LOS ANGELES - While some people find police chases as entertaining as they are dangerous, for those actually involved, it’s a much different story.
Chases may seem like something that only happens in the movies or on TV to other people, but they happen more often than you might think. FOX TV Stations interviewed a victim of a carjacking that led to a high-speed pursuit as well as an insurance expert so that you can be prepared if you wind up being a victim of such a horrible situation.
How often do police chases happen?
If you watch films, there’s a misconception that high-risk, daredevil police chases are vital for catching bad guys, and movies rarely portray dire consequences for officers or bystanders.
But statistics suggest otherwise.
Crashes during law enforcement pursuits killed more than 7,000 people nationwide between 1996 and 2015, or 355 annually on average, according to the last comprehensive report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on the issue in 2017.
Nearly 30% of the people killed were in vehicles not involved in the pursuits, 4% were bystanders, 65% were suspects and 1% were officers.
"There are 250,000 police chases a year across the country – that’s according to the U.S. Department of Transportation – 6,000 to 8,000 of those involve crashes. So, the odds are that there's a police chase, you or your vehicle might get in the way," Mark Friedlander, director of corporate communications for the Insurance Information Institute, told FOX TV Stations.
In Southern California, police chases are a common occurrence. So common, in fact, that FOX 11 does a year-end roundup of the wildest pursuits.
The thing is, police chases appear to be an American phenomenon – so much so that the BBC did a report in 2015 on why Americans love police pursuits so much.
"It's a cultural phenomenon. We can't take our eyes of this immoral behavior!" Dan Neil, automotive columnist at the Wall Street Journal, said in his 2015 interview with BBC. "We all know the outcome - he's going to get caught. The odds are a million to one. And yet still, everyone gathers round the TV. We want to see the finale… the coup de grace."
While these events are spectacles for some, they end in tragedy for others.
In 2007, two local news helicopters in Arizona crashed into each other while covering a police chase, killing four people: KTVK chopper pilot Scott Bowerbank and photographer Jim Cox, along with KNXV reporter Craig Smith and photographer Rick Krolak.
And while millions of people will stop everything they’re doing to watch a riveting pursuit, to the victims, it’s no laughing matter.
Speaking to a victim
On March 3, Josh Ross was hoping to celebrate his birthday. Instead, he was carjacked at gunpoint and was forced to watch a complete stranger take his beloved truck on a joyride through several counties in Southern California before eventually crashing the truck into a light pole.
The suspect could also be seen shooting an AR-15 rifle out of the window, further damaging the vehicle that Ross called his "baby."
What’s more miraculous is that Ross’ girlfriend had tried calling his phone – not realizing what had just happened – only to have the carjacker answer her call. Ross explained that his girlfriend was on the phone with the thief for most of the chase attempting to talk him down so he wouldn’t hurt anyone.
"That night, I was so concerned for her and her safety and her well being and mental state just because she went through this, too. What happened to me was tragic and scary but she couldn’t see anything," Ross explained.
Later that night when Ross told his girlfriend everything that happened, he initially couldn’t help but feel frustrated that she had humanized the man who had pointed a gun in his face merely hours before.
"I just felt betrayed," Ross said.
Ross eventually calmed down and found reason and was just grateful no one got hurt, but the fact is that he says he now will most likely have to deal with the psychological and financial damages left from the event.
Thankfully, he says, he walked away alive.
Because the truck was his pride and joy and was fitted with tons of customization, he anticipates insurance won’t cover much. A GoFundMe was created to help raise money for the California-based teacher.
His best advice for anyone going through a similar situation is to do whatever it takes to remain calm including meditating and finding peace with the situation.
"As far as the process goes, if someone’s like me and they get something stolen from them and once it goes through multiple cities, it just elongates the amount of time it takes to wrap up the case."
"Take time for prayer, go for a walk or do something that’s going to keep you calm and just know eventually things are going to take care of, but this is not something that happens quickly," Ross added.
The true price to pay for catching the "bad guy"
FILE - Los Angeles police chased a possibly armed motorist to the South Los Angeles area, where the car crashed into a van and the driver refused to surrender. (Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
In January, two innocent teenagers died and a police officer was jailed, potentially facing charges for a car crash that resulted from the pursuit.
Maggie Dunn, 17, and Caroline Gill, 16, were cheerleaders for their high school in the southern Louisiana town of Brusly. They both died in the collision.
Many police departments have tightened their policies on such pursuits in recent years. However, National Highway Transportation Safety data show that 455 deaths were tied to police pursuits in 2020.
The Louisiana case is unusual because the local prosecutor says the officer, 42-year-old David Cauthron, acted so recklessly that he should face charges and is preparing to ask a grand jury to consider bringing them.
FILE: Los Angeles Police Department gang unit officers aim their guns and pistols at a stolen car stopped on a freeway bridge on August 4, 2006 in the Rampart district of Los Angeles, California. (Robert Nickelserg/Getty Images)
FOX TV Stations reached out to several police departments around the country, but none were willing to comment for this story. However, Michael Downing, a former deputy police chief in Los Angeles, told the Associated Press that his department adopted stronger restrictions on pursuits because of deaths, injuries and lawsuits.
Strong policies are needed to temper a police officer’s natural urge to pursue a criminal suspect, he said. With no policy, Downing said, "their instincts are going to be engage, engage, engage."
Policies differ from department to department, and the issues at play are complex, including whether a suspect poses an immediate threat, he said.
Despite the policies adopted across the country, pursuit-related deaths remain a problem, said Stroth.
"Officers driving willfully, wantonly at high rates of speed in densely populated communities where there’s no real threat," Stroth said. "And the results have been tragic."
FILE - Police cars pursue the Ford Bronco driven by Al Cowlings, carrying fugitive murder suspect O.J. Simpson, on a 90-minute slow-speed car chase June 17, 1994 on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, California. (Vinnie Zuffante/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Will having insurance help?
The obvious answer is yes. Any sort of insurance coverage is better than no coverage.
However, being compensated for damages from carjackings and accidents due to police chases requires more comprehensive coverage.
Friedlander said that, while many prefer to not have to spend a boatload of money on auto insurance, for some residents who live in states where carjackings and chases are particularly prevalent, full-coverage insurance is a must.
"This is why robust auto insurance coverage is so important. Because you want to be protected from all kinds of situations. In a carjacking, most likely, the car may never be recovered or it may be recovered but you’re going to learn that the carjacker certainly didn’t have insurance," Friedlander told FOX TV Stations.
Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage
Friedlander advised that most motorists should get a full-coverage auto plan, that way they can have the option of uninsured/underinsured coverage, which typically protects you from carjackings or damages sustained during a car chase.
The uninsured motorist option is offered on an opt-in/out basis but Friedlander is staunchly on the side of "do not opt out."
"We tell all consumers don’t opt out because uninsured motorists, in most cases, will cover carjackings, it will cover hit-and-runs, if you’re involved in a hit-and-run and you never see the other driver again who caused the incident, you’ll be protected," Friedlander said.
In many states, uninsured motorist coverage is actually required or must at least be offered as an option, Friedlander said.
But it’s not a "one size fits all" type of scenario when it comes to types of auto insurance coverage.
In fact, some providers offer carjacking protection under their comprehensive coverage or liability coverage, so be sure to do your homework if you plan on getting added protection.
"Comprehensive is this real blanket coverage. It covers theft, vandalism, fires, floods, other weather hazards. It’s really important to have. Depending on how your state’s regulations lay out the coverage, comprehensive can even come into play in a carjacking-type situation," Friedlander continued. "It’s not a one size fits all but to be protected, have collision, have comprehensive, have uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage – you will be fully protected."
Unfortunately, if your car gets stolen and there’s no way to get it back, even under full coverage plans, you will only recoup the current market value of the vehicle, which may or may not come close to what you paid for when you got it.
"So, let’s say you spent $30,000 for your vehicle, it’s worth $20,000 today based on the values that insurers use. Typically they use several tables to determine what current market value is. You will get what equates to that current market value, you do not get the full replacement cost for what the vehicle would cost if you went into a showroom and bought the same car again," Friedlander warned.
Insurance-wise, you basically will need to take what you can get and live to fight another day.
And while it’s super frustrating to ever lose your car to something like a carjacking, it’s best to first, let that car go, and next to work with your insurer to get back what you’re legally owed.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. It was reported from Los Angeles.