Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Let’s Cool Hot Pursuit

WASHINGTON–Sixteen year old Carl Ferrigno was sitting in a parked car one night last month alongside a road near Rochester, New York, when a police car approached him thinking a motorist needed assistance. Suddenly he took off with the police car in hot pursuit. Six miles down the road, Carl crashed fatally into a power pole. Neither drugs nor alcohol were involved. Apparently, the high school student panicked, believing he would lose his junior operator’s license which permitted him to drive only during daylight hours.

In Minneapolis, two persons in a car were killed early last year when a vehicle being pursued by police crashed into their automobile. Last month, a Portland, Oregon, patrolman was killed in a four-car crash during a high speed chase that began when police spotted a speeding vehicle. Three innocent pedestrians were killed–two by the fleeing vehicle and one apparently by the police car in hot pursuit–in Washington, D.C., three years ago.

These are tragic episodes which occur frequently throughout the country in high-speed police chases of motorists. A 1968 study by the Physicians for Automotive Safety(PAS) (Newark, N.J. ) estimated that 500 Americans lose their lives every year during such pursuits–most of them innocent bystanders, or frightened or speeding motorists and their passengers.

A little-read study commissioned by the Department of Transportation (DOT) estimated, in the absence of any systematic data, that anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 “hot” pursuits occur each year with about 6,000 to 8,000 of the pursuits resulting in crashes.Generally concurring with the PAS fatality figures, the DOT study added that some 2500 to 5,000 additional persons receive some type of injury annually.

There are three schools of thought about what to do with the “hot” pursuit problem. One, espoused by many police officials, is that hot pursuit is necessary for law enforceĀ­ment and must be left up to the discretion of the patrolman subject to general administrative guide lines. This viewpoint recommends no change.

Another approach says that “hot” pursuit should be an option to catch dangerous felons, but that clear restrictions should be placed on the officers’ decision to initiate, conduct or terminate a pursuit. For example, the officer would be permitted to pursue only for observed felonies, limit his speed to 20 mph over posted limits, stop at intersections, and maintain a loud siren to alert innocent bystanders and motorists.

A third approach emphasizes engineering remedies such as speed governors on all vehicles except police vehicles, radioing ahead, use of road blocks, and even the development of remote ignition interrupt systems. From the available information on “hot” pursuits, it is clear the majority of them involve, on the one hand, motorists who panic, are frightened or are engaged in trivial misbehavior, and, on the other hand, throttle-happy officers who ache to give chase. One Syracuse police official told me that his problem was in the large part immature patrolmen who were only a few years removed from the jack-rabbit teenagers they enjoy chasing.

Since the hope for prevention of this wild traffic situation is more likely to be with the police than the fleeing motorist, who is by definition acting irrationally, precise restraints should be placed on patrolmen by their superiors. Until proven engineering remedies are available, the second approach noted above makes the most immediate sense. It makes sense, that is, short of outright prohibition of all “hot” pursuits on the ground, that it is better to let even a felon temporarily escape than provoke a hurtling vehicle that has a high likelihood of harming innocent people as well as the pursuing police.
Legal recourse by innocent victims against the government for groundless and reckless pursuit will prod police officials to establish and enforce such restrictions. Although such recourse is almost impossible to obtain presently, reforms can be instituted.

Some police departments are increasingly sensitive to the hazards of unjustified pursuits; others are not. All could benefit from the energies of focused citizen action. To find out about the situation in your area, contact your local or state police department and, for more general information, write to the International Association for Chiefs of Police, in Washington, D.C.