Granted, it was a foggy morning and the car was parked in bad spot — it was left along the shoulder of the highway partly protruding into the travel lane. But the wreck makes the sixth one so far this year for Swain deputies, and they are starting to add up.
During the last few years, wrecks by the sheriff’s office have been “more than ever in our history,” said Swain County Manager Kevin King.
The car accidents are a mixture of deputies’ hitting things, and also being hit by other drivers. Total damage sustained during the first five accidents this year equals $24,658. Damage from the most recent accident is still being calculated by the county’s insurance carrier.
The reasons for the wrecks run the gamut — from sliding on the ice or being backed into by another driver to the car catching fire or hitting a guardrail while responding to a call.
In the most recent incident, a deputy was driving to work from home in the morning and struck a car that was left partly in the highway. Cochran contended that the morning was foggy, and he did not know if the stopped vehicle’s hazard lights were on.
No matter what the facts of the incident are, however, it always costs the county the same deductible.
“Every instance costs us a 1,000 bucks no matter what,” King said.
That can add up. This year, the county has already shelled out $6,600.
Plus, more crashes equals higher premiums.
“We are just like everybody else. The more claims you have, the more premiums over time you pay,” King said.
Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran questioned why vehicular accidents had become a topic of conversation.
“Is there nothing out there more newsworthy than a wreck?” Cochran asked.
With a sheriff’s election around the corner next year, Cochran alluded that may be the reason why his department has come under scrutiny.
“I did not fall off the turnip truck. It’s to be expected this time of year,” he said.
Of the six wrecks this year, two involved Cochran. In March, he hit a deer, and then two months later, he hit a sign while responding to a 911 call.
Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said he tries to stay out of the business of the sheriff’s office since Cochran is an elected official. Though, he did say that he wished the accident numbers were lower.
“One is too much, but I am not the one who drives the cars,” Monteith said. “I don’t get involved in it.”
Monteith added that he only knows what the sheriff has relayed about any of the incidents.
Driving for miles
Every law enforcement official in North Carolina takes a standardized driving course before receiving his or her badge. But as with anyone who has a driver’s license, there is no continuing education driving classes required for law enforcement. However, this year as part of its in-service training, the Swain County Sheriff’s Office talked about avoiding wrecks.
In the last three years, Swain County deputies have had 13 collisions ranging in damages from just shy of $1,000 up to $27,700. Of those, five were the deputies’ fault; four were the fault of others. Comparatively, Haywood County has averaged one accident per year where a deputy was at fault.
Four times in the last three years, a Swain County patrol car has been totaled, and like with anyone else, the county does not receive enough insurance money to pay $30,000 for a new car.
“If your car is totaled tomorrow, it’s whatever the value of it is,” King said of what the county receives on its insurance claim.
So, the county tries to salvage even the totaled vehicles if they can.
Unlike average civilians, sheriff’s deputies put hundreds of miles on their cars every day. Cochran estimated that the sheriff’s office as a whole drives between 300,000 and 500,000 miles annually.
“We travel a lot of miles in a years time,” Cochran said. “If you factor that in, it is not a lot.”
They spend a lot more time behind the wheel and therefore are more likely to have an accident.
“If you are on the road all the time, then that percentage increases very drastically,” Cochran said.