POLICE CHASES FATALITIES – UNDER TALLIED

This is our third blog on police chases and fatalities. On August 10, 2015, we wrote about police chases and innocent victims. On August 24, 2015, we wrote about technology in place of police chases which has not made much progress. Today, we revisit the number of fatalities from police chases which has been under reported.

In an article in USA Today – The Journal News by Thomas Frank on September 30, 2015 entitled “Police pursuit fatalities untallied”, it is claimed the actual death toll could pass 15,000 people. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) overlooked at least 101 motor vehicle deaths in 2013 related to police chases. USA Today review of police reports and internal documents, court records, police chase videos and new accounts of death resulting from police chases is understated by at least 31%. The NHTSA’s undercount suggests that the actual number of people killed in police chases since 1979 could be more than 15,000. This is more than the 11,506 chase related deaths found by NHTSA numbers.

The findings expose potentially major flaws in how the federal government tracks vehicle fatalities. This is because of how police document high speed chases. USA Today reported in July, 2015 that as many as one fourth of those killed were bystanders and one fourth were passengers in cars fleeing police. In most of the 101 death found by USA Today, failed to report the police chases is as a result of the way NHTSA gathers the information from states on fatal crashes and codes the crashes in a database used by Congress, safety experts, local officials and insurance companies. According to Frederick Rivera of the University of Washington, a leading research on accident and injury prevention, “You would not expect to have that amount of undercounting”.

The NHTSA has no explanation for the findings and said it is reviewing 30 crashes it lists as not involving a chase. Those 30 crashes resulted in 39 deaths. The NHTSA is charged with recording and analyzing every fatal motor vehicle crash, yet it has no record of at least 26 crashes resulting in 38 deaths that involved a vehicle chased by police in 2013. The omissions include two of the year’s deadliest crashes: a police chase on March 20th in Kingsville, Texas that resulted in 7 deaths and a chase on November 23rd in Falfurrias, Texas that ended in 5 passengers being killed. The NHTSA analyzes police report death certificates and other records for each of the roughly 30,000 fatal crashes a year and codes each crash in a database on dozens of factors that have caused or influenced the crash ranging from a motorist’s speed, sobriety and driving history, to the weather and road conditions. The agency and police officials have long known about potential inaccuracies in the agency’s annual count of fatal police chases because the 18,000 police department document crashes in a widely varying ways. Mostly because NHTSA has no requirement that police note they were chasing a motorist. The International Association of Chiefs of Police urged the NHTSA in 1996 to establish standards on when departments should report chases. The NHTSA’s 148 page crash reporting guidelines first published in 1998 say nothing about NHTSA analysts should list a crash involving a chase.

Researches have used NHTSA data on police chases to recommend policies including restriction on the type of offenses for which police should chase a motorist. A growing number of police departments permit chases only on fleeing drivers suspected of a violent felony. By undercounting chase related deaths, the NHTSA could intentionally ease pressure on police to restrict chases. The main problem is keeping track of police chase fatalities is that NHTSA relies on analysts for each state to enter crash details into a database and those analysts generally review only police crash reports which only include basic information about the people and motor vehicles involved in a one paragraph narrative. Some police departments do not mention a chase on the crash report, recording it instead on a separate more detailed document that NHTSA analysts do not read.

An Ohio Traffic Crash Report used by police statewide is typical of state crash forms. It has 50 boxes where officials enter a number or checkmark to note factors such as vehicle type, injury severity or a contributing circumstance. There is no place to note a police chase leaving it to police to include that information in a one paragraph narrative which most times, they do not do to avoid civil liability to the innocent victims. Police officers often have the view of Lt. Craig Cvetan of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. “A crash is not caused by the pursuit. The crash is caused by the actions of a driver, so that’s what the report documents” and the police do not mention the police chase.

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, near Worchester, D.C. Police chased Ronald Hayes, Jr. on December 8, 2014 and did not mention the chase on a three page crash report although, Hayes was charged with fleeing or eluding police and manslaughter after he hit and killed two woman in a minivan. The police claim they were not a “proximate or contributing factor” in the crash report. The Maryland Police Department states they would only show a police chase in a crash report if the officer was involved in the collision.. This is one of 15 crashes in 2013 in which the police report says nothing about a police chase but the driver was charged with fleeing police in a vehicle. Police had wide discretion not only in whether they indicate that a chase contributed to a crash or if it has been called off but is related to the crash. NHTSA acknowledges the definition as to whether a crash is chase related is subjective and relies heavily on how police describe chases.

USA – Today found 10 crashes resulting in 13 deaths in which police said they had called off their chases. In most of these cases, drivers continued speeding after police stopped. The police never list these crashes as being related to a police chase. The NHTSA need to verify the police accident report with a box to check if the crash was during a chase, near a chase or after a chase. All these crashes should be listed as police chases then perhaps, the underreporting of police chase accident and liabilities will be more accurate.

If you or a loved one has been an innocent victim of a police chase, contact the law firm of Dominick J. Robustelli & Associates, PLLC at (914) 288-0800 or e-mail us at djrobolaw@aol.com.