The nice folks at Jalopnik link to us so often, it’s the least I can do to begin this column by suggesting you watch this video over there. For those of you who don’t like watching videos, it shows a police car operating at a velocity of ninety-four miles per hour in a marked 40 zone. At around the one-minute mark, we see the police car strike a Mazda containing two teenagers. Both are killed. The police car is not running its lights, was not operating the siren, and was not even responding to an emergency.
Here’s the best (or worst) part: the officer who killed the kids, Jason Anderson, was apparently “racing” the officer whose car recorded the video, one Richard Pisani. Pisani is traveling at about 74 mph during one part of the video. In a marked 40. I cannot find any evidence that Office Pisani was in any way disciplined for his conduct. Think about that for a moment.
Perhaps most worryingly, the video shows absolutely no awareness, driving ability, or the vaunted “high-speed police training” on the part of Officer Anderson. It’s fairly obvious that the Mazda is going to cross Anderson’s path. We’re regularly told that by police departments that their officers have “special training”, but this is an accident that most solid NASA HPDE drivers could easily avoid. A modest amount of steering to the left would have saved two lives. Instead, Anderson simply drives right into the Mazda, with his car’s “black box” recording 100% accelerator pressure up to the crash. He was flat-out to the very end.
The good news is that the technology exists to prevent a tragic event such as this from ever happening again. In fact, the technology has existed for a very, very long time, and it could be easily installed on every police vehicle in the country. Let’s discuss.
I live in a little suburb outside Columbus, Ohio. My afternoon commute takes me through an even smaller suburb of perhaps five hundred residents. This suburb rigorously enforces a 40mph limit on the 1.5 miles of state highway passing through its borders, and it has at least two police-liveried Explorers with which to do so. I’m used to having my lime-green Audi S5 lit up with multiple laser shots and frustrated, angry looks from those Explorers as I cruise-control by at 38 miles per hour, not a bit more. I know that if I stray above forty I’ll be ticketed. A friend of mine got a $200-ish ticket a while ago for running his Supra by the local yokels at forty-five.
Today, as I was idling through that town, I was nearly struck head-on by one of the aforementioned police Explorers, running flat-out to catch a speeder. I’m no accurate judge of oncoming-vehicle speed (and, for that matter, neither is anyone else I’ve ever met) but I think it’s fair to say this cop was doing at least sixty, maybe seventy, and he was treating the double-yellow separating me from him with a considerable amount of disregard. It didn’t take me much mental effort to move over and avoid a collision, but it started me thinking about some basic assumptions regarding speeding and police conduct.
We can start by examining the most basic assumption regarding speeding, namely the idea that there should be such an offense. For better or worse, I’m inclined to think that some sort of speed limit is a reasonable idea. I’d like to buzz down the freeway at a buck-fifty, and I occasionally do buzz down the freeway at a buck-fifty, but I’m not certain that the current states of vehicle repair, tire inflation, driver education, and drug/alcohol/phone/boomin’-system use in this country support the idea of unlimited speed on all roads.
Now we arrive at the first contradiction in modern speeding laws: the fine-based approach. If you break a speed limit by less than thirty miles per hour in most areas, you will be fined and/or receive “points” on your license. If speeding is dangerous, and if people die from speeding, why aren’t speeders thrown in jail? Throwing old-school Jarts into a crowd is dangerous, and if you get caught doing it chances are you won’t simply be permitted to avoid criminal penalities by mailing a hundred bucks to your local mayor’s court. Why do we, as a society, treat speeding differently? Could it be a tacit recognition by the justice system pf the fact that nearly everyone exceeds the artificially low speed limits in the United States?
Of course, if you live in an area where photo radar or some other Orwellian automatic enforcement hasn’t yet become popular, you will have to receive your speeding ticket from a police officer. Unless you slow down below the posted limit upon seeing said cop and then patiently wait for him or her to arrive behind you, your pursuer will have to break the speed limit as well.
Think about that. It’s not usually necessary to murder people to catch a murderer, nor is it necessary to rape innocent bystanders to punish a rapist. If your car was stolen, you would not expect the policeman taking your report to arrive in a stolen car. And yet we generally accept the idea that a police officer will break the speed limit in order to catch speeders. Even more interestingly, we accept that it will be “necessary” to break the speed limit by considerably more than the original offender did.
Some back-of-the-envelope stuff: If a driver is doing fifty in a forty and passes a stationary cop in a P71 Crown Vic “Police Interceptor”, that cop will need at least ten seconds to pull out and accelerate to fifty miles per hour. At that point, he is at least four hundred feet behind the speeder, probably more. If he wants to catch that speeder within three or so minutes and stay within his jurisdiction, he needs to step it up to fifty-five or sixty miles per hour. He’s now doing half again the speed limit and possibly represents a greater threat to the public welfare than the original offender.
This wouldn’t be a problem if cops didn’t crash, but they do. All the time, as a matter of fact. A long time ago, I had a police firearms instructor tell me, “There are two things cops can’t do: shoot and drive.” He was right. NHTSA states that over 3,000 people have died in police chases during the past decade. In 2001, for example, 365 people were killed, including 140 who were in no way involved with the chase. For more information, check out Victims Of Police Pursuit. Many municipalities are moving to reduce high-speed chases — or eliminate them altogether.
If we, as a society, are not willing to risk innocent lives to catch bank robbers or fleeing felons, why should we endure a similar risk simply to tax motorists who are often traveling at a speed which is entirely reasonable and appropriate for the conditions? Speed limits could still be enforced through cameras, automated devices, and the old Ohio Highway Patrol standby of having a cop call ahead to another cop up the road who waves the motorist over to receive a ticket. If this increases the cost of speeding enforcement, perhaps it will inspire municipalities, and the citizens of those municipalities, to more closely consider whether their police are best serving the public by serving as roadside tax collectors.
It seems reasonable enough that police shouldn’t be allowed to drag-race down the road, endangering the public simply to write tickets. The problem then becomes: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will watch the watchers? How can police be prevented from endangering the public? In the long run, an OnStar-style system of GPS-based speed management could be used to ensure that police (and, come to think of it, any other person who suckles from the teat of public employment) adhere to the speed limit at all times. This is the only fair system. While I’m sure that we all like the idea of police rushing at triple digit-speeds to save us from a home invasion, that implies that the lives of crime victims are somehow more valuable than the lives being risked by police who operate vehicles at a speed beyond their capacities. If a policeman kills innocent kids through negligent speed, does the fact that he is rushing to respond to a break-in bring those kids back to life?
While we are waiting for a perfect, nationwide-capable GPS speed-enforcement mechanism to arrive, action can still be taken to save thousands of lives every decade. It’s this simple: an old-school speed governor can be installed on every cop car. The maximum speed should be set to the limit chosen by that state for two-lane highways. Simple as that. For most states, that limit is fifty-five miles per hour.
As fate would have it, the Connecticut State Senator for Milford recently opined that a broad increase in requirements and penalties for teenaged drivers would be justified “if it saves one life.” I don’t know if changing the curfew for teen drivers from midnight to eleven p.m. will save any lives, but I’m pretty sure that governing the Milford Police’s cruisers to fifty-five would have saved two lives. Those lives have names: Ashlie Krakowski and David Servin.