By Leisa Zigman, I-Team Reporter
(KSDK) -- It has been five months since an Illinois State Police officer lost control of his patrol car, crossed over a grassy median at 126 miles per hour, and slammed into the car of two Collinsville sisters.
Eighteen-year-old Jessica and 13-year-old Kelli Uhl died instantly.
There are thousands of dedicated troopers, risking their lives everyday in Missouri and Illinois, to keep the public safe.
With that said, the I-Team's analysis of nearly 4,000 reports exposes some disturbing revelations.
Jessica and Kelli Uhl were the best of friends. They grew up together; they laughed together.
And on the day after Thanksgiving 2007, they died together.
Their tragic and sudden deaths prompted the I-Team to examine thousands of state records from Illinois and Missouri.
"This accident was so tragic, so horrible," said Tom Keefe, the Uhl's family attorney.
The Uhl sisters were heading home after attending a holiday family photo shoot. It was a sunny day, just after noon, when Illinois State Police Officer Matthew Mitchell lost control of his car and crossed over into oncoming traffic.
He was driving 126 miles per hour en route to an accident.
"The force this generated is just unimaginable," Keefe said.
Witnesses described it as an explosion. Trooper Mitchell literally drove through their car. The force separated the engine and the engine block from the body of the car."
It was not trooper Mitchell's first accident. Court records show in August, 2004, a jury in Peoria County ordered the Illinois State Police to pay $1.7 million to Nicholas Damron.
Damron was a passenger in a car hit by Officer Mitchell. The accident that resulted in the death of the Uhl sisters was Mitchell's third.
In the past six years, NewsChannel 5 found troopers were involved in more than 3,300 accidents in Missouri and Illinois. That averages out to one and one half accidents a day. Data shows nearly 15 percent of those accidents resulted in injury.
ISP agreed to talk about the I-Team's analysis of its internal data, but because of the upcoming trial, officials would not comment on the Mitchell case.
Lt. Scott Compton, chief spokesperson for the ISP, said there is no maximum speed limit troopers can drive, and he was not sure whether anyone has considered revising the policy.
Troopers and state police have weapons training three to four times each year, but they only receive driver training when they are cadets in the academy.
After graduation, there is no mandated refresher course or advanced driver training; there's no other training at all.
In an entire 20 or 30 year career, experts said troopers may only fire their weapon once, but will drive at high speeds almost daily.
Ron Kelley has been in law enforcement for the past 27 years and is affiliated with the Association of Law Enforcement Emergency Response Trainers and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. He travels the country teaching advanced driving classes to police and troopers.
"If they have not had any training since they were in the academy, Leisa, humans resort back to bad habits. They become complacent. They need to be reminded," Kelley said. "Eighty percent of their career is behind the wheel of a vehicle and operating at very high speeds. That training needs to be emphasized."
Kimberly Cochran, ISP Academy Commander, does not agree with Kelley's philosophy.
"We don't do the driving because the officers use that skill every day. They drive over 45 million miles a year and they use those skills daily," Cochran said.
Missouri Highway Patrol Sgt. Mark Wilson teaches emergency driving instruction. He supports advanced yearly training but admits cost and logistics may prohibit it.
Sgt. Mark Wilson explained, "Anytime you get any training, no matter what it is, it’s a good idea. It enhances your skills tremendously."
When an officer causes a crash, ISP and MHP investigate their own. Officials defend the practice by saying they have the required expertise in accident reconstruction.
But when asked whether they ever had an external audit of ISP investigations, officials said they didn’t know. When asked whether they thought this would be a good idea, again officials said they didn’t know.
Alice Hambley of St. Peters, Missouri, wishes they would consider it.
In 2004, a speeding trooper ran a red light and slammed into her black Ford Expedition. The crash resulted in a four car accident and left her badly bruised. She could not believe troopers found her partially responsible for the crash.
When asked whether troopers should investigate themselves, Hambley said, "Heavens no. That does not make sense."
Friends of the Uhl sisters pray the senseless deaths of Jessica and Kelli will leave a legacy
that encourages law enforcement to rethink the need for advanced driver training and to set limits on extreme speed.
Multiple sources confirm trooper Mitchell was talking on his cell phone and shoulder radio while driving 126 miles per hour.
Illinois State Police say troopers are trained to multi-task at high speeds. But as we now know, that training is not on-going or yearly. In most cases, driver training ends at the academy.
In a recent court appearance, Officer Mitchell pleaded not guilty to two counts of reckless homicide and two counts of reckless driving. If convicted, he faces up to 16 years in prison. Through his attorney, he declined requests for an interview.
The Uhl family knew NewsChannel 5 was airing this story in advance. They provided new photographs of Jessica and Kelli but did not wish to be interviewed.
Of the more than 3,000 accidents, how many were caused by troopers? In Illinois, troopers were involved in 2,289 accidents. Investigators found them at-fault in 635 accidents--almost 28 percent--over the past six years.
Missouri officials claim they have no idea how many accidents troopers cause because they don't track it.
Here is a break down of additional data the I-Team obtained:
Total number of accidents from 2002-2007
170 average per year
381 average per year
Total number of at-fault accidents from 2002-2007:
Missouri Highway Patrol did not make this information available.
Total number of injury accidents from 2002-2007:
Brian Geier - 6 crashes
Mark Hicks - 5 crashes
Roger Ogden - 5 crashes
Illinois State Police did not make this information available.
Top Causes of Accidents:
205 accidents - Improper backing
160 accidents - Failing to reduce speed to avoid crash
126 accidents - Failure to yield right of way
As a fleet, the Illinois State Police average approximately one accident for every 118,000 miles driven. The Missouri Highway Patrol averaged a slightly better record, with one accident for every 147,000 miles driven.
Ron Kelley, an emergency vehicle training expert, sent several reasons why yearly advanced driver training of troopers and police is necessary. Below are his statements.
"1. Operating a motor vehicle is a diminishing skill. The bad part is our prior training has set our human behavior and humans do not like nor want to accept change. Very few people, including law enforcement have ever had any quality training in the operations on a vehicle. We first began our learning process by watching our parents and older siblings drive. Who taught them? The same as taught us.
"Understanding the physical make up of a vehicle and the induced dynamics from the drive's input of acceleration, steering and braking, which induces pitch, roll and yaw is completely foreign language to most. Depending on the size, weight and center of gravity has dramatic effects on the vehicle. In law enforcement, many times the increased speeds of emergency responses and vehicular pursuits increases those effects and to a point that the vehicle is in control of the driver.
"2. My research shows that in law enforcement, the average officer will spend 80 percent of their career behind a steering wheel. Not encountering felonious attacks. In a 25 year career, the average for an officer to draw and fire their weapon in defense of themselves or another is one time.
"Agencies will spend an average of 40 hours at firearms training and zero hours at the driving range or classroom. having said that, look at www.odmp.org which is Officer Down Memorial Page. You can clearly see that over the last 5 years, a significant rise in officers being killed in or by vehicles has risen some 37 percent. We are killing ourselves with vehicles, not by felonious attacks.
"Agency administrators assume that their officers know how to drive and shouldn't have to spend money providing them training for driving. Although they are quick to severely punish an officer when they are involved in an at fault collision. So, could agencies be liable of Depraved Indifference or Culpable Negligence? That's simply, knowing there is a problem and ignoring corrective measures to correct or prevent it.
"3. There are so many different vehicles now being utilized by law enforcement and no one is training the operators on the dynamics, how to manage the vehicle under various conditions. Here's your new patrol vehicle, now don't wreck it. Each vehicle had certain characteristics that must be demonstrated and then practiced by the operator before they become comfortable with the handling of that particular vehicle.
"The more you practice, the better you understand what to do when. Practice does not make perfect! Perfect practice makes perfect and this is where a good instructor can observe and correct someone's driving. Action is faster than reaction. Training to the point that the cognitive part of the brain reacts from subconscious is far better and faster than having to take the extended time to think it out and then react.
"4. Just because something has not happened, doesn't mean it won't in the future. This creates three human actions, I call 'C' words. We become complacent, careless and comfortable. All three are a path to tragedy. More so in the high risk field of law enforcement.
"5. Law enforcement officers are more likely to engage in an emergency response or vehicular pursuit than most other related work encounters. These actions lead to higher speed, increased risk, quicker decisions and endanger every person on the roadway. Killing someone as the result of an emergency vehicle operating in emergency mode is not "The Cost of Doing Business," or "Collateral Damage."
"Nowhere have I seen an accepted practice of collateral damage in law enforcement. Only in extreme cases of military operations to eliminate insurgents is tolerated. Having said that, training every officer on a reoccurring basis will reduce not just the number of emergency and pursuit collisions but will also reduce the daily non-emergency driving collisions.
"6. The marriage of the vehicle's capabilities and the driver's abilities should be the ultimate goal in this training. Most vehicles are capable of doing a lot more than the average person is aware. Individual drivers attain certain comfort levels when operating a vehicle under various conditions. So that marriage becomes extremely important.
"If I can't take a driver to their next level of confidence through training, then I have to train them to the level they are comfortable with. If I can't demonstrate the vehicle's maximum limit of operational limits, how will anyone know that limit or how to stay just under that limit. The more of the five senses you incorporate in training the more we retain. You have to Hear, See, Smell and Touch, to totally grasp life and driving. If it scares you when learning, you will stay just under the point of fright.
"7. Driving exercises and the use of courses laid out with traffic cones can and are beneficial. As long as the courses are thoroughly explained and demonstrated for their goals and objectives. Then re-enforced through repetitive practice with an instructor onboard for correction and not condemnation. These exercises should be conducted at various speeds and as close to actuality as possible.
"8. Many agencies lack instructors, funds and facilities. If a good classroom lecture of four to eight hours, with video demonstrations and a well versed facilitator, some training is better than no training at all. I have had success with these presentations in Avondale, Arizona, Great Bend, Kansas and Limestone County, Alabama.
In the movie "Field of Dreams, the theme was "If you build it, they will come." My theme is "If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen."
"9. False Sense of Security: When officers operate under Code 3, lights and siren, they immediately develop a false since of security from the emergency equipment. They subconsciously assume that everyone is mandated to see or hear them and get out of the way. Wrong assumption. Due to the designs of vehicles, they are somewhat soundproof. Average speed induces wind noise, moderate radio reduces outside noises and conversation redirects the hearing, along with some other noise distractions.
"At 1.5 feet per second of travel distance at 1 mile per hour, an emergency vehicle at just 50 KPH is traveling 75 feet per second. You do the math at 100 mph or even just 80 mph and you will begin to understand that we often out run the projection of the siren. By the time they hear it, we are passing them. Now imagine a vehicle traveling from the other direction? I am sure you have experienced this yourself.
"10. Due Regard has never been clearly defined by the courts. It appears in every statute and policy regulating emergency vehicles. One definition is, what another reasonable officer would have done under the same environment and conditions at the time to safeguard the lives affected.
"11. Crash Dynamic facts: A vehicle has far more probability of killing more people in one shot than any firearm. More people are killed each year from traffic crashes than any other singular cause.
"Ever understood Kinetic Energy? Take the weight of an object and multiply that times the speed of travel. A patrol car at an average weight of 4,000 pounds and traveling at 50 mph generates 200,000 lbs. of kinetic energy on impact. The 200 lb. human generates 10,000 lbs. and a 2 lb. heart will strike the chest wall at 100 lbs. That is enough to rip the aorta from the heart or snap the brain stem from the spinal cord. Now increase the speed in increments of 10 mph and you tell me why we are dying in crashes.
"12. Vehicle crash facts; Most vehicles sold in the U.S.A. are crash tested up to 50 mph. So for every 10 mph over the known 50 mph test, the chances of being severely injured or killed not only double, they are compounded. 60 is 2 to 1, 70 is 4 to 1, 80 is 8 to 1 and 90 is 16 to 1. In every crash there is a 40 percent chance that a door can be jarred open. If not wearing a safety belt, your chance of being ejected is 75 percent and being killed after ejection is 95 percent. From impact to death, most often occurs in 7/10ths of a second. not much time to say AH, much less any other word you would have put behind AH.
"You think I have a passion for driver education and training? It just baffles me that we just assume everyone knows how to handle the single most deadly weapon that we take for granted and are in control of more than anything else.
Not just law enforcement, but everyone needs to understand that you should drive like every life depends on you, just because it does."