
One exacerbating factor here is choice of ride. Emergency vehicles, particularly fire trucks, are rollover-prone. Another is that the folks in them simply aren’t wearing their seat belts: the NTSHA crash data revealed that four in five rear-of-ambulance EMTs weren’t buckled up, nor were 22 percent of the drivers. And while nearly all the patients were secured in transit with at least the bare-minimum lateral belt, only a third were (in the words of EMS World magazine) “correctly restrained” using a shoulder belt as well.
Perhaps a reason you haven’t witnessed these accidents yourself is that they tend to occur under specific conditions: often on rural roads, often at night. And with less fanfare than you might imagine: according to a study from Michigan of 13,000 crashes involving EVs over a five-year period, less than 30 percent of the vehicles were on an emergency run at the time — i.e., with flashers and sirens going. The others were tooling around on non-emergency business. Police-related crashes dwarfed fire and ambulance accidents in this study, both on emergency and non-emergency runs.
As noted above, EV crashes don’t just involve the EV personnel — there’s the rest of us to consider, too. A scan of the headlines yields plenty of instances where civilians found themselves on the blunt end of an emergency vehicle: two children fatally struck last November by a Los Angeles sheriff’s car en route to a shooting site; a Fort Worth pedestrian killed the following day by a police cruiser that wasn’t on its way to a call at all; a 2016 incident on the New Jersey shore in which a police car traveling 100 MPH in a 35 zone, sans sirens or flashers, hit a woman crossing the street, who survived only to be subsequently grilled by officers about how much she’d had to drink that night.
A note about this last one: the policeman behind the wheel later explained he’d been chasing down a vehicle which had been observed … speeding. This brings to mind a 2004 analysis in the journal Injury Prevention in which researchers sought to figure out how many motor vehicle crash deaths in the U.S. were specifically related to police pursuits. In a nine-year period the authors identified 2,654 crashes, involving 3,965 vehicles and resulting in 3,146 fatalities. That already seems a bit stiff, but get this: 1,088 of those fatalities — more than a quarter — were “not in the fleeing vehicle.” Forty were police officers, 102 were nonmotorists — pedestrians, bicyclists, et al — and 946 were “occupants of vehicles uninvolved in the police pursuit,” which is to say unlucky by-drivers.
“Approximately 300 lives are lost each year in the United States from police pursuit related crashes and one third of these are among innocent people, not being pursued by police,” the authors conclude (they may be having some trouble with the presumption-of-innocence concept here, but we’ll move along), figuring that these fatalities account for 1 percent of all yearly motor-vehicle-related deaths — not enormous, but hardly insignificant. They also cite a previous finding that as many as half of police pursuits stem from mere traffic violations (as seen in that New Jersey episode above), rather than, say, felonies. The authors recommend further consideration of policies to (e.g.) limit police pursuit speed, or limit offenses for which pursuit is permissible. Of course this isn’t the only front on which it’s lately been suggested that cops might try to effect a less-lethal outcome; I wouldn’t hold my breath. I would, however, be sure to look both ways when crossing.
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