Highway tragedies following police hot pursuits are in the news again around New York City. On Sept. 10, six teen-agers in a pickup truck were warned by a Bethel, Conn., policeman that they had too many passengers in their vehicle. The youths zoomed ahead with the two officers chasing them at high speeds until the truck rammed a utility pole in Newtown. Four were killed and two injured.
Four days later, two police officers were pursuing two robbery suspects near the north Bronx. Their car slammed into a disabled vehicle on the highway, killing the driver of the patrol car and seriously injuring his partner. The suspects got away.
Police hot pursuits every year contribute to hundreds of highway fatalities, mostly innocent bystanders or frightened young drivers who panic. Back in 1968, the Physicians for Automotive Safety surveyed news reports for a year and estimated that about 500 people die annually in this country from such high-speed chases. A few years later,’ the Department of Transportation generally concurred with this estimate and added that 2,500 to 5,000 additional people receive some type of injury.
About 10 years ago I discussed this problem with a Syracuse police official. He said that many squad car drivers are only one stage removed from hot rod teenagers themselves, implying that impulse, unseasoned by experience, often leads to unnecessary hot pursuits.
Because of similar highway carnage in the past, many states and localities have regulations covering the practice of police hot pursuit. These are little more than guidelines urging the police to consider the seriousness, if any, of the violations committed by the pursued, the time of day and weather, the potential danger to the community by the fugitives and the risk to the police themselves. At the instant when police make the decision to pursue or not, these guidelines dissolve into telling the officer to use his discretion and be careful.
Sanctions for violating these hot pursuit standards are almost never imposed. There have been few civil lawsuits against the police for injury compensation, but they have not amounted to a pattern of deterrence. Year after year. Americans—motorists and pedestrians—die suddenly and in most cases completely in vain. Only a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of yearly hot pursuits involved’ dangerous felons fleeing from justice. The vast majority of cases turn out to be cases of panic, of speeding or of minor misdemeanors.
Other than relying on little bridled police discretion, what can parents and relatives of the victims do to see this nagging casualty cause diminished?
First, there should be a strict police rule that there is no hot pursuit unless the pursued is considered an imminent criminal danger to the community. The benefit of the doubt must be given toward protecting innocent people from these crashes.
Second, more emphasis should be placed on engineering remedies. Speed governors, say at the 80-mile-per-hour level, for vehicles other than police cars, radioing ahead, and development of remote ignition-interrupt systems have been suggested as approaches for consideration.
Of course, a last clear engineering defense would be installing crash protection systems in all cars as standard equipment. Such automatic lifesavers, like inflatable air bags, can save the lives of many thousands of Americans in more conventional highway crashes.
The parents of the youngsters killed in Newtown this month may wonder whether it is not better to let even a felon temporarily escape than provoke a hurtling vehicular missile along a street or highway with a high risk of producing several fatalities.
If you want to do something about this problem in your community, write for more information to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Gaithersburg, Md., 20878.