WASHINGTON—They look glamorous from the curb, exciting and powerful as they race through a city with lights flashing, sirens blaring and a very, very important person waving from inside an armored limousine.
But presidential motorcades can be dangerous. The most recent reminder: the death this week of a Honolulu motorcycle officer who was injured while escorting President Bush during a brief stop en route home from Asia.
Sure, the president is safe in his limousine—so safe that no one can remember a commander in chief buckling his seat belt.
But the rest of the entourage is at risk of accidents and injuries, and they happen more often than most people realize.
First are the motorcycle cops, usually local officers who block intersections along the route.
Once the motorcade passes them, they race ahead to block another intersection up the road. Rushing at speeds up to 85 miles per hour or more, even well-trained riders can have trouble on wet pavement or curves.
"You really get your adrenaline running. You're leaping from intersection to intersection, blocking traffic, and you're putting yourself in harm's way," said Jim Kelley, a retired Houston motorcycle officer who worked motorcades for presidents from Dwight Eisenhower through Gerald Ford.
"If it's raining, you've got to worry about the oil slicks. You've got to worry about railroad tracks. You're trained for it, but it's risky."
In Hawaii, Steve Favela, 30, suffered fatal injuries when he and two other officers crashed as the motorcade sped across Hickam Air Force Base on rain-slicked pavement. A fourth motorcycle officer suffered a broken wrist when he crashed while working a different Bush motorcade.
In New Mexico last February, a motorcycle cop was injured when he lost control and crashed into a wall while escorting a Bush motorcade on Interstate 25.
Another risk is the accordion effect, when the front of the motorcade slows or stops, and cars, vans and buses at the rear are following one another so closely and so fast—maybe 10 or 15 feet apart at speeds as high as 60 miles per hour—that they can't avoid a crash.
Last December, a Bush motorcade was two blocks from the White House when an ambulance crashed into a communications van, which in turn crashed into another van in front of it. There were no injuries.
Secret Service spokeswoman Kim Bruce said the agency doesn't keep records of how many motorcades have involved accidents. "Thankfully, they usually don't include either fatalities or injuries," she said.
Still, they sometimes do.
In New Mexico in 1998, for example, two vans crashed into each other in a slow-moving motorcade carrying then-Vice President Al Gore down wet roads from the Albuquerque airport. That crash in turn caused three motorcycle cops to spin out, injuring all three officers.
In California in 1996, a bus at the end of a Bob Dole presidential campaign caravan had to slam on the brakes when the front end of the police-escorted motorcade slowed abruptly. NBC reporter Kelly O'Donnell flew through the aisle of the bus, suffering bruises and a broken clavicle when she landed.
Making matters even dicier, Secret Service agents drive only the "control package" or "secure package," consisting of the president's limo and a few vehicles in front of and behind him.
"Those guys are the best, finest, most well-trained drivers for that kind of circumstance in the world," said John Podesta, a White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton. "But that's only about eight vehicles."
The rest of the motorcade, which often numbers 20 or more vehicles—vans carrying local guests, White House aides and the news media—are driven by volunteers or locally hired drivers.
"You're at the mercy of volunteers," Podesta said.
The risks of motorcades aren't unique to the United States.
In Malaysia last year, a police officer crashed into a cow while escorting a sultan's motorcade. The police officer was injured. The cow died.
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail email@example.com.)