Cycle Crashes Take Heavy Toll On Inland CHP

REVIEW: Officers were not to blame for the spate of serious accidents in 2003-04, a report says.

February 14, 2005
By MIKE KATAOKA / The Press-Enterprise
In the line of duty

James Goodman

Goodman, 48, was a 20-year CHP veteran and Medal of Valor recipient. On June 3, 2004, Goodman was killed in Redlands after a Dodge Caravan pulled into his path. The minivan driver is facing a charge of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

Shannon Distel

Distel, 31, was killed in Riverside on Aug. 27, 2003 when a pickup truck pulling a trailer turned in front of Distel's motorcycle. He had been a CHP officer for six years. The truck driver pleaded guilty to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

Steve Schwingel

On Oct. 6, 2004, the eight-year CHP veteran was struck by a pickup truck driver who pulled out of a driveway into the officer's path in Highland. Schwingel, 37, was paralyzed from the waist down.

Kevin Holsome

On May 25, 2004, the 15-year CHP veteran was on his parked motorcycle along Interstate 15 in Corona when he was struck by a car. Holsome, 42, lost his right leg in the accident.

George Wood

On Oct. 26, 2004, the 17-year veteran was riding his CHP motorcycle to work when spilled hydraulic fluid on the freeway in Ontario caused him to lose control. Wood, 40, suffered a major head injury.

In his nine years as a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer, Joe Ramos has dodged everything from road debris to a bear.

That's what he's trained to do.

But there was nothing to prepare him and other riders assigned to the San Bernardino CHP office for a devastating double blow in 2004.

One of their colleagues, James Goodman, was killed in June and another, Steve Schwingel, was paralyzed from the waist down in October, both in on-duty motorcycle crashes.

"Two serious crashes from the same office that close together is unheard of," Ramos said.

The entire region was hard hit in 2004, with two other career-ending injuries involving Inland CHP motorcycle officers.

Those accidents, plus another fatality in 2003, came under intense scrutiny from a law-enforcement agency that takes pride in protecting its elite 529-officer motorcycle corps, said Jim McLaughlin, chief of the CHP's training division in Sacramento.

In each case, investigators concluded, the officer was blameless and it was unlikely that different equipment, clothing or training would have changed the outcome.

Ramos said Goodman was the best rider he had ever seen but even his skills could not help him avoid a collision with a Dodge Caravan that pulled into the officer's path.

The 12-member San Bernardino squad pays tribute to Goodman with plaques and decals on their motorcycles. Officers acknowledge Schwingel and his arduous rehabilitation by wearing bracelets engraved with his name.

Mainly they honor their fellow officers, Ramos said, by continuing to ride.

CHP motorcycle officers accept the danger because their job is fun and satisfying, Ramos said.

"The rewards outweigh the risks. The risks we train for," he said.

Major Injuries Rare

According to statistics, the string of serious CHP motorcycle accidents in Riverside and San Bernardino last year, while alarming, was by far the exception. Most officers walk away from crashes, reports show.

McLaughlin said his agency has one of the most rigorous motorcycle training programs in the world - at least a third of the enrollees flunk.

"Riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous, but riding in an enforcement capacity makes it even more dangerous," he said.

To minimize that risk, officers learn from the crashes.

"Motorcycle collisions get special handling," McLaughlin said. "They are all reviewed by our practitioners, actual riders who are always asking, 'Is there a hole in our training program? Is there something that needs to be strengthened?'"

Those questions came up in June after Goodman was killed and in July after Officer Kevin Holsome's right leg was severed in Corona. Then, Officer George Wood suffered major head injuries in Ontario a month after Schwingel's crash.

"I can't say we've had any specific changes to our training program" as a result of the Inland accidents, McLaughlin said. Nor has the CHP lost confidence in how motorcycle officers are equipped and clothed, he said.

CHP motorcycle officers wear what is known as three-quarter face helmets, which cover the head except for the face. They ride BMW bikes, which have anti-lock brakes as a major safety feature and heated grips for comfort.

Last year, 41 CHP motorcycle officers were involved in accidents, matching the 2003 total and close to the average for each of the past five years. Nine CHP officers were seriously hurt and one died in 2004's accidents..

Training Is Key

Doug Wolfe, an instructor at Michigan State University's police motorcycle training program, said the leading cause of accidents is a vehicle pulling in front of the motorcycle officer.

That's what happened in the two most recent Inland CHP motorcycle fatalities.

A year before Goodman was killed, Officer Shannon Distel died in Riverside after a pickup turned into his path.

Over the last 30 years, four other CHP motorcycle officers have been killed on duty. Since the CHP was established in 1929, 79 motorcycle officers have been killed but 51 of those fatalities occurred during the first 27 years.

Those were the days before helmets, which were introduced in 1957 to replace soft leather caps, and neither the equipment nor the training was up to today's standards, McLaughlin said.

Experts across the country agree that training is the crucial element in any law-enforcement program that uses motorcycles.

In terms of saving lives and preventing injury, "there's nothing that's ever going to replace training," said Wolfe, whose program at Michigan State has about a 40 percent failure rate.

Curt Coffi was a CHP motorcycle officer in West Los Angeles for four years and escaped injury in three accidents.

"A lot of the training is collision avoidance, clutch control and emergency braking," said Coffi, now an administrative officer in Sacramento. "That definitely helps you a lot."

Ramos, the San Bernardino officer, said the two-week course also covers how to assess road surfaces and avoid obstacles.

One of his more harrowing near misses occurred in the Cajon Pass when a car hit a bear and spun out in front of him. Ramos said his training kicked in and with careful braking, he avoided the car and the bear.

Ramos and the other driver were unhurt but the bear was killed, he said.

Protective Clothing

Wolfe and other police motorcycle-safety experts said they don't recommend officers wear more protective clothing, such as the body armor and full-face helmets motorcycle racers wear.

The advantage of a motorcycle, he said, is that officers can maneuver through traffic to get to an accident or crime scene faster than a car.

But once off the motorcycle, the officer often has to act quickly and sometimes has to deal with a combative or evasive person. In those situations, too much protective gear would reduce movement and flexibility, Wolfe said.

"If it becomes so cumbersome, you can't function as a police officer," he said.

Peter M. Van Dyke, director of Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's police training division, said there is no national standard for protective wear. Individual departments decide for themselves what's best for their officers.

Even within a police agency, "it becomes a decision for the individual officer," Van Dyke said. "How much is the extra protection worth versus sweating his tail off?"

Tom Aveni, an instructor with the Police Policy Studies Council in New Hampshire, said studies show that Kevlar vests worn under uniforms to protect officers from gunfire also can minimize blunt-force trauma in traffic accidents.

"They tend to disperse collision energy that may have ordinarily caused massive chest injuries to the wearer," he said.

Reach Mike Kataoka at (951) 368-9411 or