I-Team re-examines Metro's new crash-response policy

LAS VEGAS -- Four months have passed since Metro Police announced that traffic officers would no longer respond to the scene of minor accidents, those in which there are no significant injuries.

The Clark County Sheriff made the change because of budget cuts that have put a strain on police resources.

Critics predicted the new policy would cause chaos on the streets and big problems for motorists. So, is that what's happened?

Some predicted it would be a boon for uninsured drivers, it would cause huge headaches for people when they try to get their damages covered, and might lead to fistfights and violence when officers don't show up at accident scenes.

Metro said it had no choice because its officers were already stretched too thin to be tied up for hours at minor fender benders.

The results are in, and while some problems are apparent, there is positive news as well.

"We've found that a lot of drivers in this area are distracted by cell phones, driving and talking on the phone or stopped and texting," Metro Police Officer Michael Laythorpe said.

At the busy intersection of Sahara Avenue and Rainbow Boulevard, two Metro officers scan the roads for scofflaws. They don't have to wait very long.

Two men on mopeds cut off a bus in the same spot where, a week earlier, a bus accident sent eight people to the hospital. One of the mopeds refuses to stop but the officers quickly cut him off.

It turns out that Juan Flores, the KISS fan on the moped, not only has no ID, he has never had a driver's license, has no papers for the bike, no ignition key, and is awaiting trial for a stolen auto charge.

"You already have one case of a stolen vehicle. Now you're driving another one. You have no paperwork, no keys," Ofc. Laythorpe pointed out during the traffic stop.

Flores is cited for multiple violations and the moped is impounded. It is a perfect example of why traffic stops are such an important tool for police, far beyond traffic enforcement,

"We're correcting behavior on the driving end of it but also stopping people who are carrying guns, they might be drunk. They might be headed to a crime or just leaving a crime," Metro Police Lt. Leonard Marshall said.

Lt. Marshall says that since the new accident policy was implemented, his traffic cops are less likely to be handcuffed for hours at the scenes of minor accidents, and are free to engage bad drivers who put lives at risk.

At least some of the numbers back him up, on average; traffic officers have been able to make 2,000 more traffic stops per month.

The number of violations written by Metro officers is up slightly, but the biggest change is in the level of carnage reported: crashes down 35 percent, traffic deaths down 25 percent and the numbers of bicyclists, drivers, and pedestrians who have been killed -- all down, though there has been a slight uptick in the numbers of passenger and motorcycle fatalities.

Traffic cops say, overall, the policy change has been positive.

"It's working really well. My traffic officers are saying they are not having to respond to as many accidents as before, and it gives them time to do what they want, which is to prevent wrecks," Lt. Marshall said.

Officers still respond to certain accidents, so the benefits are not across the board. But Metro says the department is still stretched to the breaking point, which means that traffic stops by the agency, as a whole, are down.

One possible result is a major drop in the number of DUI arrests. Marshall says he would like to believe it is because there are fewer drunks on the road but knows it's more likely caused by fewer stops overall. And while there hasn't been open warfare on the streets so far, officers say they see problems.

"We're having a lot of hit-and-run collisions, a lot of drivers getting into arguments with the other party, refusing to exchange information. That still requires us to go out and determine what's happening," Ofc. Laythorpe said.

It is not exactly a surprise to learn that insurance companies and law firms don't like the new policy. Both think it benefits the other.

Insurance executives told the I-Team they have yet to see a huge jump in disputed claims but they expect the uncertainty to cause a spike in the cost of many premiums by the end of the year, perhaps 15 percent.

"The biggest thing we've seen is some clients who've been hit by other people and they have tried to make claims with other companies, that the other driver, the at-fault driver had, and they had a little trouble with the claims process," insurance broker Bill Rohac said.

Rohac, a former Metro cop, says he expects to see a jump in fraudulent injury claims.

"I really hope Metro will change its mind and go back to doing the actual reporting," personal injury attorney Larry Mittin said.

Attorneys, who handle crash cases and traffic citations, think the change is only good for insurance companies.

"You take the police out of it. It becomes a lot more difficult. Insurance companies don't want to pay, even when the police are involved and have cited somebody. Now, with no police involvement, they will just say it's a he-said, she-said situation and try to deny the complaint or not want to pay it," Mittin said.

The true impact won't become clear for some time. One reason the number of accidents is way down is because many are not reported to Metro at all. The decrease in traffic deaths is a real number, though it is still a small sample.

As for the criticism from lawyers and insurance companies, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie says that if those two camps want to do something about traffic safety, they should support his efforts to hire more cops since that is the one thing proven to work in the long run.


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