Does ‘driving too fast’ pertain to local and state law enforcement?
The tragic death last week of Raymond L. Gooch, an 82-year-old former Washington town councilman who was involved in a serious two-vehicle crash with a Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office deputy who was responding to an emergency call last month, has once again placed vehicular speed of first responders under the microscope.
Which isn’t to suggest that sheriff’s deputy Crystal Jenkins was driving at an excessive speed when answering the 911 call of Oct. 18 along a very busy stretch of Route 522 in Flint Hill. Still, is traveling even 20 miles above the posted speed limit going too fast in a congested village with a limited line of sight on a sunny Sunday afternoon during the height of tourist season?
Virginia Code § 46.2-920, last updated in 2006, provides that the drivers of local and state emergency vehicles operated in the performance of public service “and under emergency conditions” may “without subjecting themselves to criminal prosecution … disregard speed limits, while having due regard for safety of persons and property.”
Included are law enforcement officers involved “in the chase” of suspected criminals or “in response to an emergency call,” fire and rescue personnel, prison and emergency management officials — even “environmental quality” authorities. The code, at the same time, sets no maximum allowable speed for first responders.
When Jenkins’ 2011 Dodge Charger cruiser came over an incline and struck the driver’s side of Gooch’s Mazda CX-3 her estimated speed was “45 mph,” according to Sergeant Brent Coffey, public information officer for the Virginia State Police Culpeper Division, quoting from an initial accident report of Virginia State Police (VSP) Senior Trooper S. Riddle, who is investigating the two-vehicle crash.
According to Riddle’s crash investigation, Jenkins was traveling north on Route 522 (Zachary Taylor Highway) when Gooch pulled out of a parking lot bordering Settle’s Grocery & Garage and attempted to make a left turn into the southbound lane.
“The deputy was unable to avoid striking the Mazda and the vehicles collided in the roadway,” says the state police. “The sheriff's deputy was responding to an emergency call, and the vehicle had its emergency lights and siren activated.”
It wasn’t too long after the 12:55 p.m. accident that Gooch, after being extricated from his vehicle and transported by ambulance to Fauquier Hospital, was “charged with failure to yield right of way to an emergency vehicle.” Shortly after the crash a state trooper reportedly interviewed Gooch at the hospital, with a subsequent state police news release stating the Washington resident “suffered serious, but non-life-threatening, injuries.”
Gooch’s injuries, however, proved far more severe than originally believed and he was transferred within hours to the intensive care unit of Inova Fairfax Hospital. He died there nine days later on the evening of October 27.
“Hearts are broken on both sides of this unfortunate accident,” Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie Compton has told the Rappahannock News via email. She confirmed that Jenkins was not in pursuit of a speeding driver, as is often the case in and surrounding Flint Hill, but was answering a 911 call.
“Deputy Jenkins was responding to an emergency call,” said the sheriff. “RCSO had received a call for an unresponsive male sitting in a car. Caller could not determine if male was breathing or not. Fire & Rescue and Sheriff’s Office were dispatched.”
Compton chose not to address an additional question surrounding safe speeds for county emergency vehicles when proceeding through busy villages like Flint Hill, where the 25 mile-per-hour posted speed limit has been strictly enforced by her department.
The sheriff also didn’t say whether her department, as some other law enforcement agencies have done, has ever discussed or perhaps implemented a speed limit policy for those occasions when officers are in pursuit of motorists or responding to emergency calls.
Patrols change in an instant
In protecting the lives of Rappahannock County citizens, sheriff’s deputies and Sheriff Compton herself put their own lives on the line every time they buckle into their police cruisers. In a split second a routine police patrol can become chaotic and life threatening.
This past June, for just one example, Compton and RCSO Captain Jim Jones suddenly found themselves pursuing the driver of a stolen pickup traveling east on Route 211 in excess of 100 miles per hour. The driver was a suspect in two Harris Hollow burglaries reported that same morning.
The pursuit started near Little Washington, after Compton had attempted a traffic stop, and ensued through three counties — Rappahannock, Culpeper and Fauquier — until the fleeing suspect crashed the truck into a stand of trees near the Warrenton line.
At one point during the chase, after spike strips were deployed by officers in Fauquier County, the suspect crossed the median and drove east in the westbound lanes of Route 211. He then reversed course and drove west in the eastbound lanes.
Fauquier Sheriff Robert P. Mosier credited multiple law enforcement agencies, including the Virginia State Police, that “worked together as a team and prevented injury to innocent persons travelling on the roadway during this pursuit.”
“A little exciting, a little scary,” Compton told the Rappahannock News later that day. “You don't know what the other vehicle will do — you don’t know what your own vehicle will do. You have other people traveling on the road. You have to [pursue] in the safest manner you can. Fortunately nobody got hurt.”
Hazards behind the wheel
Statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveal that law enforcement pursuits like the one Compton and Jones found themselves involved in last June account for an estimated 300 fatalities in the United States each year. Thirty percent of those deaths are bystanders not involved in the chases.
In addition, 50 percent of all law enforcement officer deaths every year are the result of motor vehicle accidents (police experience double the crashes of the general public).
All told, from 2006-2019, at least 809 officers died as a result of motor vehicle accidents (either in crashes or being physically struck outside of their cruisers), accounting for 43 percent of all “line-of-duty” deaths of law enforcement, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is currently working to promote motor vehicle safety among law enforcement agencies with the hope of reducing the number of officer-related traffic deaths. This is being accomplished through the distribution of “officer-road-code toolkits,” as well as a variety of educational materials that call attention to the many stressful hours officers spend behind the wheel, increasing the risk of mishaps when responding to emergency calls.
Although an anomaly, motor vehicle deaths of law enforcement officers in 2016 “came second to firearms,” NIOSH points out, arguing at the same time that motor vehicle-related deaths for law enforcement officers are “preventable.”
“It is important to promote motor vehicle safety among officers so they can stay safe while working to make communities safer.”
‘Excessive speeds’ and ‘unnecessary’ death
On Sept. 20, 2012, Amissville resident Jan Makela penned an emotional letter to the Rappahannock News recalling the untimely death a decade earlier of her father, Emmett G. Hackley.
Virginia State Police Sgt. Todd Taylor was responding to a crash on eastbound Route 211 when a pickup driven by Hackley reportedly pulled in front of him. Ejected from the truck, Hackley was flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital, where he died that same evening.
Headlining her letter, “Why are excessive speeds still allowed?” Makela wrote in part:
“The front-page story in last week’s Rappahannock News regarding the high speed chase through Rappahannock County, on heavily traveled U.S. 211, dredged up horrific memories of an accident 11 years ago …
“Granted, the speeding motorcyclist in question … should have been punished. No doubt. My issue is with the regulation that allowed the officer to pursue him at speeds reaching 140 miles per hour (by his own admission), putting all of us at risk. No clear ‘life or death situation’ was at stake. This was not an isolated case. I recall a similar high speed chase through the back roads of Rappahannock a few years back; an equally, if not more, dangerous event …
“Our family has — I always have — held law-enforcement and other first-response personnel in the highest regard. I still do,” Makela continued. “Theirs is a close community who generally hold each other to a higher standard. That’s why I don’t understand why these excessive speeds are still allowed.
“When my father was killed by a state trooper driving at a dangerously high rate of speed through the county 11 years ago, the officer was racing from Sperryville to an accident in Fauquier County, approximately 25 miles from his starting point. It was so unnecessary …
“At the very least, I would like to see Rappahannock County push to restrict the speed of responding officers in our county ... unless, as I have stated, it is in fact a ‘life-or-death situation,’ and no one else is available to assist. Sometimes that’s a judgment call. In the event of the speeding motorcyclist, I believe that both parties used poor judgment, and both were irresponsible ...
“The citizens of Rappahannock,” she concluded, “when using the county roadways, deserve to feel safe.”
In the 911 response that early afternoon of Oct. 18, another life potentially was in danger — a life that a trained first responder like Deputy Jenkins, herself seriously injured in the crash, could potentially save.
To their well-deserved credit, countless lives have been saved by the men and women of the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office. Sometimes lives are saved by deputies in the county without this newspaper even being made aware of it.
“Tough times,” Sheriff Compton said of last month’s fatal accident, a “very delicate situation” for all involved.
Gooch, a lawyer, was a resident of the county seat for nearly 50 years, serving on the Town Council from 1987 to 1998. In addition, he spent time as president of the Rappahannock Historical Society. At the time of his death he was on the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals.
His survivors include a sister and nephew.