All the emergency services should require their drivers to go through professionally run courses to teach them how to drive more safely at speed. Does this mean they will actually be safer? Sadly, no. No matter how well trained a driver, the risks of an accident increase dramatically the higher the speed traveled. This is because no matter how good the reaction times of the driver, he or she is always dependent on the reactions of the other road users.
So even though the driver may be an expert on the dynamics of the particular vehicle being driven at speed, have learned how to anticipate how other road users might react to a fast-moving vehicle suddenly appearing behind them, and have trained to handle heavy braking and the control of skids, accidents happen. It’s then for the local law enforcement community and prosecutors to decide whether the use of speed was justified and, in all the circumstances, whether the driving was of a high enough standard to treat the collision as no fault for the purposes of the criminal law. Obviously anyone injured by the driver may still sue in the civil courts where there’s a lower standard of proof to establish liability. In high-speed chases or the decision of an emergency vehicle to speed to get to a hospital with a critically injured patient or to a fire, more police, fire, and ambulance services settle out of court.
Except this is only theoretical for many of the men and women who go out on to our roads to patrol. Only an elite group in each area tend to get continuous training and even that can be of uncertain quality. As an example of what can go wrong, we should go down to Kern County in California where we meet Deputy John Swearengin. The County has just agreed to pay out $8.8 million to the families of two people who were killed pushing a motorcycle across the road when the Deputy, traveling at more than 80 mph in a 45 mph zone knocked them down. He was responding to a report of grand theft auto and, given the seriousness of the matter, he claimed he was justified in exceeding the speed limit without the siren and lights as a warning. In his evidence, he said he believed he should have asked permission to go “code 3”, i.e. to exceed the local speed limits. The reason why he didn’t ask? Well, it seems he’d dropped his microphone on the floor and couldn’t reach it.
This was an officer who had never been trained to drive at speed. His Sheriff’s policy is absolutely clear in all official manuals given to deputies, namely that it’s rarely necessary to drive above the speed limit. But its not policy for deputies to ask permission. They are simply expected to obey the speed limits. There’s no saying whether this fatal collision would have happened had the deputy been trained to drive at speed but one thing is certain. The collision would almost certainly not have happened if he’d been driving within the speed limit.