Press Releases

Larry Zalin
Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center
(206) 521-1531

DATE: April 7, 2004

High-speed police pursuits: Are the risks acceptable?

Approximately 300 lives are lost each year in the U.S. as a result of vehicle crashes related to police pursuits, and one third of these fatalities occur to innocent people. These findings, the result of research by investigators at the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, suggest a need to explore the balance between the apprehension of criminals and the potential risk to the pursuing police officers and the general public.

“Motor Vehicle Crash Deaths Related to Police Pursuits in the United States” is published in the April issue of the Injury Prevention. The research is based on analysis of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the Crashworthiness Data System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the years 1994-2002.

There were 260-325 police pursuits ending in fatalities each year during the nine-year period. Of the fatal injuries, 1,088 were to people not in the fleeing vehicles, and 2,055 were to people in the fleeing vehicles. Nearly one third (30.1 percent) of the fatalities were to occupants of vehicles not involved in the police pursuits.

“High-speed pursuit of suspected criminals by police is controversial,” says Dr. Frederick Rivara, a University of Washington professor of pediatrics and adjunct professor of epidemiology, and principal investigator for the study. “Crashes tend to occur in the dark, at high speeds, and often on local roads. Given the fact that 300 lives are lost annually and the victims are often innocent people, we have to ask ourselves whether there may be safe and effective alternatives to high-speed police pursuits of suspected criminals.”

The researchers found that there were a total of 2,654 crashes involving 3,965 vehicles and 3,146 fatalities during the nine-year study period. In addition to the fatalities occurring to people in the fleeing vehicles and other, uninvolved vehicles, 102 fatalities were to pedestrians and bicyclists, and 40 were to police officers. Fleeing vehicles were found to be traveling a mean of 25.4 mph over the speed limit at the time of the crash.

Since certain jurisdictions already limit high-speed police chases, the investigators suggest further research on the trade-off between fewer pursuit-related crashes and the potential for a higher number of fatal crimes. Data may be available for a cost-benefit analysis in which different pursuit policies could be modeled.

“Given the fact that one third of the deaths are to innocent civilians, the costs and benefits of police pursuits should be more openly discussed and other options for stopping criminals more fully explored,” Rivara says.

In addition to Rivara, the study was conducted by Chris Mack, M.S, a research consultant at the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center .