If a police officer pulls you over for a traffic stop, you may think you've got it bad. What you may not realize is that for the officer, this is very much a life or death situation.
Almost every year for more than a decade, traffic related incidents have been the number one cause of law enforcement deaths in the line of duty.
It's a bad day for anyone pulled over for a moving violation, but they can be reasonably sure they're going to make it through the traffic stop alive.
Lexington Police Officer David Peel can't afford to be so certain. "We're taught to watch the person's hands because that's where they reach for weapons," Peel explained listing the things that go through his mind at a typical stop.
Traffic officers have to make threat assessments fast: is the subject compliant, or is he disregarding orders? Is he armed? Are there others with him? "And then once I get the condition that they're compliant," Peel said, "then it kind of turns back into a traffic view."
But don't think that's when it gets easy. Potential killers are still out there, and most of them probably don't even realize it. Police officers will tell you that close calls with oncoming traffic are a constant worry, and some are closer than others.
Last November a Lexington officer inside his cruiser went to the hospital after a van slammed into him while he was working a non-injury accident. That same month a state trooper pulled over to help the drivers of a car and semi that collided, only to have his own vehicle rear-ended.
The law is clear. Drivers approaching an emergency vehicle with lights flashing are required to yield the right-of-way by moving out of the closest lane. If that's not possible, drivers must slow down to a safe speed based on conditions. It's a law designed to protect those who are there to protect you. "But I can't do that at the same time I'm watching oncoming traffic," Peel said, "so it gets to be a real shuffle."
Peel says policing traffic can sometimes feel like a thankless job when most everyone you encounter at work is not happy to see you, but he and his fellow officers are well-motivated. "I have a brother that was involved in a serious traffic collision, and it pretty much changed my entire family's life," Peel said, "Just kind of, I guess take it personal after that."
So the next time you see those flashing lights ahead of you, make some room, and let those on the side of the road get to work. "Basically our office is on that white line right there," Peel said.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, of the 64 traffic-related deaths among officers last year, 11 were struck and killed while outside of their vehicles.
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