secondary crash scene

March 2018

Using Crash Data to Protect Traffic Incident Responders

Working near moving traffic is a very hazardous part of the job of police, fire, EMS, transportation, and towing personnel who respond to traffic incidents. Whether on an urban freeway or a rural local street, traffic incident responders are among the most vulnerable road users, challenged with working in dynamic and dangerous conditions that are neither designed nor intended for pedestrians. While the dangers are apparent, the lack of a national reporting system for incident responders who are struck and killed while working at roadside hinders a comprehensive understanding of the issue.

According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Foundation, 127 police officers were struck and killed in incidents between 2007 and 2016, or about 13 per year. The National Fire Protection Association completed a study of fire personnel who were struck and killed by vehicles in 2014 and found that in the most recent ten years, a total of 28 personnel were struck and killed by non-fire vehicles, or about 3 each year. It is estimated that the towing profession loses about 38 operators per year in these incidents. And at least 19 safety service patrol operators, performing duties like motorist assistance and incident management have been killed in the line of duty since inception of such programs.

AAMVAwebinforaphicWhen an incident responder is at the scene of a traffic incident, they are very vulnerable pedestrians, susceptible to the dangers of drivers who are drunk, drugged, drowsy, and distracted. When these drivers collide with responders or other vehicles near incident scenes, it is referred to as a secondary crash. A secondary crash is defined as, “Crashes that occur within the incident scene or within the queue or backup, including the opposite direction, resulting from an original incident.” When a responder is struck at the scene of an incident it is referred to as a “responder struck by” incident, a case where police, fire, EMS, towing, or transportation professionals are struck by a vehicle as a pedestrian on or near the roadway.

Neither secondary crashes nor responder struck by incidents are uncommon, but identifying them in statewide traffic crash data is challenging. Estimates for secondary crashes range from one to 6 percent of all crashes, but given the fact there are around 6 million police reported crashes in the US each year, those estimates easily translate into tens of thousands of crashes annually. The actual number of responder injuries and deaths attributed to struck-by incidents are equally elusive, since there is no state or national tracking system for those events.

From a safety standpoint, understanding when, where, and why secondary crashes occur has the potential to alter on-scene actions to help prevent those events. Similarly, identifying responder struck by incidents can impact responder training, equipment, and procedures. In either case, traffic crash data is the foundation for safety analysis.

Statistically, the longer responders are operating near moving traffic, the higher the chances that something bad will happen. Clearing the roadway and clearing the scene are straight-forward steps that responders can take to reduce their exposure and promote safety.

Fortunately, new traffic crash reporting data elements are being introduced in statewide report forms to collect important information about secondary crashes and responder struck-by incidents. The Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria (MMUCC) is a national guideline that states follow when creating or modifying statewide crash report forms. The 5th Edition of the MMUCC was released in August of 2017 and new data elements include these important facts, along with other information to enhance safety analysis for responders.

Since the MMUCC is a guideline, implementation at the state level is voluntary. While the majority of MMUCC data elements are found in every state crash report form, the actual percentage of MMUCC compliance varies nationally. Consequently, it is up to practitioners and safety advocates to petition their respective state crash reporting agency to include data elements that are important to their work. Roadway clearance time, secondary crashes, and responder involved data elements are new opportunities to promote safety for traffic incident responders. These elements will only be included in future state report revisions if state crash report officials make the decision to incorporate them in report revisions.

State traffic crash report officials should be encouraged to adopt the national guidance of the MMUCC and include secondary crashes, responder involvement, and roadway clearance time in their reporting systems. Together, we can improve responder safety by improving the crash report systems that track injuries and deaths that result from secondary crashes at traffic incidents.