Police respond to thousands of traffic collisions every day. The laborious process of assessing, stabilizing, investigating, and documenting accidents consumes a significant amount of police time. Often, the police are providing no public safety benefit; they basically are working for the insurance companies by writing reports.
Several jurisdictions have experimented with alternative approaches that reduce the collisions-related burdens on police departments. These include:
The successful elements of these programs could achieve a significant shift of collision response duties to non-police service providers.
There are approximately 6 million traffic collisions per year in the United States, the majority of which (3.8 million) do not result in an injury.1 Given this high volume, it is not surprising that traffic collisions generate a huge number of 911 calls and, in turn, consume significant time and resources on the part of police, who typically are dispatched to respond. Among the jurisdictions we examined, collision-related issues accounted for 4% to 8% of all calls for service – a big burden on law enforcement agencies, and one without any clear reason for an armed (and expensive) police responder having to be on scene.
Alternative methods of responding to traffic collisions can provide the essential service that the public needs and expects, while freeing up police to concentrate on public safety challenges more central to their mission and consistent with their capabilities.
Traffic collisions and moving violations entail very different challenges, and we address them separately. This paper focuses solely on collisions.
Before taking a look at the innovative strategies launched in several jurisdictions around the country, let’s first examine the traditional police response, which is comprised of three distinct phases: the 911 call, assessment and stabilization of the scene, and investigation and documentation.
Notice that only one of the actions listed above concerns law enforcement – the issuance of citations. Even this duty can be handled by non-police personnel, except in the relatively infrequent cases when someone must be brought into custody. Many jurisdictions use personnel other than police officers for code enforcement, and there is no reason traffic collisions should be different.
Recognizing that there are more resource-efficient ways to respond to traffic collisions, many jurisdictions are utilizing alternative approaches. Below, we review the most promising.
Seven of the ten largest cities in the country (Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose) are experimenting with some form of traffic collision self-reporting. Although police still respond to traffic collisions when the caller requests an in-person response, these self-reporting initiatives enable those involved in an accident to report their experience either at the police station, over the phone, or through an online form. Early findings suggest that this option can reduce calls for service for car collisions.3
The details of these programs vary by city. Chicago doesn’t yet have an online collision reporting system but allows reports to be taken in the station by desk officers. Philadelphia takes full reports over the phone. In New York, online reports are taken by the Department of Motor Vehicles.4
Online forms for Los Angeles5, San Diego6, Dallas7 and San Jose8 are accessible through each city’s police department website, but with differing options for the types of motor vehicle collisions that can be reported. Los Angeles offers two selections – hit and run and vehicle collisions (each including a definition of the term and an example) – while San Diego allows self-reporting only for hit and run collisions (not minor, non-injury crashes). San Jose has the most exhaustive program, providing options for non-injury hit and run accidents, non-injury single vehicle property damage only traffic collisions, and non-injury traffic collisions.
Most of these systems have a tight limitation on eligibility based on the monetary value of damages, usually $1,000. In addition to requiring self-reporters to make estimates that are presumably inexpert and imprecise, this limit also excludes many accidents entirely.
Several municipalities supplement the work of patrol officers with alternative, non-police responders. These responders are unarmed, tend to respond to collisions that do not involve physical injuries, and – depending on the jurisdiction – can be authorized to conduct investigations and issue citations.
For example, in 2007 Fayetteville, North Carolina developed a program to dispatch Civilian Crash Investigators (CCIs) to accidents. CCIs wear special uniforms and drive marked vehicles, but do not carry weapons and do not have the authority to make arrests. CCIs are equipped with radios to call uniformed police officers should a crash require police assistance.
The following year, Wilmington, North Carolina launched its own CCI program, and now dispatches crash investigators to the scene of collisions instead of police officers.9 Each of Wilmington’s two CCIs averages 1,000 crash investigations each year. CCIs in Wilmington are unable to write citations, meaning that patrol officers still must be involved in responding to some collisions. In 2023 the program is expected to expand into Raleigh, Durham, and Greenville, North Carolina.
Neither program operates around the clock, so police still are dispatched during off hours. Jurisdictions should consider the relative costs of providing non-police, 24/7 response services.
No current program of which we are aware shifts traffic collision responsibilities fully to alternative responders and away from police, and yet the successful elements of the programs cited above, if combined and augmented, could achieve a complete shift to alternative response.
To be specific, the Fayetteville and Wilmington models show that unarmed first responders are fully capable of investigating collisions, assigning fault, and issuing citations. In Wilmington, 80% of non-injury calls already are eligible to be transferred from police to their non-law enforcement traffic collision response units.10 Expanding collision eligibility and increasing hours of operation would be natural next steps toward full alternative response.
Similarly, self-reporting programs show that many people are willing and able to complete their own reports. They may be pleased to do so in order to avoid the time taken up by police response. Participation could be improved and local administrative burdens relieved if self-reporting was available on a statewide basis, with a single, standardized reporting form. States should consider legislation to accomplish this.
As you consider options for your jurisdiction, we suggest several principles and considerations that can shape an ideal alternative response program: