During a 37-year career in law enforcement, Tim Morgan saw more than his share of high-speed police pursuits that ended badly.
It was one of the aspects of the job that bothered him the most, especially as a supervisor.
Morgan, who was assistant sheriff for Pickens County until 2012, had long had a nagging feeling that there must be a way to warn the public when a chase is on other than a blue light and a siren.
“We have warning systems for flood, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes. Yet more people are killed annually in pursuits than all four of those combined,” he said, citing statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
He’d had an idea bouncing around in his mind for several years on how that could be done, but he didn’t know how to go about turning it into a product.
Until he met with Mark Reid Davis, director the Pickens Innovation Center, a new entrepreneur resource center in Pickens.
With help from Davis, Morgan and his wife, Trish, have developed that idea into a working system that’s in the beta testing phase.
They plan to unveil it in March and have it on the market by summer.
“We think it’s a tremendous need and something that’s potentially life-saving,” Morgan said.
It’s also something that could find a huge market.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says an average of one death a day can be attributed to police chases. The agency counts a total of 11,506 chase-related deaths since 1979.
But a USA TODAY review last September of police reports and internal documents, court records, police-car videos and news accounts based on police statements found that the NHTSA overlooked at least 101 such deaths in 2013 – understating the total by at least 31 percent.
The number of injuries is likely triple the number of fatalities from police chases, Morgan said.
There’s no requirement that law enforcement agencies report chases, he said, which makes calculating the total cost in lives and damages difficult.
You don’t have to look far to find pursuits that have ended in disaster.
A lieutenant with the North Greenville Fire Department was killed last September in a wrong-way crash involving a suspect who was running from deputies.
On Christmas night 2014, 22-year-old Taylor Miller of Simpsonville died when the car in which he was a passenger was hit by a Highway Patrol trooper who was in pursuit of another vehicle that had sped through a safety checkpoint on State 124 near Woodside Avenue.
In April 2014, a 70-year-old man in Travelers Rest was killed when an SUV driver hit speeds of at least 100 mph going through Travelers Rest as he was fleeing from police.
The state Department of Public Safety pursuit policy allows vehicle pursuits “only when the necessity of the apprehension of a suspect outweighs the risks created by the pursuit.” But sometimes that’s difficult to judge.
Morgan nearly lost his own life in a pursuit years ago.
He and another deputy were chasing suspects in a home break-in along a mountainous road when their patrol car ran off the road around a hairpin curve.
“Had it not landed exactly right between two trees, we would have gone another 150 feet down the embankment,” he said. “My arm is still crooked from the injuries of that.”
The financial costs of police pursuits are enormous as well, Morgan said.
“It’s in the billions, with property damage, financial payouts to survivors with lost wages, with disability, with hospitalization. It’s a huge payout,” he said.
It’s not a problem in the United States only.
Deaths in police pursuits have tripled in the United Kingdom over a four-year period, and it’s also a major issue in Japan, Malaysia and other countries, Morgan said.
So he’s expecting a worldwide market.
Based on research by patent attorneys and graduate students working with the Morgans, there’s no product like theirs on the market, Trish Morgan said.
Public safety focus
Concern for the public out on the highways when a pursuit is underway is what’s driving Morgan’s business plan.
“There’s no good pursuit, just like there’s no good war,” he said. “But you’re going to continue to have both.”
“It’s something that nobody really knows what to do with,” he said. “The pursuits are deadly, they’re bad. You continue to try to regulate them as best you can but you can’t outlaw them.
“This is hopefully a way to better manage them and notify the public.”
A big part of the challenge is the unpredictability of a police chase.
“They’re unpredictable, they’re fast and they’re deadly. So you just have to monitor them as close as you can,” Morgan said.
But the system the Morgans have come up with – details of which are being kept under wraps until March – promises to solve that problem.
The idea involved using five different pieces of existing technology to create a system that would be free for the public to use, said Davis, who is helping with the product development.
The product the Morgans have developed unifies these tools and makes their use seemless, “and it saves lives,” Davis said. “That’s the beauty of what the two of them have done.”
Although he worked for the Sheriff’s Office for most of his career, Morgan started out in business management at Milliken after earning a business degree at Erskine College.
“It was a good organization, it just wasn’t fulfilling,” he said.
So after a year, he left for the Sheriff’s Office, starting out as a deputy. He took a cut in pay to do it, but said he felt a calling.
“It just felt like something I wanted to do or needed to do,” he said.
He left the Sheriff’s Office after an unsuccessful run for sheriff in 2012, when his longtime boss, C. David Stone, retired.
Since then, he’s been working for Blue Ridge Security, which he says has been “very supportive” of his entrepreneurial venture.
Davis believes Morgan’s background as a pilot helped in his ability to envision his product. Morgan has been flying since the 1970’s, often transporting prisoners who have been extradited.
“He sees everything in a dashboard. All the complexities of the aircraft are right in front of him as a pilot,” Davis said. “That’s what he’s done with his business. He’s set up a business where all of the components are right in front of him.
“So he’s piloting this business as he’s piloted aircraft. It doesn’t matter how dangerous something is behind you, like a prisoner or whatever. He still has control of the aircraft. And I see him doing the same thing with his business.”
His wife, Trish, who has been actively involved in the development of the product, also has a background in business.
She owns a store in Easley called Home Decorators Warehouse. Before that she worked in sales at the Reserve at Lake Keowee and also has been in pharmaceutical sales.
“I’ve been involved since the beginning with our team,” she said. “And going forward, I’ll be out selling the product.”
“Actually going forward, Trish will most likely be running the show,” her husband said.
The couple has a provisional patent on the product and is doing beta testing this month. Testing will be expanded in February and the product unveiling is set for March 7.
They’ve developed a week-by-week strategic plan through 2017 that calls for them to set up a storefront in Pickens this November.
The Morgans credit Davis and the Pickens Innovation Center with bringing their idea to life.
“We wouldn’t be here had it not been for the center,” Tim Morgan said. “Because this is something we’ve bounced around and talked about with different people for the past five or six years and it just never got traction because the people didn’t have the connections.”
They hope to use a local company on a contract basis to manufacture the product, in keeping with the center’s goal of fostering synergy between local entrepreneurs and existing businesses.
“This is not a cure-all,” Tim Morgan said of the police pursuit warning system. “Hopefully it will prevent some injures.
“If it saves some lives, that’s the good part about it,” his wife said.