By on November 30, 2017

police chase

Have you ever watched those police chase compilation videos and noticed that the crème de la crème always seem to take place within the United States? That’s not a coincidence. American roadways are custom built for high-speed shenanigans and culture has fetishized the concept of “the getaway.” Toss in local law enforcement agencies with vehicles fast and bulky enough to mix it up with speeding perps and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a old fashioned police chase.

That isn’t to say other countries don’t have pursuits, because they do. However, the volume isn’t always turned up to eleven and, more importantly, they typically aren’t televised. The opposite is true in the U.S. — especially in America’s car chase capital of Los Angeles, where crews are always at the ready to set out in the news chopper to get coverage.

It may be an unhealthy obsession. After all, we know the odds of the criminal getting away are infinitesimally small and are well aware of the incredible danger the public is placed in anytime a new chase kicks off. It’s one of the primary reasons we watch them: satisfying and legitimate drama is a guarantee. 

However, The New Yorker released a video this week that suggested America’s obsession with car chases might be an unhealthy one.

 

Live police pursuits had a following long before OJ Simpson cruised down the Santa Monica Freeway in June 1994. But that event ultimately brought the phenomenon global attention. Around 95 million Americans watched the football icon slowly drive his white Ford Bronco in front of a mass of squad cars. Thanks to Juice, I can now expect to see live coverage anytime some Los Angelean decides to get involved with vehicular carnage — regardless of what part of the country I’m living in.

While it’s a great way to get your bloodsport fix, outlets have claimed police chases have resulted in thousands of deaths over the last few decades. According to The New Yorker, over 13,000 people have died as a result of police chases since 1979. Depending on who you ask, about half of that number represents innocent bystanders.

Where do we point the finger? Well, the above video seems to saddle the media with the largest share of the blame. But that’s not entirely fair, considering they aren’t the ones orchestrating these chases. We could fault the police, especially considering most of these incidents begin as minor traffic violations or misdemeanors before they spin out of control. But cops can’t automatically know that someone fleeing the scene hasn’t done more than simply run a stop sign and panic. Hitting the gas when being asked to pull over is fairly suspicious behavior, after all.

With over a third of all pursuits resulting in a crash, and most chases stemming from mundane crimes, something needs to be done. In March of 2015, 60-year-old federal employee Charlie Viverette was killed near Washington, D.C., by a driver police chased because his headlights were off. “The police shouldn’t have been chasing him. That was a big crowded street,” said Evelyn Viverette, the victim’s mother. “He wouldn’t have hit my son if the police hadn’t been chasing him.”

However, trying to evade the police is about as suspicious as behavior gets and, if the alternative is to simply not chase suspects, there would be little to no incentive to pull over. As pickles go, this one is a doozy.

Ideally, everyone would just exercise good judgement — suspects wouldn’t run when faced with a minor crime and officers wouldn’t give chase unless a fleeing suspect was a clear danger to the public. But that’s not entirely practical when both parties are making split decisions with limited information as their bodies pump themselves full of adrenaline.

So that just leaves us, the television audience. Does our watching these televised chases fan the flames of chaos? I’m not so sure. It’s doubtful that anyone sane leaves the house thinking they’ll get into a high-speed pursuit based entirely on how likely people will see them on TV. It might not even matter. Americans love a good police chase and a reminder of the inherent dangers isn’t likely to change that. That’s what made us want to watch in the first place.

“It’s a cultural phenomenon. We can’t take our eyes of this immoral behavior!” Dan Neil, an automotive columnist with the Wall Street Journal, tried to explain in an interview with the BBC. “We all know the outcome — he’s going to get caught. The odds are a million to one. And yet still, everyone gathers round the TV. We want to see the finale… the coup de grace.”

“It appeals to the American sense of rough justice,” Neil continued. “There’s a moment when everyone wants the bad guys to get their comeuppance.”

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31 Comments on “How Dangerous Is America’s Obsession With High Speed Car Chases?...”


  • avatar

    The chases are going to happen whether there’s a helicopter covering it or not. The responsibility lies with the police in determining when the costs of giving chase are too high.

    The guy with no lights could’ve been caught with a note of the make and license plate on the vehicle, and putting out an APB or whatever they call it now. Catch him later without a dangerous chase.

  • avatar
    JimC2

    “the odds of the criminal getting away are infinitesimally small”

    Yep. If you don’t get away in the first minute or two, by taking a couple of lucky turns and losing the tail, then you’re not going to get away. Once the apparatus is spooled up then they’re going to catch you because they’re good at it. The cops get a lot more practice catching people than individuals get practice in getting away from the cops.

    A lot of “high speed” chase footage isn’t really high speed.

    Last, but not least, thank you for not using the non-phrase “at a high rate of speed.” Thank you, thank you, thank you. For the TTAC Best & Brightest, if you don’t understand what I mean then look up “rate of speed” on Urban Dictionary and read what it means when you say that. ;)

  • avatar
    dal20402

    “However, trying to evade the police is about as suspicious as behavior gets and, if the alternative is to simply not chase suspects, there would be little to no incentive to pull over.”

    Not at all true in an era of radios, social media, and ubiquitous security cameras.

    The vast majority of the time, the suspect can be located reasonably easily. That’s why more and more departments are sensibly putting the brakes on chases, except of the very most dangerous criminals.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    My father’s advice upon me getting my license at 16: “You can’t outrun a radio.”

    I proved this the hard way a few years later.

    • 0 avatar
      cognoscenti

      Except when there is no one close enough to respond. Over a decade ago, a much younger and more foolish me decided to run from the cops while on a sport bike. A couple of vivid recollections I have of my thoughts during that chase:
      1. “Damn, almost all of the distance between me and the cruiser were put on in the first mile.” The difference between the top speed of your basic 600cc bike and a cruiser is not as great as one might assume. Sure, the distance was increasing, but not fast enough.
      2. “This is taking waaaay too long. If there is another unit up the road that can respond to a radio call, I am toast!” Same reason as #1.
      3. “Wow, passing that 18-wheeler in the next lane over at 10,500 RPM and 160 MPH sounded AWESOME!” Older me says to younger me, “You could have died or worse, been paralyzed for the rest of your life if that truck came into your lane and you crashed.”
      I got away, but swore to myself if I ever got in that position again, I’d just pull over and take my lumps. It’s just not worth it, people.

      • 0 avatar
        JimC2

        “almost all of the distance between me and the cruiser were put on in the first mile”

        And that’s what I mean that success or failure is usually sealed in the first minute or two of the chase.

    • 0 avatar
      Nick_515

      SCE, we’re going to need to hear the details :)

      • 0 avatar
        SCE to AUX

        Around 1983-ish, I owned a 74 Fiat 128SL coupe that handled quite well (at least in my 20-year-old mind).

        There is a heavily wooded, curvy road near my house that I knew with my eyes closed. Google Maps tells me it is 1.4 miles long, and normally requires 3 minutes to cover the distance (average 28 mph). My buddies and I had routinely attempted to see how many multiples of the 25 mph speed limit we could achieve on one straight section, which also required heaving braking at the end to not fly off into the woods. I held the record at 3x +8, or 83 mph. The entire length of this road is downhill if you start where I did.

        One dark night, I turned onto the top of this road, pretty sure that the van behind me was a police vehicle. Instead of driving normally, I reasoned that I could have some fun and speed away from him, and my little car could simply out-handle the ungainly full-size Dodge van and scamper away. (I now appreciate the term ‘temporary insanity’).

        By the time he rounded the first curve, his pursuit lights were on, but I continued to put distance between us. I even had a special switch to disable my brake lights, and I used it.

        But this road has a stop sign at the end, and no through side roads to escape into. I probably reached the end in half the normal time, and expected that my only decision would be to run the stop sign at the end to find an escape onto an adjoining road.

        Instead, I was faced with two police cruisers waiting for me there. Within a few seconds, I had a life-changing choice to make in my panicked mind – do I run past them, or stop and admit failure?

        I chose to stop, re-enabling my brake lights as I did so. The police van arrived seconds later, with its driver screaming about how he almost wrecked while trying to catch me. “Get out of the car; hands on the roof!!” was the chilling phrase I heard, and I made up a story about just being out to try my suspension repairs.

        Ironically, because they couldn’t actually clock me, I was charged with reckless driving* and assessed 2 points to my license, and a fine. I was not drinking, nor did I have any contraband. The episode passed, and I learned my lesson.

        But it always amazed me that the police could summon two squad cars to stop me in such a short time. Even if they hadn’t, I’m certain they already had my plate and car description, so my foolish actions would still have had repercussions. My kids don’t know the story.

        *Fast-forward to 2009, and I make a hasty sweeping left turn through a yellow/red light, squealing tires slightly. The police pull me over in seconds and charge me with… reckless driving. As I’m waiting to sign the ticket, my 9-year-old son states: “Dad, it’s a good thing we have the police around to catch people like you.”

  • avatar
    spamvw

    I guess it’s time for me to watch some Swedish Ghostrider videos.

    We are not the only country who runs from the the cops. (and some folks get away).

    BTW Al Cowlings drove the Bronco during the Low Speed Chase.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Throughout most of Canada, police agencies won’t engage in full on pursuits for fear of carnage. Which is funny because many police fleet managers will insist on only buying “pursuit rated” police cars. Since they don’t pursue, they could probably make due with Focuses. Maybe not the Focus because the DDCT clutches will fail under meter maid duty, but perhaps Corollas.

    While cops like to be heroes and people like the drama of car chases, it’s very rarely worth the risk. Simply being “suspicious” isn’t a reason for people to die.

    • 0 avatar
      brandloyalty

      And yet it seems there are regular news reports in Canada of innocent parties being impacted by high speed chases.

      Even that may be conservative. Do you believe it every time the police say the fugitive crashed into a bystander moments after the police called off the chase?

  • avatar
    Heino

    Live in Alexandria VA and BIL is a cop in next door Arlington County. Chases here are very rare because of heavy traffic and pedestrians. Both jurisdictions get courtesy use of the Fairfax County police and the US Park Service Police helicopters. The evaders also like to take advantage of the proximity of the DC/VA/MD lines.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      Huh, surprised they don’t have some sort of agreement where they can chase offenders across the line and while they might not be able to make an arrest could at least detain the suspect until local authorities arrive.

      • 0 avatar
        Heino

        The cops are allowed a mile or so. They do inform the other jurisdiction of their intent and would appreciate assistance. The strange thing about the Potomac river for northern VA is that most of it belongs to MD and DC border wise. BIL found a body in the water at DCA (Arlington Co. VA) and had to call DC Police.

  • avatar
    bullnuke

    I can’t agree with the woman on the video. There will always be “police chases” regardless of real-time video. Bad guys/nervous folks/etc. are still going to run to get away regardless – I seriously doubt that more than a very, very small minority of ’em give even a small thought to the fame of being on video while being chased across four counties. Here in less-populated Western Ohio we have many police/OHP/county sheriff chases and I usually see two to three a week on the local news websites from cop dash-cam video. I’ve not seen one live on TV (maybe Cincinnati TV shows ’em but I dunno). Big cities, not only LA, have wall-to-wall coverage of chases as the news outlets can afford helos to follow along – Phoenix, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Pittsburgh, and others do it also. I believe the problem might be elsewhere – the guys doing the chasing. I listen to the in-car audio for some of the chases and some of the LEO’s really love it, really get into it. I also note that many chases have ridiculous number of cop cars in the chase, sometimes 10 or more in addition to the lead cop directly behind the “bad guy”. It seems almost that everyone wants to get into the act and do all the “high-fives” at the end rather similar to a group of hunters meeting back at the camp after the trophy buck is downed even if the trophy buck is just a speeder.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    I disagree with the premise. I think the police should play the odds. I don’t know what they are btw, but basically if the frequency with which a runner turns out to be a kid who panicked outweighs the number of times it’s a real bad guy, then as a rule they probably shouldn’t chase people. I wear my seatbelt every time I drive even though there is a chance that I could have been “thrown clear” of the wreck because in the long run statistics don’t lie. If it turns out that runners usually are real bad guys then I guess the cops should chase them.

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      Cases of “kid who panicked” are usually Darwin’s principles at work. I know that’s a cold thing to say and I refuse to make any apologies for saying it. Autodom has other examples of Darwin: seat belt non-use, most single vehicle accidents…

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      The overall risks for other drivers are the problem since your involving a big chunk of the public at large.

      I know I’d have a tough time swallowing that pill if I got a knock at the door saying a family member was killed as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time while a perp was running from a cop and had to suck it up in the name of justice.

      IIRC this became a big issue after a mother in California lost all three of her children on a school bus. The police were chasing a suburban as I recall and it barreled into the school bus injuring a number of children and at the very least killing all of her kids.

      That said in maybe the most extreme cases like a mass shooter, domestic terrorist or some other sort where the bad guy getting away opens the door for many more people dying but say for an armed robber that killed a few people its still less dangerous to call off the chase.

      And If it’s unacceptable even for that lone gunman to run then collectively we need to look at a technological solution along the lines of vehicles emitting a continuous signal that allows them to be tracked and remotely disabled by the police.

  • avatar
    EBFlex

    “and are well aware of the incredible danger the public is placed in anytime a new chase kicks off.”

    Ok, relax. Let’s not drown ourselves in hyperbole.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Autonomous car operation can’t come soon enough.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    The problem here is that the evaders are often inexperienced kids in stolen cars, and they sometimes end up crashing and harming people and property even after the chase is called off.

    I read a good article in Car and Driver many years ago where the author accompanied South African police and got to witness a chase of a carjacker. The cop sitting shotgun was an ex-military shooter and used a harness to hang out the window and take the carjacker out with an automatic rifle.

    Now that’s a worthwhile car chase. Endangering innocent people just to put someone in a cell overnight and slap their wrists on the way out is certainly not worth it.

  • avatar
    dividebytube

    The local suburban police force – all two patrol cars, er CUVs – have a no chase policy. Of course the streets are narrow, passing is impossible in most situations, and there is a high number of pedestrians. It’s a good rule for the area.

    I managed to outrun a cop car out in the country – back in 1987ish – while driving a 1968 Firebird at night. It was a combination of luck and getting that initial jump away from the cop, who was heading the other direction and had to turn around. He made the mistake of hitting his blue-n-reds before turning around which gave me a lot of warning that I was about to be pulled over. Also Dodge Diplomat.

  • avatar
    ryanwm80

    Every car chase is better when it’s covered by Stu Mundel – he’s what every announcer should sound like – actively identifying streets or freeways, directions of travel, the next possible freeway interchange, the original want that prompted the ground units, who’s pursuing (CHP, LAPD, LBPD, etc.) and occasionally adds his own commentary and personal observations.

  • avatar
    lon888

    Here in OKC I’ve seen an alarming number of very unnecessary police chases arising out of very minor offenses. Recently our local fuzz chased down some idiot who shoplifted like 20 bucks worth of snacks from a convenience store. The fools zipped at over 100mph through residential streets. They’re damn lucky they didn’t kill someone, especially a little kid. The police need greater accountability for acts such as this.


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