Raleigh officer was following law, policy before fatal head-on crash

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comJune 7, 2013 

— A Raleigh patrol officer followed state law and his department’s policy Wednesday when his cruiser was traveling more than 75 mph in a 35-mph zone before it collided head-on with a motor scooter, killing two men.

Officer J.H. Crews clocked a motorist going westbound on Skycrest Drive at 55 mph – 20 miles over the posted speed limit – and was attempting to catch up to the vehicle to pull it over, according to Raleigh police.

Meanwhile, Officer D.L. Riley had spotted the scooter, carrying Maurice Antonio Harden and Trindell Devon Thomas on Skycrest Drive, a few minutes earlier and noticed it had a malfunctioning headlight, police said.

Riley intended to catch up with the scooter and pull it over but had not yet initiated the pursuit when the scooter crossed the centerline at 3:16 a.m. and crashed head-on with Crews’ cruiser, according to police spokesman Jim Sughrue.

Both Harden and Thomas were thrown from the scooter and pronounced dead at the scene. A police accident report indicated that Crews as traveling an estimated 76 mph and the scooter 47 mph when they collided.

North Carolina’s general statutes state that posted speed limits are not applicable when police are involved “in the chase or apprehension of violators of the law or of persons charged with or suspected of any such violations.”

Police officials said Crews did not activate his blue lights or siren during his attempt to catch the vehicle doing 55 mph. Police department policy states that an officer may not use a cruiser’s emergency equipment when overtaking a vehicle for violation of traffic laws.

“Certainly, one of the reasons for that is they don’t want the speeding vehicle to attempt to flee,” Sughrue said. “Officer Crews responded in typical fashion for an officer conducting speed enforcement. He was trying to stop a speeder traveling at 55 mph. To overtake him, he had to go faster.”

Sughrue said once the scooter veered into the path of the speeding cruiser, a collision was “unavoidable.”

The lack of flashing lights and siren on the cruiser may have caused Harden, who was driving the scooter, to misjudge how quickly the police car was coming, said Eric Rodgman, a senior analyst at the N.C. Highway Safety Research Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Rodgman said that officer-involved crashes in recent years have caused police departments in North Carolina and across the country to take a closer look at exceeding speed limits, especially in instances where they are going after a speeding vehicle as opposed to an armed and dangerous criminal.

“Law enforcement across the country are peeling back unless there is a really good cause to do it,” he said.

Police vehicles in North Carolina were involved in 800 crashes across the state in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the highway safety center. By comparison, fire trucks were involved in 111 crashes, with ambulances accounted for 197.

“To put that in perspective, passenger cars were involved in 205,000 crashes in 2011,” said Rodgman. “Generally speaking, there aren’t a lot of police-involved crashes, but 800 is more than a handful.”

Motor scooters were involved in 195 crashes.

Sughrue said an accident reconstruction team is using evidence left behind at the crash, including debris from both vehicles that scattered the roadway, skid marks and the respective positions of the police cruiser and scooter immediately after the accident to create a timeline of what happened.

The police will submit their findings to the Wake County District Attorney’s Office, standard procedure in all fatal or serious motor vehicle crashes.

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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