Monday, January 7, 2008

Seeking your input

I made this same request of our employees on Friday, but the thought struck me that some of the readers of the Chief's Corner might have some ideas on this, too.

An article in Thursdays's Lincoln Journal Star concerns the apparent inconsistency in our issuance of traffic citations at accident scenes on December 6, 2007. Actually, you can see this yourself by simply looking through accident reports by date on our public web site, and comparing those in which citations are issued to those in which none is issued. Sometimes you can spot a logical reason (lack of evidence, for example), and sometime not. When the reporter contacted me with his questions last week, I stumbled through a lame explanation that I don't even buy it.

I think the reporter has done us a favor by pointing out the lack of consistency. While I think we are pretty consistent when the roads are dry, we have some more significant problems with this when the weather is bad. Some officers adopt my approach: you're required by law to have your car under control at all times and if you didn't, it's your fault, not the weather's; others are much more likely to cut some slack because of snow or ice. When your chance of getting a ticket depends as much on which officer gets assigned as what actually happened, something is amiss.

Our written policies provide a little flexibility on deciding when to issue a traffic ticket in connection with an accident-related violation, but not much:

"If the investigation reveals probable cause to believe a traffic law has been violated, the investigating officer should cite the violator. In making the determination to issue a citation when a violation has occurred, officers should consider aggravating and mitigating circumstances."
Generally, our feeling is that if you committed a violation that contributed to a traffic accident, that's even more serious than if the same violation did not result in a collison, so if we'd write a ticket for rolling through a stop sign at 20 MPH, we ought to be even more committed to writing it when the act results in an accident.

Elsewhere in our written policies we describe various aggravating and mitigating circumstances in traffic violations that officers may consider when deciding whether to issue a citation, and whether the citation should be a warning or official ticket. The aggravating circumstances listed include the fact that a violation contributed to a traffic accident.

We'll be discussing this issue at this weeks' staff meeting, and Iwould like your advice. I'd like to find a way to improve our consistency without eliminating discretion entirely. I think there are cases where officers need to have some leeway, for example a case where the damage is exceptionally minor, or nobody else's property was damaged. It seems to me that if you run over your own mailbox, writing you a ticket is overkill. I've been at accident scenes on the elevated portion of southbound Interstate 180 on a few occasions where I had to hold on to the car handle to stand up, and where I really couldn't feel very good about issuing tickets to the dozens of motorists who became involved in the annual chain reactions. The usual admonition about slowing down, anticipating movements ahead, and maintaining a safe following distance would have been useless. An iron clad rule eliminates the ability of officers to make such common sense judgments.

I suppose a good way for police officers to look at it would be this:

"What would I expect to happen if I was involved in this collision, and someone else's driving violation caused the damage to my car?"
If you have an idea on how we can create a little more consistency, or how we ought to change our guidelines, I'dl ike to hear from you.


Anonymous said...

There is always a traffic violation if there is an accident.

JT said...

The article link above didn't work, but I think that this is the one you were meaning.

Personally I think the clause about Aggravating and Mitigating circumstances is very well put and leaves the officer the leeway you were speaking of.

I can't think of a way to rule out all the inconsistency of whether or not someone is ticketed. The thing is each officer may approach each wreck a little differently. About the only thing I could see to increase consistency across the board is to run some type of training sessions where you go through some possible accident scenarios together and discuss together those 'special' circumstances that arise, to get a feel for other officers outlook on the situation. This might help the more "strict" officers see where they are being too inflexible, and the more "soft" officers see where they might need to have a few more drivers sign the dotted line. Maybe you do this already, or maybe it isn't something there is time or a need for. Just throwing out ideas!

I think as long as officers continue to base their decision to ticket or not on the basis of a violation, and not the person behind the wheel, things are running fine. Special circumstances or not!

Anonymous said...

I don't want to hijack your comments section with a personal story, but bear with me for a moment. In mid-December, during an afternoon snowstorm which followed a big snowfall the night before, I rear-ended another vehicle at a very, very slick (major) interesection. I'd slid on the snowpack/ice for 25 feet (you could see the tracks) before hitting the other vehicle. Thankfully I was going slowly enough to only bump the other vehicle a few feet, and no one was hurt. But I got ticket for "negligent driving".

The officer at the scene was nice enough, but told me that the only way he wouldn't write a ticket at an accident is if it's an "act of God". He said that if he drove his cruiser into another vehicle, he would surely be ticketed for the offense - in fact at that very same moment, he said, there was a woman police officer who had crashed her cruiser into a civilian vehicle, and she was being ticketed for it. Wow, ok, I thought, rules are rules, I was at fault, I deserve the ticket.

Then a few days later as I was writing up my accident report, I logged onto the city's website to view the officer's report. I clicked through until I found the accident report from that police cruiser accident from the same day. That police officer didn't get get a ticket, and her accident was definitely weather-related as mine was. Like you said (and the LJS reported), I noticed HUGE inconsistancies between who got a ticket and who didn't. I counted 7 accidents that were similar to mine, all weather-related, and it was about 50-50 who got a ticket and who didn't. I didn't have the time to go to court to argue my ticket, so I just paid the fine.

I don't have a huge amount of advice on how to make things more consistent, but maybe we need to redefine what "negligent driving" is. I don't think my driving 10 miles an hour on a slick street, and then sliding for 25 feet, and then bumping the vehicle in front of me lightly enough, that that vehicle only moves 4 feet, constitutes negligent driving. If I was driving 50 miles an hour on a slick street, and rear-ended a car so they went careening through the intersection, then yes, ticket me please.

Tom Casady said...


Thanks for the broken link info, and thanks to all for the input. I may not be able to respond very well this week, but I'm listening nonetheless. This is exactly what I'm looking for.

Anonymous said...

Today was an excellent day for this topic, because there were some extremely treacherously deceptive ice spots out there on the streets this morning. I felt like an air hockey puck on a couple of occasions when rolling less than 10mph, but that's freezing rain for you. I just crawl along and it's all right.

Anytime one tries to make any policy ironclad and robotronic, the end result is usually worse, not better. I think that was your point. Sometimes the wrong judgment call will be made by your Officers, but I trust that they will be rare, and nothing ever done by human beings will ever be consistently perfect.

Gun Nut said...

Why must a ticket be written if a violation isn't obvious? Does a ticket make a difference when the insurance companies and lawyers get involved? I have seen accident scenes where an officer is taking pictures, measuring distances and interviewing witnesses. . . what is the determining factor as to when this will be done? Is it done just in injury accidents? When a certain dollar amount of damage is reached?

Even though I drove big rigs all over the U.S. and Canada for many years I was lucky and only recieved one speeding ticket (BTW contrary to the myth Police Radar does have a range of more than one mile) and a few overweight violations. However I did see a few hundred if not thousands of accidents during my years on the road. In many of those accidents it was obvious who and what caused them but there were a few that were definitely puzzling.

I would say if there is any doubt don't write that ticket.

Gun Nut

Anonymous said...

"The usual admonition about slowing down, anticipating movements ahead, and maintaining a safe following distance would have been useless".

You are talking about ice here. Well I did not know that you can drive on ice but guess what? I found that I could and did. It took two hours and fifty minutes to drive from Omaha the night of the ice storm. Slowing down and adding some skill to the trip got me home in time to change my shorts. I would NOT do it again.

Mike Roselius said...

THANK YOU for asking for this! I've been very frustrated by the citation policy for years and am grateful for the chance to discuss.

I don't think that there is ALWAYS a traffic violation when an accident occurs, or at least that in an accident its possible to find only one person that caused the accident.

I've only been cited once as the cause of an accident - a failure to yield on Cornhusker Hwy - east bound, from 33rd, I changed lanes to go straight on Adams and was hit in the right rear qtr by a car. This happened several years ago (late 80s). Clear weather. At the scene, I was cited and general measurements were taken. However, there were skid marks from the other vehicle that were not recorded. I stayed and photo'd and measured the marks.

Previous law enforcement experience, and 5 min w/ my accident template, allowed me to estimate the speed of the other vehicle to be in excess of 45mph.

I took that evidence to the city attorney prior to trial, offering to pay costs for a dismissal. His response was to be concerned about whether I was covered by insurance so if there was a claim, the other driver would be covered.

My problem is that my insurance status and claims w/ the other driver is by and large a civil issue and not something that the city attorney should be concerned with.

I agree that the obvious violation in my case was the lane change. But if the other driver hadn't been speeding, would I have been able to change lanes safely?

When was the last time any reader here w/ a contacts / glasses restriction was checked by an investigating officer if they do indeed have their contacts in?

Anyone ever been asked by an investigating officer if they suffer from diabetes, epilepsy, colorblindness etc - which might have contributed to the accident?

Throw the weather factor in, with 8 - 20 calls pending, and is it reasonable to expect an officer to do a "complete" investigation when a driver slides into another at an intersection and breaks a taillight? I think if you are going to cite at that accident, you need to. What does that do to your manpower situation?

My point is, that in responding to non-injury accidents, is a complete investigation done each time? Or do we all just agree that a rear end collision is ALWAYS following too closely?

How quickly would you start getting calls from State Farm etc. if you stopped citing at accidents? What pressure do you feel from them?

I'm curious what your position is (if you can publicly state it) on having the department investigate non-injury accidents? I think the "cite at (nearly) every accident" policy is detering many from involving the department in fender benders to avoid the citation that it includes. Is that a good thing or not?

I know that sometimes you make a stupid mistake, have a small accident and getting a citation on top of it just rubs salt in the wound.

Clearly once there is an injury or significant damage - everything changes.

I guess I'd like to see the leeway kick in on the small accidents, the fenderbenders where maybe an officer didn't need to be called but was, or where it is obvious that this was a momentary lapse.

I always weighed writing a citation as being needed to reinforce that you've made a mistake that has consequences. If I could write a warning and feel like I'd have the same impact, I generally took that route. But I also worked in a small enough town that I'd catch you again if you didn't learn your lesson:) Still I have to believe that there are accident scenes where you can reach a similar conclusion.

Charlie said...

Thanks for asking this Chief. As within any industry there is going to be some level of inconsistency based on human interation. In your case it happens to be offers assessing a traffic situation. I am glad they have some ability to individualize based on various circumstances.

I would simply offer that having a traffic citation review process, that is efficient, would help consisitency. You could radomly pull traffic violations, review the circumstances, send out a case study/facts of the case without any specificcs as to how it was handled, have the officers submit their responses to you, and you review. Feedback would then be provided to the entire department. You would then establish some interrator reliability across the department at very little cost and/or effort, with a high degree of return.

Anonymous said...

I would always rather have an officer investigate an accident that I'm involved in, even if I'm at fault and recieve a citation. This may sound a little wierd but having a Police report stops some of the facts of the case from being misrepresented in civil court at a later date.

Unfortunately, with the cost of repairs, there is no such thing as a "minor" accident anymore. I have a door-ding from some moron with a pellet rifle that was a bad shot and missed my window. Estimate-$800.
Where I live, if a "Snow Emergency" is declared, the Police will not respond to an accident unless there is an injury or alcohol involved. The drivers exchange names and then go to a Quik Trip to pick up an accident report to send in. Think about all the bad stuff that happens because of that procedure. The citizens of Lincoln are lucky to have the Police Department that they have, given the limits on man-power. Tickets or not.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:19

The officer may not have gotten a citation, but I bet they got written up and so have to deal with that in their personnel file.

Anonymous said...

Personally I'd like to see more tickets issued for "minor offenses" (rolling through stop signs, running red lights, swerving through traffic and speeding.)
Nip the little things in the bud and you'll find more upstanding citizens, less accidents and more respect for the police department. If we are going to have laws they should be enforced at ALL times. If we aren't going to require an actual stop then why have a stop sign or a traffic light.
Police officers are hired to enforce laws and they should be enforced equally for ALL people.

Anonymous said...


It was your duty to make sure it was safe for you to make the lane change before making it. 45 mph is not a speed which prevents you from checking a mirror adequately before merging. And writing a warning for an accident is not an option for LPD.

Tom Casady said...

Good comments all around, thank you very much. The feeling of getting in most of the feedback from all three groups I've asked is pretty consistent: avoid a fixed rule, continue to give officers some flexibility to apply common sense, (particularly when the damage is very minor and the roadway nearly impossible), but try to improve consistency: "interrater reliability", as charlie described it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous 1-7-08 0919 hrs,

Only going 10 mph and slid 25 feet into another veh. Wow, there must have been a pile of accidents at that major intersection. How did the cars in front of you get stopped? Did the officer crash into the pile of cars? Perhaps you may have been driving a bit faster than you recall or 25 ft is approx. 1.5 car lengths and you should have given yourself more room to react? Yup, sounds like negligent driving to me. Just a thought.

Cop Star said...

Personally I think people need to quit whining. The weather is no excuse to ram your car into other people's property and expect their insurance to pay for is just because it's icy.
Pay attention. If the cruiser tending to your accident was able to arrive on scene without becoming involved in the accident then obviously it is possible. The fact that you did not maintain control of your vehicle suggests negligence occurred, thus a citation should be issued.