NC Highway Patrol averages 7 wrecks a week

May 20, 2010 2:35:26 PM PDT
State records obtained by ABC11 show North Carolina Highway Patrol troopers were involved in an average of seven motor vehicle crashes a week in 2009. That's basically one a day for the entire year.

The statistic is a 44 percent increase over the year before. The accidents ranged from fender-benders to fatal crashes, and often taxpayers had to pay when the officer was at fault.

While the number of accidents sounds extremely high, Highway Patrol officials say the statistics have to be put in context.

"Yes we do have collisions. I am not going to sit here and say that we don't, but you also have to put into context the type of work that we do - we do drive for a business," explained NC Highway Patrol Sergeant Jeff Gordon to ABC11 investigative reporter Steve Daniels.

Gordon says the Highway Patrol has 1,700 troopers who drove 43 million miles in 2009.

"Troopers drive up to 12 hours a day," said Gordon. "The probability of you getting into a motor vehicle collision are probably going to be higher than somebody who is driving to work commuting."

Rain, snow and ice - troopers have to drive in bad weather when the rest of us can stay home.

"The majority of our wrecks were unpreventable," said Gordon.

But while 70 percent of the time an accident was classified as "non-preventable," nearly 30 percent of the time investigators found the trooper could have avoided the accident.

Driver Ariel Davis is part of those statistics. In September, 2009, she lost control of her car and crashed into the median on Interstate 40 in Durham County.

After the accident, her Toyota Yaris was left partly in the left lane and traffic was driving around it. Then, she says she saw a car coming right toward her.

"When I looked over my shoulder and seen it coming at me, I was like 'Oh wow!' I just jumped out the car and jumped on the barrier," she recalled. "I'm just thankful that I was okay - that we made it out."

Davis says she did not know it was a Highway Patrol car until she saw Trooper Jeffrey Miller's cruiser wrecked in the woods.

"When he struck my vehicle, it was something out of an action movie. He spun at least three times. The speed was so intense it just flew him ... he flew to the trees," said Davis.

Davis says she spoke with Miller after the accident.

"'By the time I seen your vehicle it was too late,'" Davis said Miller told her. "'I had already struck it. Glad you're okay and I'll be fine.'"

"He apologized his reaction was too late by the time he noticed my vehicle," she continued.

Davis is now suing the NC Highway Patrol for the cost to repair her car and emotional distress.

"For the life of me, I can't understand why he - of all people - struck my car. Other drivers were very defensive and paying attention," she said. "I really feel like the accident could have been prevented."

In a court filing, the North Carolina Attorney General's office admits Trooper Miller crashed into Davis's car, but denies the officer was negligent.

During our investigation, ABC11 discovered the Highway Patrol paid out 703,000 taxpayer dollars in 2008 and 2009 to people involved in collisions that were caused by troopers. During that same time, another 300,000 taxpayer dollars were spent to replace 15 cruisers that were totaled in wrecks where a trooper was found to be at fault. Last year, three people were killed in crashes with state troopers. One of those people was being chased; the other two were innocent drivers.

Troopers do occasionally crash their cars when they're involved in a chase. State records show troopers crashed 31 vehicles during chases in 2009. That happened in 7.7 percent of all chases.

The Highway Patrol says it's committed to safety and officers spend hours training to avoid collisions at the department's training track in Raleigh.

"The whole goal here is to teach our troopers not exceed their driving ability," said Gordon. "The last thing we want to happen is a trooper getting involved in a collision that involves a death of his own, himself, or an innocent bystander."

Troopers who have a history of getting into collisions have to go back the training track.

"We have a check and balances system within our organization that if we have a trooper who has a chronic history of driving behavior," Gordon explained. "He is brought back here and remediated and then we try to correct that and try to teach him the proper driving techniques."

Troopers also have a large amount of equipment in their cars ranging from radios to laptop computers. ABC11 asked if that is a distraction that could play a role in accidents. The Highway Patrol told us it does not know of any crashes involving a trooper who was distracted by a laptop computer.

On Thursday, Governor Bev Perdue released a statement in response to ABC11's investigation.

"The Highway Patrol drives millions of miles every year doing their jobs and accidents are inevitable," Perdue said. "The Patrol must continue to train their officers on how to drive safely - not only to protect themselves, but to protect the public as well."

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