National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Lowballs Number of Police Car Chase Deaths

Tuesday, October 06, 2015
Six people died in this SUV during a Texas police chase (AP photo)

Federal regulators who keep track of vehicular accidents have seriously undercounted fatal accidents that happen as a result of police chases, according to a USA Today investigation.


The newspaper found the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) failed to include at least 101 motor-vehicle deaths in 2013 that were related to police chases, based on a review of police reports and internal documents, court records, police-car videos and news accounts based on police statements.  The agency’s total for 2013 was 322, which was off by 31%.


Furthermore, USA Today determined the undercount may have occurred going back to 1979. This would mean the total of police chase-related deaths is not 11,506, as reported by NHTSA, but more than 15,000.


“The findings expose potentially major flaws in how the federal government tracks motor-vehicle fatalities and, to a lesser extent, how police document high-speed chases, which often result in innocent people being killed and have been sharply restricted in some cities,” Thomas Frank reported.


The newspaper’s story prompted NHTSA to review its records of 30 crashes that were not labeled as involving a chase. The agency found 39 deaths, according to Frank.


“There’s all kinds of things that NHTSA doesn't ask about or know about,” Capt. John Magill of the Miami Township Police in Ohio told USA Today. Two of Magill’s officers were found to have violated the department’s pursuit policy in an April 15, 2013 chase that resulted in the deaths of two people in a fleeing car. NHTSA records don’t mention a pursuit, which is described in a separate file. “It’s not my fault that they don’t ask me the right question,” Magill said of NHTSA.


Frank reported that NHTSA had no record of at least 26 crashes that killed 38 people two years ago. “The omissions include two of the year’s deadliest crashes: a police chase on March 20 in Kingsville, Texas, that resulted in seven deaths, and a Nov. 23 chase Falfurrias, Texas, that ended with five passengers being killed. Both crashes involved smugglers carrying undocumented immigrants and were well publicized,” Frank wrote.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Feds Fail to Track Deadly Police Pursuits (by Thomas Frank, USA Today)

Fatal Police Chases Often Not Reported (by Keith BieryGolick,

Police Chase Crash Reports

27% of People Killed in Police Car Chases are Innocent Bystanders (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov) 


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