Coming Your Way: Motorcycles on Ice?

By Sharp, Arthur G. | Law & Order, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Coming Your Way: Motorcycles on Ice?


Sharp, Arthur G., Law & Order


There are times in law enforcement when courage and courtesy override caution and common sense, e.g., when motorcycles are used on ice. Such was the case in Waterbury, Connecticut, on December 22, 1992.

Motorists on I-84 just west of Waterbury were amazed at the sight of approximately 25 New York City Police Department motorcycle unit members moving toward the city on such a cold, wintry, sleety, morning. There was a reason for the NYPD officers to be 100 miles from home that morning - they were en route to the funeral of slain Waterbury police officer Walter Thomas Williams III, who had been killed by a suspicious person he was checking out.

The NYPD officers' dedication and courage were admirable; however, their decision to travel via motorcycle on such a wintry day was questionable as the weather was not conducive to motorcycling. But they left New York City under more favorable conditions and had come too far to turn back. Nevertheless, their presence on an icy highway raised a salient question: are motorcycles effective and cost efficient for law enforcement use in cold weather? The history and the stringent guidelines that apply to their use today suggest that the answer is decidedly "Yes."

Police agencies have used motorcycles in all kinds of weather for years. The NYPD has operated them since 1905. The State of Washington began its "Department of Efficiency" on September 1, 1921, when it swore in six motorcyclemounted patrolmen responsible for enforcing motor vehicle laws, rules and regulations.

The state allocated $70,000 for maintenance of the motorcycle patrol. More officers were added later that year and early in 1922. They were busy, to say the least. Some had six or seven counties to patrol. The department's history states, "They were liter ally on the road, packing their sidecars with camping equipment." The department used motorcycles exclusively until 1934, when it began replacing them with paddy wagons. A limited number of motorcycles were used for special occasions until 1982, when more were reintroduced in highvolume traffic areas to provide a quicker response to accidents than patrol cars can provide.

The first state police force in Illinois emerged in 1922. It comprised a few leather helmet-clad men patrolling the highways on motorcycles. Today, the Illinois State Police have an expanding motorcycle patrol that provides rapid response to emergencies on congested urban highways, especially around Chicago and Springfield.

Despite these agencies' success, questions about their cost-effectiveness remain among some administrators, especially when it comes to inclement weather. These doubts have led some departments to phase out their motorcycles. For example, the Ohio State Highway Patrol did away with the last of its motorcycles in 1955 because they were not cost efficient. They had been used only for parades and centerlining during the previous couple years. Worse, they were deemed unsafe, which is a concern for administrators.

The NYPD, which operates 77 motorcycles, deems its officers' safety of paramount importance. Certainly, risks abound for motorcycle officers, which do not affect their counterparts in other vehicles to a great extent and which may lead to their being pulled out of service temporarily. The effective wind-chill factor felt by an officer riding a motorcycle at 60 miles per hour in 30 deg weather for several hours consecutively, "Black ice," and dew are among the hazards which must be considered when authorizing the use of a motorcycle in cold weather. So, in New York City, parade details and escort duties are the only assignments for which motorcycles are commonly authorized in freezing temperatures. The same situation prevails in most "cold weather" community departments which operate motorcycles year round-some of which are located where people would least expect to see motorcycles on the road in winter.

Winnipeg, Canada, where winter can become extreme and prolonged at times, operates 10 motorcycles (and two snowmobiles. …

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