REVIEW: Officers were not to blame
for the spate of serious accidents in 2003-04, a report says.
February 14, 2005
By MIKE KATAOKA / The Press-Enterprise
In the line of duty
Goodman, 48, was a 20-year CHP veteran and Medal of Valor recipient. On
June 3, 2004, Goodman was killed in Redlands after a Dodge Caravan
pulled into his path. The minivan driver is facing a charge of
misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.
Distel, 31, was killed in Riverside on Aug. 27, 2003 when a pickup truck
pulling a trailer turned in front of Distel's motorcycle. He had been a
CHP officer for six years. The truck driver pleaded guilty to
misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.
On Oct. 6, 2004, the eight-year CHP veteran was struck by a pickup truck
driver who pulled out of a driveway into the officer's path in Highland.
Schwingel, 37, was paralyzed from the waist down.
On May 25, 2004, the 15-year CHP veteran was on his parked motorcycle
along Interstate 15 in Corona when he was struck by a car. Holsome, 42,
lost his right leg in the accident.
On Oct. 26, 2004, the 17-year veteran was riding his CHP motorcycle to
work when spilled hydraulic fluid on the freeway in Ontario caused him
to lose control. Wood, 40, suffered a major head injury.
In his nine years as a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, Joe
Ramos has dodged everything from road debris to a bear.
That's what he's trained to do.
But there was nothing to prepare him and other riders assigned to the
San Bernardino CHP office for a devastating double blow in 2004.
One of their colleagues, James Goodman, was killed in June and another,
Steve Schwingel, was paralyzed from the waist down in October, both in
on-duty motorcycle crashes.
"Two serious crashes from the same office that close together is unheard
of," Ramos said.
The entire region was hard hit in 2004, with two other career-ending
injuries involving Inland CHP motorcycle officers.
Those accidents, plus another fatality in 2003, came under intense
scrutiny from a law-enforcement agency that takes pride in protecting
its elite 529-officer motorcycle corps, said Jim McLaughlin, chief of
the CHP's training division in Sacramento.
In each case, investigators concluded, the officer was blameless and it
was unlikely that different equipment, clothing or training would have
changed the outcome.
Ramos said Goodman was the best rider he had ever seen but even his
skills could not help him avoid a collision with a Dodge Caravan that
pulled into the officer's path.
The 12-member San Bernardino squad pays tribute to Goodman with plaques
and decals on their motorcycles. Officers acknowledge Schwingel and his
arduous rehabilitation by wearing bracelets engraved with his name.
Mainly they honor their fellow officers, Ramos said, by continuing to
CHP motorcycle officers accept the danger because their job is fun and
satisfying, Ramos said.
"The rewards outweigh the risks. The risks we train for," he said.
Major Injuries Rare
According to statistics, the string of serious CHP motorcycle accidents
in Riverside and San Bernardino last year, while alarming, was by far
the exception. Most officers walk away from crashes, reports show.
McLaughlin said his agency has one of the most rigorous motorcycle
training programs in the world - at least a third of the enrollees
"Riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous, but riding in an
enforcement capacity makes it even more dangerous," he said.
To minimize that risk, officers learn from the crashes.
"Motorcycle collisions get special handling," McLaughlin said. "They are
all reviewed by our practitioners, actual riders who are always asking,
'Is there a hole in our training program? Is there something that needs
to be strengthened?'"
Those questions came up in June after Goodman was killed and in July
after Officer Kevin Holsome's right leg was severed in Corona. Then,
Officer George Wood suffered major head injuries in Ontario a month
after Schwingel's crash.
"I can't say we've had any specific changes to our training program" as
a result of the Inland accidents, McLaughlin said. Nor has the CHP lost
confidence in how motorcycle officers are equipped and clothed, he said.
CHP motorcycle officers wear what is known as three-quarter face
helmets, which cover the head except for the face. They ride BMW bikes,
which have anti-lock brakes as a major safety feature and heated grips
Last year, 41 CHP motorcycle officers were involved in accidents,
matching the 2003 total and close to the average for each of the past
five years. Nine CHP officers were seriously hurt and one died in 2004's
Training Is Key
Doug Wolfe, an instructor at Michigan State University's police
motorcycle training program, said the leading cause of accidents is a
vehicle pulling in front of the motorcycle officer.
That's what happened in the two most recent Inland CHP motorcycle
A year before Goodman was killed, Officer Shannon Distel died in
Riverside after a pickup turned into his path.
Over the last 30 years, four other CHP motorcycle officers have been
killed on duty. Since the CHP was established in 1929, 79 motorcycle
officers have been killed but 51 of those fatalities occurred during the
first 27 years.
Those were the days before helmets, which were introduced in 1957 to
replace soft leather caps, and neither the equipment nor the training
was up to today's standards, McLaughlin said.
Experts across the country agree that training is the crucial element in
any law-enforcement program that uses motorcycles.
In terms of saving lives and preventing injury, "there's nothing that's
ever going to replace training," said Wolfe, whose program at Michigan
State has about a 40 percent failure rate.
Curt Coffi was a CHP motorcycle officer in West Los Angeles for four
years and escaped injury in three accidents.
"A lot of the training is collision avoidance, clutch control and
emergency braking," said Coffi, now an administrative officer in
Sacramento. "That definitely helps you a lot."
Ramos, the San Bernardino officer, said the two-week course also covers
how to assess road surfaces and avoid obstacles.
One of his more harrowing near misses occurred in the Cajon Pass when a
car hit a bear and spun out in front of him. Ramos said his training
kicked in and with careful braking, he avoided the car and the bear.
Ramos and the other driver were unhurt but the bear was killed, he said.
Wolfe and other police motorcycle-safety experts said they don't
recommend officers wear more protective clothing, such as the body armor
and full-face helmets motorcycle racers wear.
The advantage of a motorcycle, he said, is that officers can maneuver
through traffic to get to an accident or crime scene faster than a car.
But once off the motorcycle, the officer often has to act quickly and
sometimes has to deal with a combative or evasive person. In those
situations, too much protective gear would reduce movement and
flexibility, Wolfe said.
"If it becomes so cumbersome, you can't function as a police officer,"
Peter M. Van Dyke, director of Northwestern University Center for Public
Safety's police training division, said there is no national standard
for protective wear. Individual departments decide for themselves what's
best for their officers.
Even within a police agency, "it becomes a decision for the individual
officer," Van Dyke said. "How much is the extra protection worth versus
sweating his tail off?"
Tom Aveni, an instructor with the Police Policy Studies Council in
New Hampshire, said studies show that Kevlar vests worn under uniforms
to protect officers from gunfire also can minimize blunt-force trauma in
"They tend to disperse collision energy that may have ordinarily caused
massive chest injuries to the wearer," he said.
Reach Mike Kataoka at (951)
368-9411 or firstname.lastname@example.org