Vol. 81, No. 1Panel discussion

A male police officer stands next to his police car at night, writing in his notebook. There is a blurred image of a bus moving behind him.

How can officers stay safe in their cars?

Working in and around police cars is a dangerous part of police work. Officers need to be aware of their surroundings and position themselves safely. Credit: Serge Gouin, RCMP

When an officer gets behind the wheel, it's one of the most dangerous things they'll do on shift. And that risk increases when they face one or more hazards on the road. We asked four RCMP experts to tell us the biggest dangers they face in their cars, and how police can reduce the risk of injury to themselves and to the public.

The panellists

  • Trevor Boulanger, RCMP occupational safety officer, Winnipeg, Man.
  • Julie Furlotte, RCMP national manager of Moveable Assets, Ottawa, Ont.
  • Sgt. Sam Tease, RCMP National Use of Force Unit, Ottawa, Ont.
  • Bruce Christianson, Director, RCMP Occupational Safety Policy and Program, Ottawa, Ont., with Sgt. Rhéal Morin and Donald McInnes

Trevor Boulanger

There's a deep-rooted belief within the RCMP that the most serious risks faced by officers and other employees stem from our clients and their violent behaviours. There's no question these risks are very real.

But the truth is, nearly 80 police officers have died in the line of duty during transportation-related incidents according to the RCMP's Honour Roll. These are traditional work tasks for which we have the greatest amount of influence and control over the outcome.

RCMP vehicles are safer than ever, the traffic laws are more stringent, officer driver training has never been better, Canada's road engineering improves every year and the medical world does amazing things for those injured in motor vehicle accidents. What else can we do in the RCMP to avoid losses associated with police motor vehicle collisions?

We must foster a culture of safe driving. Cadets are coming to Depot (RCMP Training Academy) with more life skills and experiences than ever before. With that comes new perspectives and approaches to solving occupational safety issues. We should encourage more ideas and alternative solutions that promote safety and reject behaviours that put others at risk.

All provincial highway acts in Canada allow police officers and other emergency services to drive above the posted speed limit under specific circumstances. There are also provisions for the exemption of seatbelt use. They are all worded slightly differently but deliver the same message: Only under a very specific set of circumstances should these exemptions be applied.

Think of ambulances and fire trucks in urban environments. The risk of rolling through an intersection at high speed and causing a collision just for the sake of getting to a call is far too high. Industry-wide changes to alter the behaviour of emergency vehicle operators has greatly reduced the risks to clients, the public and the operators. Emergency vehicles now nearly come to a complete stop at all intersections and the number of accidents associated with these services has plummeted.

You can't put a value on a life but it's easy to put a value on equipment. The financial costs of purchasing, building and disposing of a typical Ford Taurus involved in a write-off collision is more than $60,000. This is a significant loss.

We have some of the best equipment in the policing industry but equipment alone can only protect us so far. Excessive speed and not wearing seatbelts amplifies the risks we face.

The things we do every day influence the future. If we want to reduce the frequency and severity of serious hazardous occurrences, we must work toward doing every job or task safely, even the mundane.

Julie Furlotte

Police officers play an important role in vehicle maintenance. While the National Fleet Office sets vehicle maintenance policies, it's the responsibility of the detachments and units that have these vehicles to ensure the maintenance is completed at the local level. This includes vehicles, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and vessels.

We're all extremely busy and it can be a challenge to get everything done. It's easy to understand why vehicle maintenance can be overlooked or set aside to address later. We've all done it — even with our personal vehicles.

Police vehicles are a critical front-line tool, often referred to as a mobile office. They're equipped with operationally critical equipment such as weapons, communication devices and emergency lighting and sirens. If a vehicle isn't working properly, it can affect response times and the ability to provide backup.

Some tips on how to stay safe:

  • Assign someone at the detachment/unit to be responsible for ensuring that vehicle maintenance gets done.
  • ARI Fleet Management Corporation is the RCMP's fleet services provider. It offers a fleet card used to pay for fuel and maintenance and a web-based fleet management system. Use this system to monitor maintenance activities and get prompts when checkups are due.
  • Be familiar with all the emergency equipment and features in the vehicle. When you are in an emergency situation, you want "muscle memory" to kick in and automatically know how to activate emergency features.
  • Perform pre-trip inspections to make sure all emergency equipment is on hand and operating properly. The Police Vehicle Inspection Report can be used for this purpose.

Police vehicles are driven in all kinds of conditions and geographical areas. Manufacturers consider police vehicles to be "severe duty" and thus they have more robust maintenance requirements. Having a well-maintained, properly functioning vehicle in which to perform policing duties is key for every mobile office.

Sgt. Sam Tease

The RCMP's National Use of Force Unit is leading several initiatives aimed at promoting officers' safety when working in and around police vehicles.

Launched in April 2016, the Immediate Action Rapid Deployment Outdoor Practical Course incorporates a session dedicated to safely working around your police vehicle when faced with a threat of a firearm.

During this mandatory course, all police officers are taught strategies on how to best use their vehicles to protect against a firearm — basically how to tactically work around a vehicle and exploit as much ballistic protection from the vehicle as possible. Officers then practise these techniques during realistic scenario training using marking cartridges. Response and feedback from course participants has been extremely positive.

At the beginning of 2018, National Use of Force in partnership with RCMP Learning & Development, updated the annual and mandatory Incident Management Intervention Model Online Course. The updates were made to improve officer safety when working around vehicles.

We all know that there are risks when conducting traffic stops — and the risks are different for each traffic stop. We wanted to bring awareness and create discussion around vehicles and traffic stops.

Maintaining good situational awareness is critical. Everything from setting up an informed traffic stop, knowing your areas of approach, knowing your escape routes and knowing which areas to avoid when interacting around vehicles will help you build a sound risk assessment. And a proper risk assessment will help you make good decisions, which in turn will lead to increased public and police safety.

The updates and additions to the course were meant to remind officers to think strategically when working around vehicles and to always remember to be mobile and try to position yourself safely.

At the end of the course, a new resource guide provides a link to our policy on shooting at vehicles.

Shooting at vehicles for the purpose of disabling that vehicle is not only against policy, it's also extremely unsafe. Shooting at a vehicle to immediately stop the motion of the vehicle has little to no effect, and actually increases the risk to the public and police.

National Use of Force has been working with several external policing partners to create a Compliant High Risk Vehicle Stop and Extraction Course. Officers within our unit identified different techniques that we teach during compliant high-risk takedowns that could be simplified and better aligned with other programs such as the IARD Outdoor Practical Course.

After watching and learning how other police services in Canada are performing these techniques, National Use of Force has updated and created a new vehicle stop and extraction course. This course is currently in the pilot stage. RCMP officers will see updates when this course is finalized and the techniques will be shared as stand-alone training offered by divisional (provincial) training units.

The Block Training 2020 update will also include a practical session to discuss the risks and highlight the dangers officers face while conducting traffic stops and working around vehicles. During this session, participants will be able to share strategies to keep them safe and prevent complacency.

Always be aware of your surroundings, help each other and stay safe.

Bruce Christianson

Law enforcement is a dangerous occupation. Every day, police officers risk their lives. The most obvious risks involve the unpredictable behaviours of dangerous suspects or armed assailants.

But a significant proportion of on-duty fatalities and serious injuries are the result of motor vehicle accidents. Officers can diminish those risks by evaluating their own actions towards personal safety.

Getting into a police car can be the most dangerous thing an officer does during a shift. With multiple hazards ranging from distractions (mobile work stations, cellphones, police radios), heavy traffic, poor weather, hazardous road conditions, pursuits, fatigue, ergonomics, wildlife and so on, officers face an increased risk of being involved in an accident.

Cellphone use, for instance, significantly degrades driver performance. Driving too fast for conditions or in excess of posted speed limits is another leading factor in many officer-involved crashes. Taking personal safety steps when on the road, such as wearing a seatbelt and applying defensive driving techniques, will reduce the risk of injury.

Another significant driving hazard is fatigue. It can be just as dangerous as impaired driving as it slows reaction time, decreases awareness and impairs judgment.

Lack of sleep is one of the most common causes of drowsy driving. Other factors that can contribute to fatigue include driving long distances, driving without rest breaks, driving during times when it is normally sleep time, taking medication and consuming drugs or alcohol. Fatigue is a particularly important issue for police officers who spend long hours at work.

Preventing and managing fatigue can reduce the loss of lives, injury, disability and property damage. Collisions involving police vehicles, vessels or other means of transport may not be the fault of the police officer. However, an officer's alertness, vigilance and response can make a difference.

Before getting behind the wheel, officers should plan for their safety and take action to mitigate the hazards that they have control over. Besides avoiding distractions, respecting speed limits, using defensive driving techniques, wearing their seat belts and ensuring they are well rested, officers can do a quick visual inspection of the vehicle, ensure the vehicle is regularly maintained, and wear their high-visibility vest or high-visibility patrol jacket when in or around moving traffic.

Career-ending injuries due to motor vehicle accidents are unfortunately not uncommon.

Stay safe and be aware of your surroundings.

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