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Article

2024 | WINTER

Positioning of Patrol Cars for Officer Safety

iStock-1480290537 Low Angle Shot of a Stopped Police Car with Lights and Siren on During a Misty Night. Patrolling Vehicle on Stand by, Waiting for Orders to Start Pursuing Suspects. Police Enforcement

Charles Odom

Article

2024 | WINTER

Positioning of Patrol Cars for Officer Safety

Charles Odom

“A state police car was rear ended during a traffic stop, causing two more accidents. . . Patrol car rear ended; officer rushed to hospital. Officer injured when his cruiser was rear ended by suspected drunk driver.” These headlines are becoming too commonplace in our morning newscasts. Furthermore, they are becoming increasingly commonplace in our morning briefings as police managers, executives, and chiefs. Aside from the property damage, we also have one of our most valuable resources being potentially removed from service—sometimes permanently. Distracted drivers striking the rear of stopped police cars is a growing problem. We may not be able to control what every driver on the roadways does, but we may be able to make a rear-end collision of a parked patrol during a traffic stop more survivable.

 

Obviously, one of the most dangerous tasks a peace officers conducts is the traffic stop. They are riddled with unknowns such as potential threats from within the vehicle, traffic travelling by at highway speeds, and other environmental possibilities. There is a litany of opinions about how to position the patrol vehicle, to approach the vehicle on the driver or passenger side, where to stand while conducting a roadside interview, and more. This study will not address each of these, nor is it the author’s position to be an authority on these tactical considerations. Our position is to point out some pros and cons and educate officers on the physics of collisions as they may unfold during traffic stops. The hope from this study is further conversation about how, where, and when to conduct traffic stops and to help officers make informed decisions.

 

In late 2019, members of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center were contacted by Greg Sullenberger who requested assistance in conducting live crash tests for a study on patrol car placement during traffic stops. Engineers from Ford Motor Company had completed a theoretical study using computer simulations and one live crash in the early 2000s. These live crash tests would be used to compare training and data regarding positions of patrol vehicles during traffic stops for comparative analysis with the data from the Ford Tests as reflected in Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Paper, “Police Vehicle Orientation During Traffic Stops”.

 

A review of the Georgia Department of Public Safety Basic Trooper Academy Lesson plan on conducting traffic stops was completed. Accordingly, the patrol car should be positioned behind the violator’s vehicle 8 to 10 feet and offset from 2 to 3 feet to the left of the violator’s vehicle. The wheels may be left straight or turned to the left. The DPS Lesson plan continues that if the environmental conditions do not permit “angle/offset” of the patrol car, the distance should be increased to 10 to 12 feet and if the patrol car is equipped with and the officer uses a Mobile Data Terminal (MDT) the distance between the vehicle should be increased to between 15 and 20 feet while the officer is using the MDT and then may be returned to the original position. This is to increase the “reactionary gap” (GA DPS Vehicle Pullovers, 2014). The policy of the DPS mimics the lesson plan for basic trooper school.

 

In the SAE Paper, the authors chose three basic methods of placement for comparative analysis. Position A was essentially with the patrol vehicle parallel to the violator’s vehicle with some degree of off-set and the steer wheels turned to the left (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Position of Patrol Cars - Figure 1

Position B was the same except for the steering wheels turned to the right (see figure 2).

Figure 2

And position C was with the patrol car rotated approximately 30° counterclockwise to the violator’s vehicle (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Position of Patrol Cars - Figure 3

In all these tests, the patrol car was placed between 12 and 15 feet behind the violator vehicle and each “attack” was set up for the bullet vehicle to strike the patrol vehicle at approximately 3 to 5 degrees with the center of the bullet vehicle striking the left rear corner of the patrol car with no more than 50% overlap.

 

For purposes of the study, a series of live crash tests were performed positioning the “patrol” car in the positions as described in the SAE paper. Generally, the “bullet” vehicle’s speed was set to between 50 and 55 mph as a standard. Albeit, in some of our experiments, the speeds ranged outside the desired scope. Seemingly, the data we have gathered thus far seems to be consistent and not impacted by variations of speed. There was one anomaly with a test where the push bumper on the patrol car interacted with the violator car differently than other tests by creating an underride situation.

 

 

JusticeONE_ChiefsMag_June2023_Final

During most of the crash tests, a mannequin or pair of mannequins were placed near the violator’s car. In these instances, the mannequin was placed between 12-15 inches from the door generally centered or slightly rear of center in the doorway to represent positioning during officer interaction with the occupant(s) of the violator vehicle. In nearly all the test crashes performed using type A and type B set-up (where the patrol vehicle was positioned off-set but parallel with the violator vehicle) the mannequin(s) were not struck by the vehicles involved in the test crashes. Conversely, in all the test crashes performed using type C (where the patrol vehicle was positioned in a counterclockwise rotated manner nearly or at 30° different than the violator’s vehicle) the mannequin(s) were struck by the vehicle(s) involved in the test.

 

While this study is on-going, it may be premature to make any wholesale predictions about best practices for vehicle placement. However, there does seem to be a pattern that could be cause for concern. Specifically, in the crash tests where the patrol vehicle is rotated in comparison to the violator vehicle. So far, it seems a significant danger zone is created in the area where an officermay stand when dealing with the violator on either side—driver’s side approach or passenger’s side approach—of the violator vehicle when the patrol car is rotated and parked behind the violator vehicle

 

The idea of turning the steer wheels/tires to the left or right may afford some level of safety for the officer from gunfire, the maneuver has no significant effect of directing the vehicle if it is struck at any significant speed. Understanding force vectors can help bring better understanding of this principle. This has been demonstrated during the test crashes. Obviously, different amounts of overlap from the bullet car, different angles of attack, and varying closing velocities may alter some of the outcomes.

 

It is the opinion of the author that more tests need to be conducted, either live crash tests or simulations on a computer to draw general conclusions. It should be noted, Sullenberger is currently working on computer simulations and is expected to author an SAE paper on the findings.

Roger Chin, Brian Geraghty, Gary Nichols, and Jack Ridenour, “Police Vehicle Orientation During Traffic Stops: Protecting Pedestrian Officers from Adjacent Traffic”, Society of Automotive Engineers, SAE 2003 World Congress and Exhibition, March 3, 2003, DOI: https://doi.org/10.4271/2003-01-0886.

Charles Odom

Charles Odom currently serves as the Manager of the Law Enforcement Operations Section at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center (GPSTC). With more than 30 years of law enforcement service, including 15 years as a police chief, he holds multiple advanced certifications including Traffic Accident Reconstruction Specialist and Crime Scene Investigator. He earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Criminal Justice from Mercer University  (2018) as well as a Master of Science in Criminal Justice (2019) from Mercer University.

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