What's in a presidential motorcade?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 29 2006 6:45 PM

What's in a Presidential Motorcade?

A couple of limos, an ambulance, a counterassault team …

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The police officer whose motorcycle skidded out of President Bush's motorcade in Honolulu died from his injuries on Sunday. An ambulance and the president's medical team, also in the motorcade, were on hand to help. What else is in a presidential motorcade?

Local police, Secret Service vehicles, two or more limos, press vans, and a counterassault team. A motorcade's size and makeup vary depending on the occasion, trip length, and potential risks. (The more dangerous the situation, the more vehicles join the procession.) The Secret Service likes to keep the details, well, secret, but former agents say that a small motorcade might have about 10 cars, while a large one could include as many as 40 vehicles.

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The local police play a major role in any motorcade. They help the Secret Service map out a primary route and a backup plan, in case a traffic accident or a protest blocks the way. That means deciding between city streets or freeways, steering clear of congestion, and avoiding train tracks where the motorcade might have to make an unscheduled stop. The police also come up with a path to the nearest hospital.

Two or three marked police cars take the lead, joined by anywhere from six to 20 motorcycles leading and flanking the procession. Local police know the geography best, so it's their job to control traffic by blocking off intersections or freeway exits in advance. (Sometimes motorcycle cops are given the dangerous job of speeding ahead of the motorcade to stop traffic.)

The first of the police cars, sometimes called the "bomb sweep," may drive a few minutes ahead of the motorcade to clear the way. A team responsible for detecting hazardous materials also rides near the front. A counterassault team deals with potential attacks, with a local SWAT team often available as well. In case of emergency, a group of eight or so vehicles, called the "secure package," will split off from the motorcade and move the president to a safer location. Only the secure package cars are driven by trained Secret Service agents; volunteers and hired drivers handle the rest. When the president travels overseas, a portion of the motorcade comes with him—cars, drivers, and all.

The president rides in an armored 2006 Cadillac DTS stretch sedan with tinted windows and bulletproof glass, with another one or two limos serving as decoys. The limos may even switch places from time to time as the motorcade moves along. (Think that's paranoid? Some cities have arranged entire dummy motorcades.) Behind the secure package are cars for staff personnel, press vans, and an ambulance. The local police bring up the rear to make sure no one else joins the motorcade.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

The Explainer thanks Charles Vance of Vance International and Jeff Vining of Gartner Research.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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