Roadside Near-Miss: Lessons Learned

How does a car disappear in an instant from the side of the highway?

By Guy Quaintance  |   Sep 21, 2016
Photo woodleywonderworks. NOTE: This photo does not depict the author or events of this column.

It’s been said that good judgment comes from bad experience and that good experience comes from bad judgment—as long as you survive it!

The reason it’s taken me so long to write this article is because the incident I will describe affected me so heavily. It fundamentally altered my sense of awareness at a traffic stop. Good tactics were already instilled in me by my agency through training. However, even the best tactics—absent a heightened sense of awareness—aren’t sufficient in a truly dangerous environment, as you will see.

My Experience

It was Sept. 10, 2010. I was on a police motorcycle on the interstate in the inside lane headed home from training. I was traveling at “approximately the speed limit” when a passenger car appeared out of nowhere and passed me on the right side like I was in reverse. It was moving so fast that it gave me a temporary sense of vertigo. I had to ask myself: “Did that really just happen?”

Why was he driving so fast? Where had he come from?

I spend a lot of time looking in my mirrors because I don’t like surprises. The idea that this person had managed to sneak up on me and pass me at such a high rate of speed made me angry, mostly at myself.

I accelerated to match the vehicle’s speed and initiated a traffic stop. As I moved to make contact with the driver, a K-9 officer from another agency in a pickup truck pulled in behind me. He stated something to the effect of, “I’m glad you caught up to him, because I couldn’t catch him.”

I felt a little better having a cover officer to back me up and thanked him for stopping. I then made contact with the driver and explained the reason for the stop. He told me that he hadn’t even seen me. I asked the driver to step out of the vehicle and detained him in handcuffs because I had probable cause for an arrest. The passenger was also removed from the vehicle and both of them were moved away from the vehicle to the side of the road.

I learned that the driver had suspended privileges and began making preparations to tow the vehicle. As I began writing my notes between my motorcycle and the guardrail, I remembered that the truck was directly behind me and thought to myself, “I shouldn’t be here.” I then moved to the passenger side of the rear of the violator’s vehicle. I set the corner of my clipboard on the trunk of the vehicle for stability and started writing again.

That’s when everything when horribly wrong.

As I was holding my clipboard, the vehicle disappeared. It was just gone. Everything was silent. Even the din of passing traffic was gone.

While I stood there trying to figure out what had just happened, a scream cut the silence like a knife. The driver’s girlfriend was the first person on scene to react to the event. I don’t know how much time passed between the deafening silence and that scream. It seemed like an eternity. I still had the clipboard in my left hand and the pen in my right hand. I was familiar with the phenomenon known as “auditory exclusion,” but I had always figured that this would occur as a result of trauma or extreme concentration. The thing is, I never heard or saw the impact coming. Slowly, the sounds of the vicinity returned and I realized what had occurred, even though I still didn’t quite believe it.

According to the report, traffic had slowed on the interstate in response to our emergency lights. “Rubbernecking,” as they say. A commercial truck in the right lane with an inattentive driver looked up from whatever he was doing besides driving and noticed that traffic had slowed. I imagine he figured he would be unable to brake in time to avoid a collision, so he bailed off of the roadway onto the shoulder, which is precisely where we were.

No evidence of braking was observed. At interstate speed, the truck struck the rear of the police pickup, pushing it into the police motorcycle, pushing both into the violator’s car. When the motorcycle collapsed as far as it could, it “squirted” out of the whole mess into the interstate. The commercial truck careened off the motorcycle sandwich and crossed the interstate where it struck the jersey barrier and stopped.

If I’d been in between the vehicles when this occurred, it would have been a motorcycle sandwich with a deputy garnish. In my mind, that small voice that told me I didn’t belong where I was at was divine grace. Many of us have experienced it. Sometimes it’s the hair on the back of your neck or that sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. Whatever form it takes, listen.

Conclusion

There are many more hazards at a traffic stop than just the driver of the vehicle. While he or she is undoubtedly a threat to consider, I’d submit to you that every passing vehicle on the roadway is a threat to the safety of the officer. It doesn’t matter if it is an intentional act or not, the physics are the same. Vehicles at that rate of speed are, quite literally, missiles. Some are guided and some are less guided.

I would ask three things of you. First, please be aware of and enforce the “move over” laws in your state. It’s not too much to ask for people to either slow down or change lanes when approaching an officer or anyone else on the side of the road. Second, move over for others. Leading by example is one of the most powerful actions that we can take as officers. Third, please back up your fellow officers. There’s a reason that the contact/cover approach works so well. I will write again on that topic in the future.

Until next time, please be your brother’s keeper.

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Guy Quaintance

Sgt. Quaintance has more than 20 years in public service, currently working for a medium-size agency in Southern Arizona. He has been a peace officer for approximately 13 years, with more than half of that time on a police motor. Quaintance instructs on the topics of emergency vehicle operation for both vehicles and motorcycles. He has a Master's degree in Business and dual Bachelor's degrees in Psychology and English.
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