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http://www.sacbee.com/content/news/california/story/14229560p-15052665c.htmlIt's no surprise that police officers suffer injuries chasing suspects, pulling over drunken drivers and putting themselves in the line of fire.
Motorcycle officers in the California Highway Patrol, and other agencies nationwide, who take their rides home are routinely hurt just getting to and from work, two recent studies found.
From 2002 to 2005, 37 percent of motorcycle accidents in the CHP division covering Los Angeles happened during commutes, according to a CHP report obtained by The Bee. What's more, these accidents resulted in more severe injuries than those during patrols, perhaps because the officers were going faster on the open freeway on the long rides home.
Nationwide, almost a quarter of police motorcycle accidents occurred during travel to or from work, according to Motorcops.com, a Web site that this year surveyed 350 law enforcement agencies, including 20 in California.
Motorcycle officers face danger not just from riding, but also from getting involved in traffic stops or other incidents while commuting.
Two weeks ago, Officer John Bailey died during a traffic stop he made as he was riding home on Interstate 15 in San Bernardino County. Bailey's death - and five others in five months from a variety of causes - triggered a 48-hour review of safety procedures by the department's 7,000-plus officers.
Police agencies tout the benefits of allowing officers to take home their bikes, from the added visibility on the highways to officers taking better care of motorcycles they ride. Officers, in turn, get a free ride to work.
"The majority of departments ... see it as a great extra to the department," said Mark Kopang, who started Motorcops.com and did the survey in consultation with law enforcement officials. "They're essentially on duty from the time they get on their bikes in the morning to the time they get home in the evening."
But the CHP, for one, is taking another look at its motorcycle program, in part because of the study that found the high number of commuting accidents, Commissioner Mike Brown said. The department wants to review such issues as training and how the motorcycles are deployed.
CHP motorcycle officers have been taking their bikes home since at least the 1930s, said former Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick. In the early days of the CHP, in fact, motorcycles outnumbered patrol cars almost 3-to-1.
Many of the early on-duty deaths were motorcycle accidents, before the advent of helmets and training.
But another change since those early days seems to have had the opposite effect: the distance of the commute. As housing costs soared, especially in the past several years, many police officers have been forced to live farther from their beats.
"You're exposed longer, so there's a greater risk," said Doug Wolfe, chief of police motorcycle instruction at Michigan State University's Highway Traffic Safety Programs.
The 2005 CHP study found more than half of the 2.8 million miles driven in 2004 in the Los Angeles-area division were logged commuting to and from work. The average round trip was 58 miles, compared with just 47 miles driven during the workday.
Overall, commuting accounted for half of the $1.4 million the division spent to run a motorcycle operation, leading the study's authors to recommend a departmentwide analysis of the costs and the benefits.
Commuting accidents were more severe, with a quarter resulting in major injuries, compared to only 14 percent during regular patrols. And they cost more - $7,564 per collision, the study found, compared to $4,142 for on-duty accidents.
Among the accidents documented in the study:
* An officer was killed when a pickup turned in front of him while he was on his way home.
* Another suffered a fractured pelvis and nose when a Land Rover changed lanes and hit him.
* Another officer was paralyzed on his way home when he was struck by a pickup backing out of a driveway.
The Motorcops.com survey found 60 percent of agencies with motorcycle units allow officers to take bikes home. At least 23 percent of accidents occurred during travel to or from work.
One occurred when an officer running late for duty was forced into a concrete wall when a car changed lanes in front of him and his rear brake locked.
Part of the problem may be officers making long commutes after stressful shifts.
"That's the most dangerous time, because they're tired and they've got their mind on going home," said George Nuttall, a motorcycle officer and trainer for six years, most of them at the CHP, where he retired in 1983.
Motorcycle officers, known simply as "motors," can make traffic stops even when they're not officially on duty, unlike their counterparts in unmarked personal cars.
One Oakland officer on his way home saw a taxi moving erratically, said Jon Hamm, chief executive officer of the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, a labor association that represents officers.
It turned out that a cab occupant had shot the driver. When the shooter tried to flee on foot, Hamm said, the motorcycle officer was able to nab him.
The CHP has been struggling to maintain its visibility on the highways, Hamm said, and allowing motorcycle officers to commute helps. Without the incentive of the free commute, he said, far fewer officers would choose the motorcycle unit.
But motorcycles have their downside. They don't offer the same kind of barrier against oncoming traffic that patrol cars do. Bailey was killed when an errant driver hit his motorcycle while the officer was performing a routine traffic stop.
"A motor doesn't provide any protection against someone who plows into them," Nuttall said.
The CHP's 500 or so motorcycles are concentrated in Los Angeles, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area, although they can be found in all eight divisions.
The department puts an upper limit on commuting: The officer must live within 50 miles of work.
Any change to the take-home motorcycle policy would be subject to bargaining with the patrolmen's association, Hamm said.
Other California police agencies also allow officers to commute with their bike, including the Sacramento Police Department, which has 26 motorcycles.
Officers have to live within 30 miles of work to use bikes for commuting, said traffic Lt. Bill Beermann. He said he couldn't recall officers having accidents on their way to or from work but said they have often come across accidents and helped out.