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Less Light is More Warning

There are about 18,500 city, county, state, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. That means there are that many ways to set up a lightbar. Somewhere in the transition from halogen and strobe lights to LEDs, we have forgotten the lessons of the past. Those lessons came from the intense efforts in the early-2000s to reduce officer fatalities in and around their police vehicles. In spite of high-profile ambushes and gunfire, these vehicle-related fatalities remain the clear number-one cause of on-duty deaths.

The exact reasons people crash into roadside police vehicles remains under debate. The person drives where they look and they are looking at all those bright lights, i.e., the moth to the flame. The driver is partially blinded by the red, blue or white rear facing lights. The impaired driver sees the parked police vehicle, knows better than to pass it, so pulls into that driving lane.

One of the biggest efforts to reduce rear crashes with parked police vehicles was spear-headed by the IACP’s Law Enforcement Stops and Safety blue-ribbon panel of experts. One prong of their recommendations involved the color and the flash rate of the rear facing lights.

This was later confirmed by tests conducted by the Illinois State Police working with Governor’s State University. Their test protocol and results were published in two issues of

Police Fleet Manager

. See the website’s article archives. During the current transition from single-color LEDs to dual- or triple-color LEDs, it is time to put those lessons from officer fatalities back into practice.

The results involve flash rates, and more controversially, rear LED colors. Slower flash rates on parked police vehicles send a visual warning to drivers, but also say, “Nothing happening here, move along.” Faster flash rates send the message, “Serious police action, get out of the way.” For the most part, law enforcement is using this flash rate logic. Slide One while parked is a slow-rate, tick-tock pattern. Slide Two and Slide Three are progressively more aggressive.

Where we seem to have forgotten the past, or the lessons were not passed on, are the colors of rear facing lights. At night, white light blinds oncoming drivers. Don’t use any white to the rear, period. That definitely includes white LEDs inside clear backup light lenses.

Red and blue to the rear, while necessary to identify the law enforcement vehicle, have three strikes against them. First, these two colors have proven to blind and/or distract oncoming drivers. Especially at night, amber is less distracting and less disruptive, while still sending a “pay attention, something is happening here” signal.

Second, these two colors have a relatively short warning range. Red is more visible during the day. Blue is more visible during the night. However, red and blue are not visible as far away as amber. The motorist sees amber sooner, which allows the driver to make evasive and/or avoidance actions sooner.

Third, in tests conducted by the Florida Highway Patrol, lots of red and blue lights together actually produce a white signal, the worst possible signal. Use only the minimum number of lights necessary, and clearly separate the red signal from the blue signal.

Amber is the most valid choice for the primary rear facing signal on the lightbar. It gives oncoming motorists the emergency signal at the farthest distances away, and is the least distracting at the nearest distances. We still want to show motorists that this is a police vehicle and not a highway vehicle. The answer is red and blue tips/edges on an otherwise fully amber rear-facing lightbar.

In the current effort to reduce officer fatalities Below 100, the fleet manager can’t make officers wear their seat belts, or wear their body armor, or make better driving decisions. But they can give them a vehicle they are less likely to be injured or killed in and around.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2016

Rating : 10.0

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