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Editorial: Even in police pursuits, safety is top priority

Feb. 16, 2013 @ 11:40 PM

A traffic collision involving a sheriff's deputy's cruiser and two other cars in downtown Huntington in December left people who saw it and heard it wondering about the respective responsibilities of police and other motorists during police pursuits.

In this case, a car driven by a Cabell County sheriff's deputy and two squad cars driven by Huntington police officers were chasing a suspect who had been spotted stealing a tire from a parked vehicle. The chase reached speeds of up to at least 77 miles per hour in a six-block section of Fifth Avenue where there were no traffic lights.

The chase continued east at reduced speeds into the downtown until 10th Street. There, the suspect's car made it through the intersection. But the deputy's cruiser, going against a red traffic light, struck one car and ricocheted off another before coming to a stop shortly past the intersection. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, although the impact was far from minor.

The two other motorists, who had entered the intersection with green lights, were not charged with any violation. But Huntington police, which investigated the accident, noted in the report as contributing factors that one motorist failed to yield the right of way to an emergency vehicle and the other was following too closely.

The sheriff's deputy, who had his car's siren on and lights flashing, was not listed as contributing to the accident at all. One witness was surprised at the findings, noting that the deputy "was going so fast that the minute you heard the siren -- he was there."

A Huntington Police Department spokesman said investigators found no evidence indicating the deputy's actions were reckless. They determined he did not perceive that he was going to collide with intersecting traffic until the instant before the collision occurred. The spokesman said Chapter 17C of state code allows the officer to reasonably assume other motorists will obey traffic law.

But is that a safe assumption to make? What if a motorist doesn't have time to react or simply doesn't notice the oncoming emergency vehicle in time to stop?

State law suggests that more caution is required. The particular code cited by the Huntington police spokesman also makes these points (italics added):

The officer may "Proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation;

An officer may "Exceed the speed limits so long as he does not endanger life or property;

"The foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons."

The Huntington Police Department's policy on pursuits, as explained by Capt. Mike Albers, seems to take into account those precautions. City officers are required to slow to a point they can visually check and ensure all traffic has yielded the right of way.

The Cabell County Sheriff's Office policy does not appear to be as specific. Sheriff Tom McComas said it requires deputies "to use caution upon approaching intersections, and as they're driving and the pursuit is progressing to use due diligence and caution."

McComas said all preliminary investigations show the deputy conducted the chase within department policy. But he said the completed investigation could lead to changes.

From what is known of this particular accident, a change in policy appears to be due. Certainly, motorists should yield the right of way to emergency vehicles. But drivers of emergency vehicles must give them ample time to do so and ensure that they do. To do otherwise puts the lives of the officers and others at risk.

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