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Why can police cars go faster than the speed limit when they are not using their lights and sirens?

David Reynolds

When he was sheriff of Henderson County, George Erwin Jr. considered law enforcement cruisers his deputies’ greatest liability. That’s because while a deputy may rarely need to use his or her firearm, some log 200 miles a day in their vehicle, increasing the risk of a wreck.

For that reason, Erwin, who is now the executive director of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, said local police departments and sheriff’s offices should devise driving policies that account for safety and suit the communities in which they operate.

“It’s something you have to look at closely,’ he said of police driving. “It’s not a cut-and-dried answer.”

Technically, Erwin said, officers and deputies should use lights and sirens when responding to an emergency. But there are exceptions, like responding to a bank robbery, when a blaring siren could tip off a suspect and make a dangerous situation worse.

For that reason, Erwin said, police driving procedures must consider a variety of factors, including the roads, population and traffic of the community.

In New Hanover County, sheriff’s deputies are supposed to follow all traffic laws unless they are responding to an emergency or trying to apprehend a suspect, according to the office’s policy.

“Vehicles engaged in emergency operation are required to use both blue light and siren,” the policy states. “Any time either the blue light or siren has been discontinued, emergency operation will be terminated and all speed and traffic laws will be observed.”

The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office’s policy does make exceptions for “silent runs” using just blue lights and no siren when it’s in the best interest of public safety.

Also, the rules don’t apply when deputies are pacing other drivers to determine speed, or conducting surveillance on a suspect vehicle. If using lights or siren would endanger the deputy or tip off a dangerous suspect and help that person flee, then the restrictions also don’t apply.

The Wilmington police department’s policy manual says that although state law and city ordinance allow police to break traffic laws, they need to consider the safety of others on the road.

The policy says officers should use lights and sirens when not following traffic rules, and even then, they should consider weather, traffic, time-of-day and road conditions.

“The fact that a police vehicle is exempt from the operation of traffic regulations or enjoys certain prior rights over other vehicles does not permit the operators of such vehicle to drive in reckless disregard of the safety of others,” the policy states.

WPD Spokeswoman Lucy Crockett said anyone who sees an officer driving in an unsafe manner may report it to the department. They should try to include the vehicle number, time of day and place where they saw the police vehicle, she said.

User-contributed question by:
Chris McPeck

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3 Responses to “ Why can police cars go faster than the speed limit when they are not using their lights and sirens?”

  1. On November 4, 2009 at 2:00 pm Sarah wrote:

    Have you ever seen the idiots in this town that have no idea what to do when confronted with blues lights and sirens behind them? Some slam on brakes stopping in the middle of the road, some stop and try to pull to the left, some keep driving on as if they can not be bothered by these “flashy lights” and “loud noises,” but rarely do I ever see people pull off the road to the right as the law requires. The safer, quicker, and more sensible option for law enforcement is often to drive to a call without the use of blue lights and sirens. Ultimately, it is a Catch-22 for law enforcement who receives complaints from the public when they do not arrive at a call quick enough, yet in turn, they receive complaints when they drive too fast. It’s a “lose-lose” scenario and is sadly indicative of the society we live in today.

  2. On November 29, 2010 at 8:19 pm Stephen wrote:

    I live right near the state trooper’s station in Wilmington and see them speeding all the time on the residential street near my house. I’ve also seen many cops speeding and driving wrecklessly on College Rd and other parts of town. Do they think they are above the law because they’re in a police car? It’s shameful.

  3. On July 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm Andrew wrote:

    If you have never worked within the law enforcement career field, don’t worry about how they do their job. Worry about the lawyers that sue the police departments and make agencies put rediculous polcies in place that in turn, make it more difficult for officers to respond to you when you need them.

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