AIKEN - Aiken County sheriff's deputies have wrecked their patrol cars 25 times so far this year, including 17 accidents that were considered avoidable, according to a study by The Augusta Chronicle.
That means deputies were at fault in two out of every three accidents, or 68 percent.
Although several wrecks were fender benders, others were serious enough to destroy the patrol cars. And while some occurred under the pressure of a chase or during a traffic stop, others were the result of errors that could have been easily prevented.
In a May 11 accident, for example, a sheriff's sergeant forgot to put his vehicle into "park" before stepping out of the car to look for evidence from an earlier case. As the sergeant walked across the highway, he heard a noise and turned to see his patrol car rolling down the embankment and falling 20 feet in an accident that caused $2,000 in damage.
In another avoidable wreck, a sheriff's deputy leaving the Aiken County Courthouse on June 5 said his right foot slipped off the brake, causing the deputy's Crown Victoria to roll into traffic. A 1999 Oldsmobile struck the patrol car. Both vehicles were damaged and required towing from the scene.
Aiken County Sheriff Howard Sellers, elected this month to a third term, defends this year's higher-than-average rate of avoidable accidents, saying the number of calls for service has more than doubled during his time in office - from 25,000 in 1992 to more than 55,000 in 1999. He says the accident rate tends to be cyclic - high one year and low the next.
"We are exposed to accidents because we are on the road a lot," he said. "That is our job. Our job is to be available, and our job is to respond. So we are aware of our statistics; we are not ignorant of them.
"We take special notice when the cycle starts to go up, and we start looking at - do we need additional training, do we need additional remediation, do we need additional accountability?"
Sworn employees receive annual classroom and practical emergency vehicle training, according to Sheriff's Lt. Michael Frank. Drivers who have been involved in any type of collision receive an additional eight hours of in-house drive training and participate in county-sponsored defensive driving classes.
Plus, deputies involved in avoidable collisions are disciplined and required to pay part of the insurance deductible, Sheriff Sellers said.
The sheriff said his agency's accident rate is no worse than that of other law enforcement agencies.
When compared to another study by The Chronicle that examined wrecks among Georgia law enforcement agencies, Aiken County has a rate higher than any agency except one.
In 1998, a study showed Richmond County Sheriff's Department deputies were blamed in 43 percent of wrecks involving their patrol cars. With a 69 percent rate, only the Chatham County Sheriff's Department had a higher rate among eight Georgia agencies compared that year.
During the same period, Aiken County had 30 wrecks, with 14 considered avoidable. That is an at-fault percentage rate of 46.6 percent.
But the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, with a fleet of 121 vehicles, tends to drive more miles before getting into accidents.
In Richmond County, a deputy had an accident every 40,079 miles driven in 1998. The Savannah Police Department had one every 30,864 miles driven.
Although figures for 1998 were not available in Aiken County, an eight-month analysis from January to August of this year shows deputies had one accident for every 75,443 miles. Aiken County encompasses 1,100 square miles, and deputies in the uniform patrol division typically log between 200 and 300 miles during a 10-hour shift.
"I like to take a long-term view of accidents," Sheriff Sellers said. "Sometimes, you have a very few and think you've done the right things, and then you get a rash of them. That's when we go back and say, `What are we not doing to make our driving safe?"'
There are other reactions to bad driving by deputies, Sheriff Sellers said.
"We have dismissed deputies with poor driving records. But those (deputies) normally get weeded out in a probationary period," he said. "The point is, we look at every wreck, and we try to find out what we can do to do better."
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.