Just because a collision resulted in no injury does not mean that it was a minor incident. It is often a canary in the coal mine that we need to hear. A near-fatal collision on Highway 401 near Dutton reported on the OPP Twitter account appears to be much more important than the single sentence used to report its occurrence. The photo below was provided by the OPP along with the short description.
The OPP Twitter statement indicated that the cruiser was sideswiped yesterday along with a comment that “Lots of rain out there” and “Let’s not let this happen again”. That is not very much information about an incident that could have taken an officer’s life.
It was not noted, for example, whether an officer was seated in the cruiser when the contact occurred. But even if the officer was some distance away is not the point. An officer could easily be seated in a cruiser, like is often the case, when such an impact occurs. And even if the officer or other persons were near the struck cruiser, an impact with greater overlap could easily send the struck cruiser toward those persons standing nearby. So this is critical information that needs to be known.
Very important questions need to be answered. Where was the cruiser positioned when it was struck? It would be expected that emergency lights were activated but certainly that needs to be confirmed.
Was the cruiser the only emergency vehicle at the site when this occurred? Many times other vehicles, including blocker trucks with large arrow signs, help approaching drivers to detect how they must maneuver around a site. When large and tall transport trucks exist, which is almost invariably the case, they block the view of drivers behind and beside them. So was this an incident that involved such blockage of the line of sight?
Was the cruiser located where it was due to some kind of investigation of a previous collision? Was it there to protect a disabled and vulnerable vehicle? We know nothing of the kind.
At times when a vehicle breaks down it can be stopped in a vulnerable location where it might be struck by oncoming traffic. Persons in the disabled vehicle may have to make an uninformed judgment whether to stay in the vehicle and risk being struck by a massive transport truck or attempt to cross the lanes of the highway on foot and risk being struck. So the involvement of a police cruiser with emergency lights can (sometimes) improve the chances of guiding approaching traffic away from a disabled vehicle. Again, we know nothing about whether this was a possibility in this specific instance.
We have posted a number of articles and news items on this Gorski Consulting website in the past in an attempt to describe the danger that exists whenever an OPP officer attempts a traffic stop on a 400 series highway such the 401. While it may be somewhat safer to perform such an action in the lower traffic volumes near Dutton, it can be extremely dangerous in the higher traffic volumes east of where Highway 402 merges with Highway 401 through the 200 kilometres toward Toronto and further eastward. Controlling speeds of vehicles is of obvious importance and when there are high traffic volumes, with tailgating being the norm, police can believe that a few traffic stops for speeding tickets can make the difference. Unfortunately, unless there is a very large increase in police presence for an extended time, those few traffic stops can produce more harm than good because of the unexpected chaos that develops around such stops.
It is of vital importance that if a traffic stop is unavoidable that the police officer study the situation of where the stop is made and what potential there is that the cruiser could be struck. The obvious consideration is that the cruiser needs to pulled over as far as absolutely possible, onto the right side of the highway and off of the shoulder, where possible. We have commented on the positioning of the cruiser if there has been another vehicle pulled over ahead of it and where this positioning may be of some help. But the approach of a loaded tractor-trailer that wanders toward the cruiser will make all these positioning issues irrelevant. When outside the cruiser police and others need to stay as far to the right and away from active lanes as possible. And all involved must grow another set of eyes (those extra eyes that a mother develops from monitoring a toddler) to constantly watch traffic for the potential development of something dangerous. This can be extremely stressful to officers who must also fill-out paperwork or make inputs to a computer while also monitoring the individual they have pulled over.
So we need some solutions that may be difficult to achieve. But we also need to recognize and accept that problems exist. The OPP twitter notification indicated that the involved police officer was “Beyond upset”. Other than the acceptable fact that such a reaction would be expected from anyone, we also cannot approach this problem from the viewpoint that being upset, making accusations or uninformed comments is a solution on its own. We can see every day whenever a controversial incident occurs that there are large numbers of instant experts who post on social media about what the obvious problems and solutions are, accompanied by vulgar and abusive expletives. Those persons have to be tolerated for the purposes of maintaining our even more important freedom of speech.
However for those responsible for an objective evaluation of what needs to be changed, proper and detailed documentation, with a minimum of bias, that results in high quality data is an absolute must. Providing a single sentence about an incident of such importance as the possibility of a police officer’s death is well below the degree of effort that needs to be expended. The next OPP cruiser struck on Highway 401 could result in much more tragedy and we owe it to the OPP officers and their families to make sure we have done all we can to keep them safe.