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Deaths of 5 CHP officers prompt plea from Schwarzenegger for motorists to be careful

June 28, 2010 |  5:01 pm

The deaths of five officers in the line of duty – including two who died in separate accidents Sunday – have shaken the California Highway Patrol and again raised questions about safety procedures when officers stop cars on the freeway.

Officials said they can’t recall this many officers dying in such a short period. Three were killed in accidents on freeway or highway shoulders, where they were struck by oncoming cars.

CHP officials and traffic experts said the deaths are just the latest reminder of how dangerous the job of CHP officers is – particularly when they are on the side of a freeway with no barriers or protection against fast-moving cars.

California and other states have been grappling for years with improving safety for highway patrol officers, but officials said this string of accidents shows that only so much protection is available to officers.

”The bottom line is you are standing on the highway and you are doing a very dangerous job. Sometimes on the highway an officer is in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said D.O. “Spike” Helmick, retired California Highway Patrol commissioner. ”Any officer’s death is a devastating experience for everyone who has worn the uniform.”

California has imposed several safety improvements in recent years designed to better protect CHP officers during freeway stops. In 2007, the state adopted a “move over” law requiring motorists to either shift to the left or slow down when they see an emergency vehicle stopped at the side of a highway.

The CHP has also improved the visibility of CHP vehicles and the officers themselves. Decades ago, the CHP became one of the first agencies in the country to require officers to approach cars from the passenger side rather than the driver side, keeping them away from speeding cars.

Helmick, who worked for the CHP for more than three decades, said studies of fatal accidents have found that the age and experience of the officer is not a factor. If anything, he and others said the accidents underscore the need for drivers to be more careful.

“It’s very frustrating. The officers are doing everything they’re supposed to be doing,” said Jon Hamm, CEO of the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen.“You don’t know what’s going on, and you have no explanation.You start looking to see if there’s anything common among these accidents -- is there anything we can change?”

CHP statistics show that two to four officers are killed in most years. 

The most CHP fatalities in one year came in 1964, when eight officers were killed -- five in traffic accidents and three run over by vehicles. The last time there was a rash of CHP deaths was 2005, when six officers died over a five-month period.

Those deaths prompted an emergency review of procedures, including how CHP officers pull cars over during traffic stops. No such review has yet been ordered this year. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday said the deaths are a reminder of the need for motorists to be careful when they see CHP officers pulled over on freeways and highways.

“It has been a difficult time for our law enforcement family and the state of California, losing five of our highway patrol officers since May,” Schwarzenegger said. “Each has been a terrible loss for our state, and together they underscore what a dangerous job our CHP officers face every day. We can all help prevent tragedies and save lives by giving our officers space when they are making a traffic stop.”

-- Sam Allen and Richard Winton

Image: From CHP website