It used to be that slow and steady won the race for the tortoise, but one Mt. Pleasant speeder proved last week that 141 mph is just fast enough to deter the police, giving the hare at least one victory. While monitoring traffic on the interstate, an officer clocked the car going more than 70 miles over the speed limit and let the driver go.
The argument made by Mt. Pleasant police to the Post and Courier was that it would’ve been too dangerous to pursue the speeder. As it turns out, that argument stands on a mountain of precedent.
At least one person dies every day in America because of a police pursuit, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While it is most often the person being chased or someone in the car, that’s not always the case. Since 1982, when the NHTSA began monitoring pursuit statistics, 2,114 people who were not involved in the chase have died. That’s more than 27 percent of fatalities.
Every police department has a set of standards involving pursuits. In Mt. Pleasant, officers are prohibited from pursuing drivers for minor traffic violations, including most traffic offenses except driving under the influence and reckless driving. While more than 70 miles over the speed limit could be considered reckless, there are other factors to be considered by the officer and their supervisor before starting a chase.
“The major factor is if this person is allowed to flee, is their ability to flee creating more of a danger than the pursuit itself?” says Lt. Amy McCarthy, public information officer for the Mt. Pleasant police.
Pursuits are allowed if the suspect is avoiding arrest for an alleged felony or misdemeanor that would require arrest and if evidence suggests the suspect would present a grave or serious threat if not pursued, similar to a recent chase the department was involved in following the alleged armed robbery of an Isle of Palms gas station. Weather, traffic, and the condition of the patrol car and the road itself also factor into the decision.
The police department reviews every pursuit to make sure the officer followed policy, McCarthy says.
The City of Charleston has similar policies but prevents officers from initiating a chase until they speak with a supervisor. That stipulation followed a Sept. 2005 accident that left an MUSC student in critical condition after a man officers were pursuing crashed into her car on James Island.
The Highway Patrol chased a woman last month after she was caught speeding more than 100 miles per hour down Interstate 26, according to the Post and Courier. The chase went from Summerville to the 526 interchange as she brushed her hair and talked on her cellphone. The driver eventually turned back toward Summerville and was arrested after her car collided with a patrol car.
While only two fatalities were reported in South Carolina due to police chases in 2005, the state averages about seven fatalities a year. This year has already bested last year’s numbers.
In July, a 16-year-old died trying to outrun police in Orangeburg. Later that month, a Greenville man was killed when a suspect in a police chase crashed into his car. Moments before, the suspect hit a van full of senior citizens, injuring 10. In August, a Berkeley County man died while trying to evade police following a hit and run. In September, a passenger in a vehicle chased by a Sumter deputy was ejected from the car in an accident and pronounced dead at the scene. And last month, a Seneca man died after crashing into a tree following a brief pursuit by officers who clocked him going 77 in a 35-miles-per-hour zone.
While many of these fatalities and others like them are linked to erratic driving by the suspects, police departments set pursuit policies not only to prevent a suspect from causing injury or death, but to keep the officers from endangering lives.
In his 2005 book Blink — The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell notes that high-speed chases can send police officers into a high state of arousal that impairs them. James Fyfe, a NYPD trainer, noted in Blink that three of the major race riots in the country over the last 25 years have followed cops’ questionable practices following a police chase.
Gladwell also spoke with Bob Martin, a former LAPD officer, on the psychology of a chase.
“Your adrenaline and heart start pumping like crazy,” Martin told Gladwell. “It’s almost like a runner’s high. It’s a very euphoric kind of thing. You lose perspective. You get wrapped up in the chase. There’s that old saying, ‘a dog in the hunt doesn’t stop to scratch its fleas.’ If you’ve ever listened to a tape of an officer broadcasting in the midst of pursuit, you can hear it in the voice. They almost yell. …
“I remember my first pursuit. I was only a couple months out of the academy. It was through a residential neighborhood. A couple of times we even went airborne. Finally we captured him. I went back to the car to radio in and say we were okay, and I couldn’t even pick up the radio, I was shaking so badly.”
Police training and pursuit policies like those in place locally are designed to keep officers from retreating to the lizard-like part of the brain that too narrowly focuses on the chase, says Robin Bowers, a psychology professor at the College of Charleston. Instructing officers to consider outside conditions like weather and traffic before beginning a chase drains some of the adrenaline from the hunt.
“It’s sort of like breathing 10 times before doing something,” Bowers says. “You’re bringing forth foresight and that tends to cause restraint.”
There haven’t been any leads on the speed demon on 526, but other drivers that the police haven’t pursued have been apprehended later using video surveillance equipment installed in some police cruisers, McCarthy says. So, technology is helping the tortoise win again, safely.