By Terry Baxter, Law Enforcement and Safety Specialist
When was the last time anyone in your agency reviewed policy relating to emergency vehicle operations? When was the last time your agency conducted any type of defensive or emergency driving exercise? Most might say when I was in the academy and took EVOC (Emergency Vehicle Operation Course).
How many times during a shift is a patrol vehicle driven beyond the posted speed limit or in some form of a negligent manner? I have mentioned in previous articles, I was not immune to these actions when I was with Harrison County Sheriff Office. I was young, felt empowerment, had a super powerful patrol vehicle, (1977 Plymouth Fury), but not once mind you, did liability cross my mind.
No one and I mean no one, ever consulted or schooled me on the legal definition of negligence or liability until I was in the academy. Back then risk management advice was to put everything of value you own in someone else’s’ name.
I was involved in three motor vehicle accidents throughout my 30-year career, two were deer related and one was during a pursuit. Fortunately for me, nothing seriously happened outside of property damage.
Anytime you operate an emergency vehicle, it must always be done with reasonable amount of care, whether responding to an emergency call or not, you still have a duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all other users of the roadway. Nebraska Revised Statues § 60-610 defines an emergency vehicle and Nebraska Revised Statues § 60-6,114 defines privileges and conditions.
Even though some privileges apply, the rules and laws of the road still must be followed. Law enforcement officers must fully understand the legal risk with emergency vehicle operations.
I don’t know the entire circumstances involving an event in Red Oak, Iowa on January 10, 2022, but what I can tell you is this. A Red Oak Police Officer was responding to a fire call with emergency lights and siren activated, when a 12-year-old female ran into the roadway and was struck by the patrol vehicle, resulting in fatal injuries to the 12-year-old.
This event will not only have an everlasting effect on the family of the 12-year-old, but it will also have a significant emotional impact on the young officer who was driving the car, as well as the agency and community. Understand, with not knowing the entire totality of circumstances involving this event, I am not by any means judging the officer involved, I want to simply illustrate how quickly things happen and how your actions can play a critical role in an event.
After hearing of the Red Oak, Iowa fatal event, I reflected back and relived countless times I drove through communities much smaller than Red Oak with lights activated, siren blaring, and I am sure exceeding the speed limit. Thinking about it now, not at the time mind you, how easily something like this could of happened in my agency that could have impacted many lives forever.
I realize there are times when speed is necessary, but I also know there are times when speeding is not. I don’t know of any agency policy that permits unjustified speeding! Routine, or normal driving on patrol should require speeds consistent with laws of the road and not be interpreted to drive as fast as we can. Emergency calls may require a need for some type of an immediate response, should that be the case, emergency vehicles should be operated consistent with the provisions outlined in Nebraska Revised Statues as well as agency policy.
Believe it or not, studies have shown patrol vehicle collisions are most likely to occur during ideal vision and ideal road conditions, the reason why:
- Excessive speed
- Lack of driving skills at higher speeds
- Poor vehicle maintenance
- Poor decision making
- Vehicle multitasking:
- Radio operations
- Computer operations
- Video cameras
- License plate readers
- Light and siren controls
All aspects of law enforcement training need to be covered, but the one task we do every day usually gets put by the wayside is emergency vehicle operations. Bottom line, training improves job performance, instills confidence in the officer and when you include policy it can assist with ensuring policy compliance as well as reduce exposure to litigation.
Authorized emergency vehicles; privileges; conditions.
- Subject to the conditions stated in the Nebraska Rules of the Road, the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle, when responding to an emergency call, when pursuing an actual or suspected violator of the law, or when responding to but not when returning from a fire alarm, may:
- Stop, park, or stand, irrespective of the provisions of the rules, and disregard regulations governing direction of movement or turning in specified directions; and
- Except for wreckers towing disabled vehicles and highway maintenance vehicles and equipment:
- Proceed past a steady red indication, a flashing red indication, or a stop sign but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation; and
- Exceed the maximum speed limits so long as he or she does not endanger life, limb, or property.
- Except when operated as a police vehicle, the exemptions granted in subsection (1) of this section shall apply only when the driver of such vehicle, while in motion, sounds an audible signal by bell, siren, or exhaust whistle as may be reasonably necessary and when such vehicle is equipped with at least one lighted light displaying a red light visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of five hundred feet to the front of such vehicle.
- The exemptions granted in subsection (1) of this section shall not relieve the driver from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor shall such provisions protect such driver from the consequences of his or her reckless disregard for the safety of others.
- Authorized emergency vehicles operated by police and fire departments shall not be subject to the size and weight limitations of sections 60-6,288 to 60-6,290 and 60-6,294.
- Laws 1973, LB 45, § 8;
- R.S.1943, (1988), § 39-608;
- Laws 1993, LB 370, § 210;
- Laws 2005, LB 82, § 2.
- The driver of an emergency vehicle has the right to proceed past a steady red light but must exercise due care in doing so. Gatewood v. City of Bellevue, 232 Neb. 525, 441 N.W.2d 585 (1989).
- Police vehicle enjoys privileges as an emergency vehicle as long as the officer operates emergency equipment in good faith belief that he or she is responding to an emergency. Police officer exercised due regard in operating an emergency vehicle. Maple v. City of Omaha, 222 Neb. 293, 384 N.W.2d 254 (1986).
- The trial court did not err in refusing to direct a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, who was injured when he was struck by a police car responding to an emergency call. Stephen v. City of Lincoln, 209 Neb. 792, 311 N.W.2d 889 (1981).
Just because patrol cars go fast doesn’t mean that we should, especially when the call for service or routine patrol doesn’t justify the “need for speed”.
Don’t overestimate your driving abilities or the ability of your lights and siren to be perceived by others. Never jeopardize the safety of others or your own!