Safety Service Patrol Perspective: What is Killing and Injuring Us? The ‘D’ DRIVERS.

Following the recent tragic news of the 63rd emergency responder ‘struck by’ line of duty death in the U.S. this message needs to be heard: ‘D’ DRIVERS ARE KILLING US! As emergency responders to roadway incidents we are all very familiar with the negative effects of ‘D’ ‘Drivers’. Since the inception of the National Traffic Incident Management certification course in 2012 we have discussed ‘D’ Drivers in TIMs courses nationwide. For those not familiar, the ‘D’ Drivers were classified initially as the drivers that roadway incident responders should be the most mindful of and looking out for. The ‘D’ Driver types were identified and listed as: ‘drunk’ ‘drugged’ ‘drowsy’ and ‘distracted.’ The origin of this discussion point does not matter as much as the message it sends since it is so easily understood and relatable to those who regularly respond to roadway crashes and incidents.

Since first being introduced other ‘D’ Driver types were identified and added into the discussion such as ‘dangerous’ ‘disgruntled’ ‘disrespectful’ and most recently ‘driverless’ as coined by national vehicle extrication expert and author Ron Moore when he spoke about the rise in autonomous vehicles in a recent “Talking TIMs” webinar sponsored by the FHWA.

This 2017 struck by incident was the result of a ‘D’ [in this case drowsy] driver. SSP unit was parked on the shoulder and the operator was out checking on an abandoned vehicle. The operator suffered a minor injury trying to escape being hit by his unit after it was struck by the other vehicle and pushed [over 25 feet] ending up overturning, severely injuring the passenger who was also asleep at the time. Note the distance from the edge line where the SSP unit was safely parked on a solid shoulder.
This 2017 struck by incident was the result of a ‘D’ [in this case drowsy] driver. SSP unit was parked on the shoulder and the operator was out checking on an abandoned vehicle. The operator suffered a minor injury trying to escape being hit by his unit after it was struck by the other vehicle and pushed [over 25 feet] ending up overturning, severely injuring the passenger who was also asleep at the time. Note the distance from the edge line where the SSP unit was safely parked on a solid shoulder.

Statistics show more than ever that distracted driving is quickly becoming more commonplace, and sadly under enforced. There are ‘Move Over’ laws on the books in every U.S. state and even with the laws and penalties for distracted and impaired driving increasing, roadway response personnel are continuing to be struck by, injured, and killed at an alarming rate. The number of response vehicles being struck and the associated cost of damage to them is staggering, and a majority of these incidents involve ‘D’ Drivers. The incidents caused by distracted driving are almost certainly under reported. There is a nationwide effort underway to more effectively gather the much needed data of responder/response vehicle struck by’s in order to bring more focus, attention, and much needed funding to combat this serious topic. No matter the cause of the distraction, whether it is texting, talking, or handling a mobile device, eating, reading, or even ‘in-vehicle’ distractions from passengers, the driver’s attention and focus is being taken away from the number one task at hand: To drive and operate the vehicle with FULL FOCUS and ATTENTION on the surroundings of the vehicle while in transit.

‘D’ Drivers from a statistical standpoint…

Distracted driving is dangerous, claiming 3,142 lives in 2019 according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA 2020). Approximately one-third of all traffic crash fatalities in the United States involve drunk drivers (with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher). In 2019, there were 10,142 people killed in these preventable crashes. In fact, on average over the 10-year period from 2010-2019, more than 10,000 people died every year in drunk-driving crashes (NHTSA 2020).

In 2020, research indicated drug prevalence is on the rise among drivers. NHTSA’s study of seriously or fatally injured road users at studied trauma centers suggested that the overall prevalence of alcohol, cannabinoids and opioids increased during the public health emergency compared to before. Between mid-March and mid-July 2020, almost two-thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana or opioids. The proportion of such drivers testing positive for opioids nearly doubled after mid-March 2020, as compared to the previous six months, while marijuana prevalence increased by about 50%. (Thomas et.al., 2020). The number of fatalities involving a drowsy driver was 697 or 1.9 percent of total fatalities in 2019 (NHTSA 2020).

For more than two decades, speeding has been involved in approximately one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities. In 2019, speeding was a contributing factor in 26% of all traffic fatalities. Speeding endangers everyone on the road: In 2019, speeding killed 9,478 people (NHTSA 2020).

These statistics give some insight into what ‘D’ Drivers bring to the roadways where all of us as responders are tasked with performing our duties. It is important as Safety Service Patrol/Roadway incident responders to practice, prepare, and train to recognize in our initial scene size-up the need for advance warning, temporary traffic control, requesting additional resources, and deployment of temporary traffic control devices. When considering the extra danger presented by ‘D’ Drivers there are other tactics and objectives that we should be working toward to achieve optimum safety for ourselves. These include the practice and training on of effective best practices such as advance warning, emergency/scene light shedding, and wearing high visibility apparel. Training on ‘Move it or work it’ scenarios where the early and safe relocation of vehicles, occupants, and responders away from the active travel lanes whenever possible is critical. This is a way that we can minimize our exposure from ‘D’ Drivers.

Aftermath of an impaired and speeding ‘D’ Driver that came upon a slow moving traffic queue from an earlier incident resulting in a rollover crash where the vehicle came to rest in the opposing lanes after crossing the median. Thankfully, no serious injuries resulted.
Aftermath of an impaired and speeding ‘D’ Driver that came upon a slow moving traffic queue from an earlier incident resulting in a rollover crash where the vehicle came to rest in the opposing lanes after crossing the median. Thankfully, no serious injuries resulted.

Another tactic that minimizes exposure from ‘D’ Drivers is to conduct pre-planning for incident locations that are known to be dangerous ‘trouble’ spots or that have a high frequency of response or call volumes occurring. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) advises “In order to reduce response time for traffic incidents, highway agencies, appropriate public safety agencies (law enforcement, fire and rescue, emergency communications, emergency medical, and other emergency management), and private sector responders (towing and recovery and hazardous materials contractors) should mutually plan for occurrences of traffic incidents along the major and heavily traveled highway and street system.” (MUTCD 6I.01 2009).

In this way the future responses can be made safer and more effective by having guidance in place that addresses considerations that each of the response agencies or disciplines may have in this location. Each agency should be aware of and be prepared for the other’s needs, limitations, and capabilities. This could mean anything from all response agencies being made aware of limited scene access, extended response times, or the lack of an area or resource to safely relocate vehicles. It may mean that due to the geographic location the incident will automatically dictate the need for additional resources capable of warning or diverting the traffic safely. Perhaps there is limited room to park the number of emergency vehicles and also accommodate sufficient traffic flow or that there is higher number of commercial or large vehicle traffic in the area. There are many reasons to justify the need for a location to be pre-planned to make response and clearance safer and more efficient. All of the considerations that a response agency would have should be addressed and planned for in the event of any incident type that could occur or has historically occurred in a location that is being pre-planned. This may mean the location could be designated as a ‘Hazard Response Location’ where early and proactive notifications to responders that may need to be utilized ( Towing and Recovery, DOT, etc.) are made along with the initial dispatch (PD, FD/EMS) for instance.

There are multiple modules that provide training, and information on these subjects for free to all roadway response disciplines on the Respondersafety Learning Network. Study and train on the modules related to this subject for more information on the subjects discussed here.

Move It or Work It
Blocking Procedures at Roadway Incidents
See and Be Seen: Emergency Lighting Awareness
The First 15 Minutes at Roadway Incidents

As always: Stay safe, Be prepared, and train like your life depends on it for the next incident and the ‘D’ Drivers that you will encounter on the roadway.

References

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA 2021). Retrieved from: Risky Driving

Thomas, F. D., Berning, A., Darrah, J., Graham, L., Blomberg, R., Griggs, C., Crandall, M., Schulman, C., Kozar, R., Neavyn, M., Cunningham, K., Ehsani, J., Fell, J., Whitehill, J., Babu, K., Lai, J., & Rayner, M. (2020, October).

Drug and Alcohol Prevalence in Seriously and Fatally Injured Road Users Before and During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (Report No. DOT HS 813 018). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) Retrieved from: Part 6 Temporary Traffic Control


About the author John M. Sullivan: John M. Sullivan is a Highway Response Supervisor 1 with the Tennessee Department of Transportation 'HELP' Unit serving Nashville and Middle Tennessee since 1999. Mr. Sullivan is also a Captain FF with the Pegram FD, and a TIMS, EVOC, Vehicle Extrication Instructor, and is a Committee Member for NFPA 1091 Standard for Traffic Incident Management Personnel Professional Qualifications. John has been married 22 years and he and his wife Teresa have a teenaged daughter.

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