At least 42% of police officers killed in vehicle crashes over the past three decades were not wearing seat belts or other safety restraints, according to a federal review. The study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which analyzed 733 crashes from 1980 through 2008, comes less than a week after a separate report found that fatal traffic incidents in 2010 were the leading cause of officer deaths for the 13th straight year.
"This points to a real problem," says Craig Floyd, chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which closely tracks officer deaths. Some officers resist wearing seat belts because the restraints slow their movement in and out of the cars, Floyd says. Others complain that the straps get tangled in utility and gun belts.
The memorial fund reported a 37% overall increase in line of duty deaths in 2010, reversing two consecutive years of decline. Included in that number, traffic-related fatalities jumped from 51 in 2009 to 73 in 2010. Floyd says he has talked informally with police officials about seeking guidance from sources such as NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) to improve officer safety on the road.
Of the officers killed in vehicle crashes, 28% used some kind of restraint in the 1980s, according to the NHTSA report. Usage increased to 56% in the 1990s. But the report found that seat belt or other restraint use has recently declined to about 50%. According to the NHTSA report, fatal vehicle accidents involving officers have been steadily rising, from 29% of the total fatalities in the 1980s to 50% or more in recent years. In addition to the 42% who were not wearing restraints during the course of the review, the study found that seat-belt use could not be determined in nearly 13% of the fatalities, suggesting that non-compliance could be higher.
In Las Vegas, the loss of three officers in vehicle crashes in 2009 -- all not wearing seat belts at the times of the crashes -- launched an internal campaign to compel officers to comply with the law. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Jacinto Rivera says the officer deaths "shook the foundation of this agency."
Rivera says the accidents required a "cultural change" within the department, prompting Sheriff Doug Gillespie to initiate a number of programs:
- Police crash survivors were recruited to film public service messages.
- A training panel was formed to study how to improve driving safety. Rivera says the panel looked at how transportation businesses, including UPS, trained personnel.
- Officers are encouraged to report on colleagues who don't comply. Punishments range from citations to suspension.
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January 4, 2011
I've been in law enforcement for 11 years, 10 of it on patrol in a cruiser. I have worked with and without a seatbelt. For the last 8 years, I have been wearing my seatbelt. It does get caught every once in a while, but very rarely. If it is something you wear all the time, it does not slow egress. If it is only something you wear occassionally, then, of course it slows your egress because you haven't built the muscle-memory needed. The same as any other skill, if you don't practice it (make it habbit), it will be slow and uncoordinated.
I have found the culture has already changed. Most of the younger officers are used to wearing seatbelts because they grew up with it being a requirement. They are comfortable with it on and feel unnatural with it off. Us old folks need to get used to the idea of changing with the times in some things. Being a motor officer, I see the seatbelt use on a daily basis. I find that more than 80% of drivers I observe are wearing seatbelts. NHTSA reports are fundamentally flawed because they come from our citations. I work overtime for seatbelt enforcement paid for by Federal funded grants. If we weren't working these grants, there would not be as many seatbelt tickets and the percentages would be lower.
I strongly encourage all officers to wear seatbelts when they work. As we always have done, take it off as you pull into the area just to avoid that slight chance that it will get caught or that you will need to jump out quickly.
I also stronly encourage all officers to wear at a minimum 3/4 helmets (preferably full-face modular) when riding motorcycles on- or off-duty. I know it isn't a popular idea, but after my partner died in a crash and 2 others very nearly died due to facial injuries that same year, I now wear a full-face modular helmet at work.
Motor Officer S.A. Evans