Traffic collisions


Top Takeaways

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:

  • Self-reporting, which enables those involved in a collision to report their experience either at the police station, over the phone, or through an online form. 
  • The use of non-police car accident responders for collisions that do not involve physical injuries. Depending on the jurisdiction these responders might be authorized to conduct investigations and issue citations. 

The successful elements of these programs could achieve a significant shift of collision response duties to non-police service providers.

Traffic Collisions Consume Significant Police Time and Resources

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.  

The Traditional Police Response

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. 

  1.  911 Call: The call taker identifies the location of the collision and seeks other pertinent information from the caller to determine whether the incident requires police, firefighters/EMS, or both. 
  2. Initial Response: Once on scene, officers quickly assess the need for emergency medical care, facilitate medical response, and take control of the scene. 
  3. Investigation and Documentation: While tending to the injured is the most time-sensitive challenge in responding to a collision, it is not necessarily the most time-consuming.  After stabilizing an accident scene, the responder’s work often has just begun. These additional actions typically are required:
  • Document the scene of the collision using photographs and other equipment as necessary. Depending on the nature of the collision, this could take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours or days.
  • Clear the roadway so that traffic flow can resume. Uncleared accident scenes often cause additional collisions as other vehicles attempt to get around the blockage, or inattentive drivers don’t realize the flow of traffic has stopped and create chain reaction rear-end collisions.
  • Identify the drivers, passengers, and witnesses.
  • Facilitate the exchange of information among involved parties.
  • Assess which parties are “at fault” in the accident, issue citations for non-criminal driving infractions, and in some cases make arrests for criminal infractions.
  • If necessary, create a visual reconstruction of the accident scene, including measurements, and accurate descriptions of roadway, weather, and light conditions. Depending on the technological resources of the police department, creating the visual reconstruction of the accident can take hours, days, or weeks.2

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.

Alternative Responses

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.

Alternative Responders

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. 

Full Alternative Response: Putting the Pieces Together

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:

  • Eligibility for filing online crash reports should be based on personal injury and mobility of the vehicle (whether it can be driven) rather than the dollar value of damages, which is more difficult to assess and often too restrictive in practice.  
  • If resources permit, alternative response should be available 24/7. 
  • Non-police responders should have the authority to investigate accidents and then issue citations based on the results of these investigations. 

Additional Resources

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  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2022, June) Traffic Safety Facts Annual Report, June 2022. Retrieved October 20, 2022, from
  2. Most medium to large police agencies, particularly state police, have officers with enhanced training in accident reconstruction using very sophisticated tools and software. Sometimes these officers are also utilized for complex crime scenes.
  3. Taniguchi, Travis & Salvatore, Christopher. (2015, June). Citizen Perceptions of Online Crime Reporting Systems. Police Chief Magazine. June. 48-52.
  4. New York State. (n.d.). How to file a motorist accident report. New York DMV. Retrieved October 24, 2022, from
  5. Los Angeles Police Department. (n.d.). File A Police Report - LAPD Online. Los Angeles Police Department. Retrieved October 24, 2022, from
  6. City of San Diego. (n.d.). File a Police Report. Retrieved October 24, 2022, from
  7. Dallas Police Department. (n.d.). Dallas Online Reporting System. Dallas Police Department. Retrieved October 24, 2022, from
  8. San Jose Police Department. (n.d.). Report Crimes / Incidents Online. Retrieved October 24, 2022, from
  9. Wilmington Police. (n.d.). Traffic. City of Wilmington, NC. Retrieved October 24, 2022, from
  10. McGee, Kendall. (2021, March 24). WPD Civilian Crash Investigators could gain power to write certain traffic citations under proposed bill. WECT News. Retrieved October 27, 2022, from