By Richard J. Ashton, Chief of Police (Retired), Frederick, Maryland; and Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP
he impact of the death of—or the serious injury to—an officer is devastating to fellow officers and their agency as a whole; even more tragic is when this death or serious injury could have been averted, had the officer been wearing a seat belt.
A 2005 State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo study found that unbelted officers in marked police vehicle crashes are 2.6 times more likely to be killed than those using seat belts.1 Of the 516 occupants of patrol cars involved in fatal crashes between 1997 and 2001, 106 died. Twenty percent of all occupants—104 persons—were unbelted; 40.4 percent of them were killed, compared with 15.5 percent of those wearing seat belts. Sixty percent of the fatal collisions occurred when officers were responding to nonemergency calls for service.
Similarly, an analysis of 63 episodes of the police-oriented reality television series COPS, aired over 15 years, revealed that police officers, regardless of their race or sex, buckled up only 38 percent of the time—and only 48 percent of the time when engaged in high-speed driving.2 Officers often find support for not buckling up in provisions in state law, such as section 14-100a (c) (2) of the Connecticut General Statutes, exempting from belt use the operator of “an authorized emergency vehicle, other than fire fighting apparatus, responding to an emergency call . . . ,” or section 46.2-1094 of the Code of Virginia, which excuses “[a]ny law-enforcement officer transporting persons in custody or traveling in circumstances which render the wearing of such safety belt system impractical . . . .”
In that vein, a veteran New Haven, Connecticut, police supervisor aptly summed up many officers’ rationale for not wearing seat belts: “Me, I don’t wear one. It’s uncomfortable with the bulletproof vest, duty belt, you’re in and out of the car quite often. . . . We have stats: Wearing a seat belt saves lives. I think we all know that.”3 Ironically, he made these comments in the shadow of a September 9, 2008, crash in which two New Haven cruisers responding to the same call for service collided, killing a police sergeant and critically injuring another officer. Neither was wearing a seat belt.4
Wearing seat belts has saved lives! Overall seat belt usage in the United States increased from about 11 percent in 1979–825 to 83 percent in 2008, the highest rate in U.S. history.6 Police officers have been primarily responsible for elevating the use of seat belts by the motoring public; they have educated in various ways those whom they have sworn to serve and have enforced against violations consistently during each tour of duty, as well as during specific campaigns, such as the annual Click It or Ticket mobilization. But unfortunately, they have not always practiced what they preach.
Equipping officers with soft body armor and mandating that they wear it, as well as developing and enhancing officer safety training, have saved thousands of officers from death or debilitating injuries and have contributed to the fact that 210 fewer law enforcement officers were killed feloniously than accidentally over the decade 1998–2007.7 However, how many of the 431 officers who died as a result of automobile crashes during that same decade would have survived if they had been wearing seat belts?8
The vast majority of police officers patrol in cars. The NHTSA’s research indicates that lap/shoulder seat belts, when used, reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent. It also found that 76 percent of passenger vehicle occupants who were totally ejected from vehicles in fatal crashes in 2007 were killed, but that only 1 percent of the occupants who reportedly had been wearing seat belts were totally ejected from vehicles, compared with 31 percent of those who were not.9 Both of the New Haven officers were partially ejected.10
Policing is dangerous enough even when officers wear their seat belts. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the average length of service of law enforcement officers killed accidentally between 1998 and 2007 was 10 years,11 while their average age for that same time period was 38 years.12 Officers certainly are not invincible and often become complacent after completing so many actions so successfully over so many years.
Chiefs and other command officers can better ensure their officers’ safety by enunciating the value of wearing seat belts, by promulgating policies that require officers to use them, and by insisting that first-level supervisors make police chief executives’ belt use policies into reality. It’s a matter of life or death! ■
1SUNY at Buffalo, “Not Wearing Seat Belts Can Be Deadly for Police Officers,” news release, January 24, 2005, http://www.buffalo.edu/news/7082 (accessed March 12, 2009).
2John A. Cowan Jr., Bradley Jones, and Helen Ho, “Safety Belt Use by Law Enforcement Officers on Reality Television: A Missed Opportunity for Injury Prevention?” Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection and Critical Care 61, no. 4 (October 2006): 1001–1004.
3William Kaempffer, “It’s the Law, Except for Cops,” New Haven Register, September 21, 2008, http://www.nhregister.com/articles/2008/09/21/news/new_haven/a1seatbelts.txt (accessed March 17, 2009).
4Betsy Yagla, “Click It, or Not,” New Haven Advocate, September 18, 2008, http://www.newhavenadvocate.com/article.cfm?aid=9711 (accessed March 12, 2009).
5Charles J. Kahane, Lives Saved by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and Other Vehicle Safety Technologies, 1960–2002—Passenger Cars and Light Trucks—with a Review of 19 FMVSS and Their Effectiveness in Reducing Fatalities, Injuries, and Crashes, NHTSA technical report no. DOT HS 809833, October 2004, 88, http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/rules/regrev/evaluate/pdf/809833Part1.pdf (accessed March 12, 2009).
6U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Public Affairs, “Administration’s Focus on Safety—on Highways, Railways, Seaways, and Airways—Has Led to One of the Safest Periods in the Nation’s Transportation History,” news release, December 11, 2008, http://www.dot.gov/affairs/SafetyFactSheet.htm (accessed March 12, 2009).
7See U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), “Table 1,” Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA), 2007, October 2008, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2007/data/table_01.html; and FBI, “Table 48,” LEOKA 2007, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2007/data/table_48.html (both accessed March 12, 2009).
8FBI, “Table 63,” LEOKA 2007, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2007/data/table_63.html (accessed March 12, 2009).
9NHTSA National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Traffic Safety Facts: 2007 Data Occupant Protection, NHTSA publication no. DOT HS 810 991, December 22, 2008, 3, http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pubs/810991.pdf (accessed March 12, 2009).
10Yagla, “Click It, or Not.”
11FBI, “Table 54,” LEOKA 2007, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2007/data/table_54.html (accessed March 12, 2009).
12FBI, “Table 53,” LEOKA 2007, http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/killed/2007/data/table_53.html (accessed March 12, 2009).