Road Safety & Notification of Sudden Death after an Accident

Background to sudden death notification

Thousands of lives are lost on the roads daily. It is the unenviable duty of many police officers, emergency personnel and relatives of the deceased to notify family of the sudden death emanating from vehicle crashes. Telling someone that a loved one has just lost their life is often said to be the hardest part of a police officer’s work. It is certainly the worst possible news that anyone could receive.

Are we prepared to deliver such a message and do we have the skills to do this in a professional and compassionate manner? In the case of accidental death it often is a police officer, accompanied when possible by a minister/ priest, who deliver the news.

International research has revealed that many police departments and emergency services lack appropriate death notification procedures. Many do not have any written procedures and many do not follow the procedures that are in place.

A sudden death, whether it is the result of an accident, suicide, murder, fatal heart attack or stroke, disaster, or war wound, can have a traumatic impact on the recipient of the news. It is our objective to look at international models and research to provide the best advice on the Arrive Alive Road Safety website.

The best example of “good practice” methods is to be found in a model published in 1992 by the Iowa Department of Justice. The fundamentals of this method include the principles:

“In Person – In Time – In Pairs – In Plain Language – and With Compassion”

Enquiry & Preparation before Sudden Death Notification

It is important that the person(s) involved in the process of notification is well prepared:

  • Never release the name of the deceased person before the immediate family is notified!
  • Have reasonable expectations - The emotional and psychological characteristics of the bereaved family may be expressed in physical collapse, violent outbursts, dazed withdrawal, denial or the inability to take in the situation. 
  • Notification should be provided as soon as possible—but be absolutely sure that there is positive identification of the victim. 
  • Death notifications are made even more difficult if, for example, the notifying officer has to confirm that someone owns a particular vehicle before they are able to say that someone has died. If a mistaken notification is made, albeit in good faith, initial relief may be replaced by anger at the unnecessary emotional suffering that someone has been put through.
  • Determine the next of kin and whether other people are likely to be present at the place and time of notification. 
  • Before delivering the notification you should familiarise yourself with the circumstances of the death/injury. The family will most likely ask for details about the incident leading up to the death/injury. 
  • If you do not know the exact information and details – do not speculate! 
  • Be prepared to tell the family, “I'm sorry, I don't have that information; however, I will find out for you.” 
  • Make sure to follow through with your statement - find out the information and inform the family!
  • If there is knowledge of a medical problem with an immediate survivor, medical personnel should be available to provide possible assistance at the time of death notification.
  • Experienced grief councilors recommend the notification team have a clear understanding of cultural differences that may exist when delivering a death notification. 
  • Two people should attend to make a notification of unexpected sudden deaths. Normally both of the people attending should be police officers although there are circumstances in which an officer might be accompanied by a member of the clergy, a doctor, a family friend or even a traumatic bereavement support worker. 
  • It can be preferable for a familiar face to be present to offer immediate support, as long as this does not cause any delay. 
  • It is best for at least one of the notifying officers to be of the same gender as the bereaved and generally it is considered that a female/ male combination of officers works best. 
  • If the notifying officers travel in separate vehicles this increases their flexibility after the message has been delivered, for example, one of them could leave to collect a close friend, relative or child to be with the bereaved person. 
  • When a pair of officers attends to notify the bereaved, they should prepare themselves in advance by ensuring that they both know the names of the person who has died and the person who has been bereaved. They should decide in advance who will deliver the message itself. 
  • If the notification team can't find the survivor, they should not tell neighbors or leave notes of the notification on the door. It is suggested that the best course of action is to just leave word for the survivor to contact a specific officer.

The Contact Phase

  • Never send an inexperienced person to deliver a notification of sudden death
  • The person who notifies should be someone who is experienced in inter-personal relations (e.g., a clergyperson) or someone who has either received a notification of death at some point or has been a notifying agent at least once. 
  • The second person in attendance may be a medical examiner, victim services counselor, family doctor, family clergy or a close friend of the survivor. 
  • Some of the advantages of having two or more people deliver the notification are:
    • Gives emotional support for the notification team. 
    • Allows a representative to remain at the house if the other officer needs to leave. 
    • Provides the opportunity for an uninterrupted notification. 
  • Anyone who could be described as a ‘primary bereaved person’, such as a partner, parent or child of the person who has died, should be informed face to face. 
  • Human presence is an important factor, as there is an immediate need for compassion and support. On learning that a loved one has been killed in an unexpected, violent manner, many people suffer severe traumatic shock reactions and the officer carrying out the notification may be the only person available to offer support. 
  • Telephonic notification is not an acceptable practice. It is also important that no personal details be passed by insecure radio links – the situation can only be made worse if someone who has been bereaved finds out first from the media or third parties of the loss of their loved one.

When do we notify?

  • All ‘primary bereaved’ people should be notified as soon as possible after the event. 
  • No matter what the time of day or night, there is no benefit in saving the news till a ‘better’ time. There is no good time, full stop and research shows that many bereaved people resent any unnecessary delay in informing them. 
  • When someone has been critically injured in a crash; prompt notification can be even more important - it might give a loved one the chance to see the injured person in hospital before they die.
  • While there should be no unnecessary delay in carrying out a death notification, it is crucial that there is a very high degree of certainty of the identity of the person who has died.

The Communication:

The Iowa model states, “Your presence and compassion are the two most important resources you bring to death notification”.

  • Those who notify should clearly identify themselves, present their credentials and ask to come in 
  • They must relate the message directly and in plain language—survivors are served best by telling them directly what happened 
  • Survivors should be informed of the death, speaking slowly and carefully giving details that are available – and then calmly answer questions the survivors may have. 
  • The message should be short and to the point. The bearer should simply say that they have bad news and then tell the survivor(s) that their loved one is dead. 
  • The simplest of details should be provided – that the person is dead, place of death, brief description of how they died, and where the deceased is located. 
  • Remember that no matter how well the deliverer of bad news may do his or her job, the survivor will in most cases accept the news with great difficulty.
  • The importance of human contact is a paramount need. Treat the bereaved with dignity. Look them in the eye. 
  • The bereaved will re-live this moment time after time even if they don't seem to be absorbing all the details as you tell them. 
  • They will remember body attitudes and emotions. Be gentle, sensitive and supportive. 
  • Try to avoid offering explanations, interpretations, conjecture or passing judgment. Offer to return in a day or two for further sharing of information, feelings, etc. 
  • If appropriate write down names and telephone numbers of people they are required to contact, include your own name and number and give it to them so that they may get hold of you at a later stage. 
  • Don't take personally any anger directed at you as the news-breaker.

What do we mean by “In Plain Language?”

  • Most people have very little personal contact with the police. 
  • They will naturally assume the worst if two police officers knock at their door late at night. In such a situation, fear and panic may set in, and they may not be able to focus on what is being said to them. 
  • The notifying officer must therefore deliver the message straight away and in simple, unequivocal, terms 
  • The Iowa model calls for the notifying officers to identify themselves, ask to come in and get the person to sit down, confirming that they are the right person. In many cases it is the person who has been bereaved that answers the door. 
  • They want to know immediately why the police are calling and may not want to wait until they have taken the officers through to the lounge or kitchen and sat down. In such circumstances it may be appropriate just to ask to come in and speak inside, saying that there is urgent news to pass on. 
  • Once inside, out of view of neighbors or passers-by, the message should be delivered without delay. 
  • A useful phrase is “I have some very bad news I must tell you”, followed by a direct statement of what has occurred, such as “Your husband has been involved in a car crash and I am sorry to have to tell you that he has died”. It is much more effective to use the words ‘dead’, ‘died’, or ‘killed’’ rather than euphemisms such as “he didn’t make it”, “she was fatally injured”, or “he’s not coming back”. 
  • Such phrases might seem easier to utter but they are very easily misunderstood by a bereaved person in their initial shock. It will often be necessary to repeat the message or to have to convince a bereaved person that you are telling the truth.
  • It is really important to refer to the person who has died by their name rather than as ‘the body’ or ‘the deceased’, which can sound unsympathetic, and the bereaved person will probably find it easier to be told that their loved one will be taken “to the hospital” rather than “the mortuary”. 
  • It will almost always be appropriate to tell someone who is bereaved “I am sorry that this has happened”. 
  • Officers should try to react in a supportive way to the emotions of bereaved people and should also cultivate awareness of their own emotions. 
  • It is not unnatural to feel sympathy for people who have been bereaved, and this may even be expressed by the officer shedding a tear. This is far better than attempting to suppress emotions and appearing cold, callous and uncaring. 
  • Unless it is clear that the bereaved person and the officer share common beliefs, religion is a topic that is best left alone. Phrases such as “I know what you are going through”, “She wouldn’t have known much about it” or “He had a good innings”, which are uttered in a vain attempt to offer comfort, are not comforting.

After the delivery of notification

  • Unless the bereaved person specifically requests it, the officers should never just deliver their message, then leave. 
  • Officers should allow plenty of time to provide information and support for a bereaved person and should make every effort to find and bring a close friend or relative to them. 
  • The team can offer to make phone calls for the family or to await additional family members, clergy or friends to be with the family. A time frame should not be attached to the notification process.
  • There may be a need for formal identification, but even when there is not, a bereaved person may still want to see the body of the person who has died. They should always be given this option, even when the person who has died has suffered horrific injuries – an officer should never assume that someone will not want to see the body of a loved one, however badly it is damaged. 
  • In addition to providing transport to the hospital/ mortuary, the officer can also prepare them for seeing the body by making them aware of what to expect in terms of apparent injuries. 
  • There may be personal items belonging to the person who has died which must be preserved and returned to the ‘primary bereaved’ person/ people. 
  • These should not be taken with the officers at the time of notification, but can be passed on later, in a caring manner and in an appropriate carrier.


The way in which a death notification is delivered and questions that are left unanswered can add several years of additional grief to the survivor’s pain and suffering. It is our duty not to add to this trauma and to follow “good practice” methods when breaking the bad news of sudden death.

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