Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Snow is hard for police cars, too

After a wreck-filled rush hour today, we were again reminded that driving in snow - even a little bit of it - is dangerous. It's often not easy for police, either. This story from our monthly Informant newsletter explains why:

Even emergency first responders get stuck in the snow.

Three major winter storms in one month took a toll on KCPD vehicles and response times and caused the City to declare its first state of emergency since 2002’s ice storm.

From 3 to 11 p.m. on Jan. 19 – the height that day’s snow storm – police took reports of 184 non-injury wrecks and four injury wrecks. They had 13 crews out on highways helping stranded motorists. While it made for a miserable evening commute, the snow helped reduce the potential for serious wrecks.

“When the weather’s that bad, we don’t have serious injury or fatality wrecks because people can’t get up to speed,” said Sergeant Jim Fuller of the Accident Investigation Section.

Response times suffered in the snow, too. On snowless Jan. 31, the median response time for priority 1 calls citywide was about 6.9 minutes. On Feb. 2, after about a foot of snow had fallen, that increased to about 8.2 minutes.

“Getting there safely to help people is what’s most important,” said Major Roger Lewis of the Patrol Bureau.

Oftentimes, citizens calling for police assistance in the snow don’t realize officers may have a more difficult time getting around than they do. The majority of KCPD’s fleet is rear-wheel drive Ford Crown Victorias. The rear-wheel drive is ideally suited for police work most of the year but doesn’t do well in the snow, Fleet Unit Supervisor Darrell Cooper said. Front- and all-wheel drive cars handle better in winter weather but are “a maintenance nightmare,” so KCPD sticks with rear-wheel drive, Cooper said. Police stopped using chains on tires about a decade ago for fear they would spark a fire that could ignite the gas tank.

The Fleet Unit had to tow out 24 police cars during a 24-hour period on Feb. 1, when nearly a foot of snow fell and Kansas City declared a state of emergency. On average, Cooper said the Unit tows less than one car a day. But only two police cars wrecked during the Jan. 31 – Feb. 1 storm – one that hit ice in pursuit of a drunk driver and another that hit a deer.

“The driver’s training at the Academy has really helped out,” Cooper said. “It’s given officers more knowledge on how to drive their car when they get in trouble.”

In the coming weeks, Cooper said he expects to see the aftermath of the snow on police vehicles in the forms of transmission issues and rear differential problems. At present, though, the only thing his shop is doing differently is “replacing an exceptional amount of wiper blades.”

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