Police Officer Visibility at Roadside Emergencies: A Risk Management Perspective

By Al “Butch" Burbank

By Al “Butch" Burbank

With the recent rash of police officers being struck by vehicles while working on highways outside their patrol vehicles, I believe it is a good time for police executives to reexamine their policies regarding this type of work activity. As a retired police chief, I am keenly aware of the concerns officers express when asked—or required—to wear any type of reflective clothing that highlights them and potentially puts them in harm’s way.

Alarming Statistics
According to a 2006 Federal Bureau of Investigation report, 121 officers were fatally hit by vehicles between 1996 and 2005. The report further highlights that one officer is killed in the United States each month, on average, from being struck by a motor vehicle. From a risk management perspective, I find these statistics alarming and feel more attention needs to be given to this area of law enforcement. Fortunately, I am not alone in this assessment.

Numerous organizations have been looking at the situation, namely the National Traffic Incident Management Coalition, International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA). Meetings between these organizations resulted in the ISEA developing the High-Visibility Public Safety Vests Standard (ANSI/ISEA 207-2006) to ensure public safety officers are visible under all light conditions—day or night. It was released in December of 2006 and is classified as a voluntary industry consensus standard.

Heeded Concerns
As mentioned earlier, police officers have a legitimate concern regarding their visibility during certain types of motor vehicle activity. While most officers are aware of the need to be seen while working in or around traffic, they are equally concerned about wearing high-visibility clothing while performing potentially high-risk duties related to motor vehicles.

The IACP’s Highway Safety Committee members have emphasized to the FHWA that requiring police officers to wear high-visibility safety apparel at all times on federal-aid highways could jeopardize officer safety. The FHWA listened and, in November of 2006, Title 23, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), section 634.3, of the previously mentioned standard was promulgated. It now states, in part, the following: “All workers within the right-of-way of a federal highway who are exposed to either traffic or construction equipment within the work area shall wear high-visibility safety apparel."

The new standard also defines “worker" as “people on foot whose duties place them within the right-of-way of a federal-aid highway" and becomes effective November 24, 2008.

Liability Potential
From a risk management prospective, chiefs of police and municipal managers need be aware of the liability potential for both their agency and police officers when officers do not wear high-visibility safety apparel, get struck and sustain injuries while working in traffic management situations. Because the new rule will apply to all law enforcement officers working on federal-aid highways, officers could experience issues with workers’ compensation and OSHA as well as a review by the New Hampshire Department of Labor.

I highly recommend that agencies review and, if necessary, update their policies regarding use of high-visibility safety apparel before this new standard takes effect. While it will reportedly only apply to officers working on highways that have received federal aid, I suspect those highways will include many of our state’s secondary roads upgraded with federal funds.

My hope is that agencies around the state will adopt this new standard, regardless of the type of highway that officers are asked to work on. Having an officer die each month from being hit by a motor vehicle is a statistic that we clearly need to reduce.

Al “Butch" Burbank is a retired chief of the Waterville Valley Department of Safety and currently serves as a Risk Management Representative for LGC. A 27-year veteran of New Hampshire law enforcement, Butch is a former police prosecutor and firearms/use of force instructor as well as a staff member of the 83rd Recruit Academy.

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